Friday, December 18, 2015

The Yankee we all loved

Many baseball fans hate the New York Yankees because, at least until recent years, they seemed to own October, but was there anyone who didn't love Yogi Berra, the Yankees' human mascot whose 10 World Series rings were the most earned by anyone?

So, however you may feel about the Yankees, you will probably enjoy Driving Mr. Yogi, Harvey Araton's 2013 bestseller that focuses on Berra's later years when, with Ron Guidry, another Yankee great, as his driver, protector, dining partner and best friend, he traveled to Tampa every spring to help the team's catchers prepare for the season ahead.

Berra actually boycotted the Yankees for a number of years, refusing even to attend any games or appear at Old Timers Day, a Yankee institution. When he had been Yankee manager, he expected to be fired one day. Managers always get fired sooner or later, and usually sooner when working for George Steinbrenner. But Berra objected to the way he was fired, through a third party rather than by Steinbrenner face to face, and after a successful season as well. Araton tells how Steinbrenner finally came to Berra, apologized and invited him back into the fold. The old catcher happily relented and was a Yankee for the rest of his life.

Berra, like a lot of old men, was a creature of habit. He liked to eat the same things at the same restaurants on the same day every week, and he wanted to be picked up on time every time. This routine might have driven a lot of companions crazy, but Guidry, whom Berra called Gator because he lives in Louisiana, possessed the right combination of humor, firmness and patience to build a close and lasting relationship. Berra, for all the special privileges he enjoyed, wanted to be treated as just one of the guys, even when he was in his 80s and most of the other guys were in their 20s, and Guidry had the knack for helping the oldtimer fit in.

One reason Berra, who died in September at the age of 90, was so well loved was his many quotable lines, like "When you come to a fork in the road, take it" and "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore." One of his sons once said of him, "He's the most quoted man in the world, and he never says anything." Yes, he rarely had much to say, but young players learned that when Berra did say something to them, it was worth listening to. He possessed a great baseball mind long after his body began to fail him.

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