It was October 2013 and New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was prepared to let Joe Girardi go.
Not only was Cashman willing to allow Girardi to return home to the Chicago Cubs, he was prepared to help move Girardi into the manager’s office at Wrigley Field.
With Girardi’s Yankees contract set to expire after the 2013 season, Cashman told him, “If you want to go to the Cubs, let me know.”
Girardi grew up a Cubs fan. In the '70s, he and his dad would drive the two hours from Peoria, Illinois, to attend Cubs games and watch Girardi’s favorite players, Ron Santo and Jose Cardenal. In the '80s, he attended Northwestern, where he and his future wife, Kim, would sit in the bleachers for day games.
Girardi was drafted by the Cubs in 1986; he made his major league debut at Wrigley in 1989. He was picked for his only All-Star team -- in 2000 -- as a Cub. All of this added personal appeal to the already enticing idea of becoming the manager who finally broke the Cubs' curse.
"I would have bid the price up. ... I told him, 'Let me know and I'll help you get there.' My interest was in keeping him. But if the end game is [Chicago], let me in, so I can privately prepare to replace you if I'm forced to do something like that. And you can get the most money you can get." Yankees GM Brian Cashman
The Cubs had lost 101 games in 2012, while the Yankees had won the American League East with 95 victories. But even at that point, Chicago looked as if it were going in the right direction because of its young talent.
What if Girardi had wanted to return to the Midwest? Cashman said he would have secretly begun his search for a new Yankees manager -- while working undercover for Girardi.
“I would have bid the price up,” Cashman said. “He would’ve gotten the most if his destination was there. I told him, ‘Let me know and I’ll help you get there.’ My interest was in keeping him. But if the endgame is there, let me in, so I can privately prepare to replace you if I’m forced to do something like that. And you can get the most money you can get.”
Ultimately, Girardi's bond with the Bronx won out.
“New York has been home to us,” Girardi said. “As a baseball player, you move around a lot. The Yankees have been great to me. They have been loyal to me and I have been loyal to them. This is home for us. We have made it our home. I wanted to stay.”
It could have been Joe Girardi, instead of Joe Maddon, leading the Cubs to their first World Series since 1908. Instead, during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, Girardi was fighting sleep as a rain delay stopped play not long after the Indians' Rajai Davis' home run off Aroldis Chapman.
Girardi was awake to witness a smiling Kris Bryant throw across the diamond to record the final out and clinch the Cubs' title.
“I was happy for them,” Girardi said. “I think about all the people who have been waiting and waiting and waiting. My father waited and waited and never got to see it. I’m happy for the people who are Cubs fans because it is a long time coming.”
Girardi felt the pain of all those losing seasons as a kid. Even when he made it to the majors on April 4, 1989, the painful childhood memories echoed in his head. On Opening Day, the Cubs played the Phillies, who were led by the fearsome Mike Schmidt.
Schmidt just owned the Cubs. In his career, he played 138 games at Wrigley, hitting .307, smashing 50 homers and driving in 124 runs. Girardi felt nearly each and every one of them.
When Schmidt walked to the plate to begin the second inning, Girardi, the Cubs' catcher that day, could hardly believe it.
“I followed him the whole way,” Girardi said. “I couldn’t separate that I was on the same field as Mike Schmidt, or was I mad all the heartache he caused my family because he killed the Cubs -- killed them. It was just really, really weird.”
Girardi said that when Schmidt walked to the batter’s box, Girardi didn’t just stay behind the plate. Instead, he walked right behind Schmidt, like he was getting in line after him.
“He was probably like, ‘What is this kid doing?’” Girardi said. “I was in complete awe. The numbers that he had put up, just thinking about [how] I’d seen him hit so many home runs against the Cubs, it was unbelievable.”
Schmidt hit another of his home runs against the Cubs, in the eighth inning off Calvin Schiraldi. Girardi went 2-for-3, though, and the Cubs won 5-4.
Girardi hung around for four seasons in Chicago before being picked by the Colorado Rockies in the 1992 expansion draft. In 1995, he was traded to the Yankees for Mike DeJean. After winning three rings with the Yankees and forging an important relationship with Cashman, Girardi returned to Chicago as a free agent after the 1999 season. In his first year back with the Cubs, he made his only All-Star team.
More than a decade later, Girardi had the chance to go back again to try to win one for the Cubs. He passed, but he's very satisfied with his choice.
“Any manager would like to win,” Girardi said. “They hadn’t won it in so long. I love where I’m at. I love what we are doing. I love the talent in our organization.”