After another consuming spring training day in the crucible that is managing the New York Yankees, Joe Girardi pondered a what-if question.
What if the Rockies had not selected Girardi in the 1992 expansion draft?
“Without Colorado,” Girardi said, “I’m probably not sitting here.”
Without Colorado’s foresight, Girardi would have sunk deeper into the role of backup catcher with the Chicago Cubs.
Without Colorado’s opportunity, Girardi would not have made himself into an attractive player during three seasons as the Rockies’ starter.
Without Colorado’s payroll squeeze, Girardi would not have been traded to the Yankees after the 1995 season.
The deal started a relationship that will enter a new chapter Monday, when Girardi is scheduled to make his regular-season debut as manager in the final Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.
For a moment, Girardi might flash back to the Rockies’ first home opener, when a crowd of 80,227 at Mile High Stadium saw him catch Bryn Smith in an 11-4 win against Montreal.
“I’ve been fortunate everywhere I played,” Girardi said. “But Colorado was a special experience.”
“We knew there were so many positives that Joe could contribute to a first-year club,” said Arizona vice president Bob Gebhard, who was the Rockies’ first general manager. “He was not only a good defensive catcher. He was smart, a leader, a very respectable young man. He was the right type of guy for us.”
At the same time, Girardi grew in stature. His ability to work with and protect a pitching staff, which the Cubs had discounted, caught everyone’s attention.
“Joe was the leader,” said Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey, a Girardi teammate with the Cubs (1990-92) and the Rockies (1994). “He was the most prepared guy I’d ever been around. It wasn’t going to work with him. You learned.”
The run ended after the 1995 season, when the Rockies sent Girardi to the Yankees for right-hander Mike DeJean and a minor league pitcher. The trade was surprising because Girardi had played such a vital internal role on a club that reached the playoffs as a wild card.
Girardi, who had a prominent role with the Major League Baseball Players Association, had a run-in with Rockies management during the 1994-95 strike regarding its efforts to use minor leaguers in spring training replacement games. Girardi does not believe his stance caused the trade.
“I believe things happen for a reason,” Girardi said. “You’re always sad when you leave a team, because you’ve developed relationships with the guys there. But it works out.”
Gebhard said payroll concerns influenced the decision. The Rockies had re-signed shortstop Walt Weiss and were pursuing free-agent second baseman Craig Biggio. They could not afford to keep Girardi.
“I did not want to lose Joe, and Don did not want to lose Joe,” Gebhard said. “He was vital to our success. But it was a dollars-and-cents decision.”
A great story of one door closing and another one opening.