DANVERS — At first glance, Mike Giardi and Steve Gridley are unlikely leaders of a baseball dynasty.
By day, the 42-year-old Giardi is a math teacher at Marblehead High School and Gridley, 43, coaches youth basketball and baseball.
By night, the two friends are managers of the aptly named Peabody Champions of the North Shore Baseball League, a winning team built on a shared love of the game.
“It’s a fun team to be around,” said 13-year Champions pitcher Mike Maroney. “It’s almost like a second family in the summer.”
“Even on college teams, the guys aren’t as close friends as a lot of the guys on this team,” said Chad Martin, a rising junior at Bowdoin College. “Even though this is my first year, all of them accept me as if I have been playing here for [10 years].”
“We have a good mix of young college kids and some older veterans that keep it competitive,” said 13-year veteran Derek Lyons. “I just love being around the guys and have met some great friends.”
Since they started managing together in 2001, Giardi and Gridley have led the Peabody Champions to seven North Shore Baseball League titles and 10 appearances overall in the championship series. The 12-team league plays a 24-game regular season schedule, starting in late May.
In Game 5 of the finals last Thursday night at Twilight Field, the two managers could be found side by side, as they often are during games — Giardi on the bench and Gridley, who is a paraplegic, in his wheelchair. Giardi, who also suits up for the team as a utility player, raised a question about his last at-bat.
“Was that a good pitch to hit?” he asked.
“You were up 2-0, and you swung at ball three,” Gridley replied. “You can do better than that.”
It was the sort of candor that typifies their friendship.
Giardi and Gridley became buddies in 1991, when Gridley was looking for a summer team to play on when he wasn’t playing college baseball at Salem State.
“After my first year of college, I was playing Senior Babe Ruth and that ran out,” Gridley said. He had heard about the North Shore Baseball League a year before, while working at Champions Pub in Peabody, which sponsors the squad.
He joined the Salem Lonnies the next summer and became friends with Giardi, who at the time was a two-sport standout at Harvard, a quarterback for Joe Restic, and the Ivy League Player of the Year (1994) on the diamond.
“I played with Mike Giardi and we had a good summer that year,” Gridley said. “We won the [North Shore] title in 1991, then Mike went on to play in the Cape [Cod] League, and I went on to play in the Intercity League for a few years.”
Giardi went on to play minor league baseball (Yankees, Giants, and Expos) for four years before returning to the North Shore League in 1999.
The Harvard graduate said that once he started playing for the Champions, he found a new love for the game and began to appreciate everything it has given him.
“I wasn’t a big fan of baseball from being released, and wasn’t happy with the sport,” Giardi said. “Then I got an opportunity to play again, and I started enjoying baseball again.”
While Giardi was playing professional baseball, Gridley’s life took a completely different course.
In February 1998, he was diagnosed with a spinal tumor and soon became paralyzed.
“At 26 [years old], it was a shock,” he said. “You don’t want to wake up and not be able to do what you were doing.”
At first, Gridley stayed away from the baseball field because he wasn’t comfortable with his new look.
“I’ve always loved baseball,” Gridley said. “It wasn’t that I stopped loving baseball. It was that I was more embarrassed about being paralyzed.”
After two years away from the game, Gridley was convinced by Giardi to come back to coach youth baseball in 2000 and help coach the Peabody Champions in 2001.
“Just because you can’t walk any more doesn’t mean you can’t offer advice,” Giardi said to Gridley. “Why don’t you come back to baseball?”
“He kept pestering me and I finally just did it,” Gridley said. “He brought me back.”
“I had to beg him, to be honest,” Giardi said. “I really needed him.”
Thirteen years and seven championships later, the duo is still leading the Peabody Champions, a team of players ranging in age from 20 to 43.
How have they done it?
“I think we set the tone that we’re going to have fun,” Gridley said.
“When you’re a baseball player, that’s it — you’re a baseball player,” Giardi added. “It’s easy to get on the same page and have some fun with it.”
Mark Shorey, 30, played seven seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, advancing to Triple A, the top rung in the minors.
Now in his second season with the Champions, the Peabody native said that he continues to play for the team because he loves the atmosphere and the friendships he’s made.
“It’s a good core of guys. I just wanted to play some baseball and have some fun,” Shorey said. “We all love playing baseball and we want to be here. That’s what makes it fun.”
Cameron Couillard, in his first year with the Champions, said that learning from players like Shorey and Giardi has been an incredible experience.
“I couldn’t ask for a better team to play with,” said the 21-year-old rising senior at Framingham State University. “Honestly, all I do is just stare at their swing and try and tweak mine to make it identical to theirs.”
“You don’t feel like you’re pressured to be the best player on the team, because you’re not,” said Greg Ladd, a fourth-year player who is a rising senior at Colby College. “It’s just a bunch of friends, which helps us out at the end of the day.”
“At [one] point in the season I wasn’t playing that well,” said Martin, a newcomer who plays for Bowdoin College. “Shorey offered me a small [piece of] advice, and it just changed everything. It was a huge help to me.”
There was no championship for the Champions this year, but they were close. The Kingston Night Owls prevailed, 7-2, in Game 7, on Saturday.
“It was disappointing the way the game ended,” Giardi said. “We felt like we had our chances and we didn’t take advantage.”
Giardi, Gridley, and the rest of the Champions vow the loss won’t keep them from continuing to be a part of the game they love.
“Until they literally take the cleats away, and if I can still go out there and compete, I’m going to try to do it,” Giardi said.