Thursday, September 24, 2015

The legacy of Yogi Berra: He made everyone smile

September 24, 2015
LOS ANGELES – Yogi Berra passed away and the appropriate tears fell, the best stories told, the proper appreciation paid. Vin Scully nodded along Wednesday, happy for the warmth of another memory of dear Yogi. They'd spent the better parts of their lives on opposite sides of an old rivalry and a slightly older continent, though had come to know each other well enough.
"Aw, what'd you make such a stink about?" Scully would needle. "Robby was safe."
Jackie Robinson stole home against Berra's New York Yankees in a World Series game 60 years ago. Berra was the catcher. The Yankees won the game. The Brooklyn Dodgers won the series. Yogi, perhaps, is still arguing the call.
He'd laugh with Vin though, and the conversation would run off to other places.
Scully stood Wednesday evening in the back of the press box at Dodger Stadium, he too having mourned the loss, and celebrated the life, and watched it all go past. He was struck, he said, by the reactions to the news of Yogi on Wednesday, as the reactions were the same to Yogi in the flesh.
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Yogi Berra's positive personality rubbed off on everyone he encountered. (AP)
Yogi Berra's positive personality rubbed off on everyone he encountered. (AP)
"I would think his legacy is, when you mention his name people smile," Scully said. "Everybody was better if you spent a few minutes with Yogi."
And that's it, isn't it? The first impulse wasn't ever to think of the championships (10), or the home runs (358), or the All-Star Games (15), or the Hall of Fame plaque (1972), but of the man who won them, hit them, earned them and bolted them into a wall. The man who was better than the sum of his physical parts. The man who'd greet the doorman as he would the owner of the ballclub – better, probably, for a number of years – not because it was the right thing to do, but because it wouldn't occur to him not to. The man who inspired others not with speeches or posturing or tales of the player he once was, but with humility and kindness.
So when the clubhouse man for the Dodgers tried to give Don Mattingly his No. 23, the number Mattingly wore as a great Yankee, Mattingly refused. He wanted 8, Yogi's number, for the same Yogi who showed up in Double-A Nashville in 1981 and rode the buses and schlepped across the parking lots of motels, for the Yogi who managed Mattingly as a Yankee in 1984 and for a few more weeks in 1985, and for the Yogi who never thought of himself as more than a kid from The Hill who played some ball.
"I don't want 23," Mattingly told the clubbie. "I want 8, because everything Yogi touches turns to gold."
Mattingly grinned and added, "And I was looking for gold."
He'll keep digging, presumably.
He stood Wednesday afternoon a long way from New Jersey, and a long way from Nashville, and a long way from Toronto, where the Yankees wore Yogi's 8 on their sleeves. But Yogi had followed him all day, he said, starting with the late phone call the night before. Yogi was on the radio, on the TV, and when he stopped for gas on the way to the ballpark, Yogi was there, too, on the pump's video screen.
Yogi had lived as long and wonderful a life as a man could reasonably expect and was taken too soon, a paradoxical notion we may have expected from Yogi. He died just as summer turned to autumn. In a baseball sense he could claim both.
For that, Mattingly struggled for the proper emotion. Sad, of course, to see his friend go, for the family he'd leave behind. Pleased for the 90 years of Yogi, for a life so lived, as we should all be so lucky. He'd settle for both, for the remainder of the summer in Nashville, a couple seasons in the Bronx, the spring days in Tampa, one in particular when Ron Guidry was unavailable to drive Yogi to the ballpark. Mattingly volunteered and arrived five minutes early, only to find Yogi a little peeved.
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The Yankees honored Berra by wearing his No. 8 on their sleeves. (AP)
The Yankees honored Berra by wearing his No. 8 on their sleeves. (AP)
"You're late," Yogi informed him.
Baseball was still serious business to Yogi.
Later that spring, Mattingly accompanied the ballclub to a game in Bradenton. Yogi stayed behind with the players who didn't travel. Their workdays ended around 1 p.m. When Mattingly returned in the early evening, Yogi was in the coach's locker room, in his civilian clothes, waiting.
"You been here all day?" Mattingly asked.
"Yeah," Yogi said. "Woulda been all day at the hotel too."
"You're right," Mattingly said. "Woulda been."
He'd witnessed his own Yogi-ism in the wild, and a decade or so later it still made him smile. That's the gift. Some would say a legacy.

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