On Mother's Day, Joe Girardi gratefully recalls a long-ago act of kindness


Even now, 38 years later, Joe Girardi can still feel his body tense up when he recalls the sight of the red-and-blue lights flashing in his rearview mirror.

It was June 26, 1984, and he was driving at breakneck speed across Interstate 80, somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Shaking, the 19-year-old Girardi eased off the gas, pulled over to the side of the road and watched in his rearview mirror as the Pennsylvania State Trooper walked to the car.

Girardi was in a big-time hurry, driving westbound in the 1984 Ford Tempo he'd bought for himself with the money he'd saved over years of doing a paper route -- ask your parents, kids -- and helping his dad lay bricks on weekends.

The need for speed was so great that day that Girardi fell in behind another fast-moving car and let it lead the way.

"Ninety-five, a hundred," Girardi says now. "It was the fastest I'd ever driven in my life. I didn't even know my car went that fast. I just locked in on the guy in front of me."

His emotions were moving just as fast when the trooper arrived at his car and said, "You wait right here. I'm going to get the other guy."

Off the trooper went, pedal to the metal, lights flashing.

For one agonizing hour, Girardi sat on the shoulder of I-80 somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. The trooper told him to wait and that's just what he did.

"I've always been a rule follower," he said.

Finally, the trooper returned.

To this day, Girardi doesn't know what the guy looked like, how old he appeared to be or anything like that.

"I was too frazzled," he said.

But he can still hear the man's voice.

"What are you doing?" the trooper asked the kid in the red Ford Tempo who'd never gotten a ticket in his life.

"I'm trying to get home to see my mom before she dies," Girardi told the trooper.

The man looked at the kid. There was silence for a couple of seconds.

"I'm going to let you go," the trooper said. "Slow down."

Even with his baseball team struggling to win consistently and all the sleepless disappointment that goes with that, Girardi was able to recall this story and this long-ago act of kindness earlier this week -- Mother's Day week.

In a lot of ways, June 1984 was the best of times for Girardi. He'd just finished a big sophomore year at the plate and behind it at Northwestern University and was now playing for the Cotuit Kettleers in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

But in other ways, it was the worst of times. Two weeks after driving his red Ford Tempo to the Cape, Girardi received a call from his dad, Jerry, back home in Peoria, Illinois. His mom's six-year battle with cervical cancer had taken a horrible turn. She'd developed meningitis and was hospitalized. She was withering. She couldn't speak. Come quick.

It's more than 1,100 miles from Cape Cod to Peoria, 311 of them in Pennsylvania, the state in which he now works. Even with his hour-long pit stop on I-80, Girardi made it to his family's home late on the night of June 26. He went to the hospital the next day and held his mother's hand.

"Don't forget me," she said.

These were the last words Angela Girardi ever spoke. She died the next day at 48.

Joe Girardi's eyes filled with emotion as he recalled his final moments with his mom.

She was a superstar, a child psychologist who worked right up until the end, often providing free services to families that couldn't afford it. She and Jerry raised five kids, two medical doctors, an accountant, a university math professor, and an engineer/baseball man who has earned four World Series rings as a player and manager.

As Mother's Day approached, Joe Girardi recalled the row of sandwiches that his mother would prepare each morning as the kids headed out for the day.

"Ten of 'em," he said.

Three for Joe?

"Four," he said with a laugh. "I'd always need one before practice."

And the uniforms. Angela was always washing uniforms for her kids. And she seldom missed one of their games. She and Jerry would drive from Peoria to Chicago to see Joe play for Northwestern. When he saw the car pull up, his heart jumped with joy. When it didn't pull up, he knew mom was having a rough day.

Joe loved baseball and his mom always knew how badly he wanted to become a major-leaguer.

But in his second year of pro ball, 1987, while playing for a Cubs' minor-league club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Joe thought about quitting. He actually shared his thoughts with old friend Pete Mackanin, who had been his manager the year before.

Looking back, Girardi now believes he considered quitting because he'd never really grieved after his mother's death three years earlier. He was in the red Ford Tempo the day after the funeral, driving back to Cape Cod. He went 4 for 5 his first game back. Then it was two more years at Northwestern, more baseball, and, of course, the engineering degree he'd promised his mom.

"My grandfather died while I was playing at Winston-Salem and I don't think it was until then that my mother's death really hit me," Girardi said. "I was just really distraught about everything that was going on. I had a college degree and I was making 900 bucks a month. My mom, she just wanted her kids to be successful and she loved baseball. I used to think I played to keep her alive, to give her hope. A few years after she passed, I began to think, 'Why am I playing?'"

Kim, his girlfriend and now wife of 32 years, had the answer.

"You're playing because God gave you a gift," she told him.

Two years later, Girardi was in the big leagues.

It still hurts that his mom never got to see him make it, still hurts that she never got to meet his wife and three children.

But the memories are wonderful.

Especially on this weekend when we all remember our moms and the sandwiches they made and the uniforms they washed and the love and support they gave.

Joe Girardi made it on time to say goodbye to his mom, made it on time to hear her last words.

"Don't forget me."

And all these years later, he hasn't forgotten the Pennsylvania State Trooper who gave him a much-needed break along the way.

"I've often wondered who that guy was and thought how I could find out," Girardi said. "I would just like to say thank you to him."

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