Hall of Famer Yogi Berra hands Derek Jeter his 2009 World Series ring as the New York Yankees take on the Angels in The Bronx. (Getty Images)
In his oversized team jacket, slowly moving about Yankee Stadium as he checked on all of his guys, Yogi Berra would always tell friends he had one stop he absolutely needed to make. It wasn't Monument Park.
"Gotta go see Jeet," Berra would say.
Derek Jeter's locker was the place to find Berra in his final years as an American ballpark treasure. Yogi would wait there and make small talk with passersby, and eventually the captain of the New York Yankees would return from a BP session, approach the owlish figure in his path, and playfully slap down the bill on Berra's cap.
This is why Yogi kept returning to the Bronx, these moments with Jeter that would remind him of the moments he shared with Joe D. and the Mick. "Yogi and Derek were like two kids together," said Berra's friend, Dave Kaplan, the director of Yogi's museum on the campus of New Jersey's Montclair State University. "It was a warm, fun relationship. And Yogi saw Jeter as someone who cherished being part of the Yankee tradition as much as he did, and that meant a lot to him."
It meant everything to Berra that Jeter's Yankees treated him as a winning ballplayer, as one of them, rather than as another storytelling old-timer who just got in the way. That kept Yogi going; it really did. He told Kaplan he couldn't wait to get to spring training with Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada and the rest. Those Yankees made him feel like he was 25 years old.
Jeter was the one who set that tone after Berra returned to the Stadium in 1999, returned after a 14-year boycott of George Steinbrenner, the owner who had fired him 16 games into the 1985 season. Before that '99 season, Jeter had lost his grandfather, Sonny Connors, to a heart attack. The Yankee shortstop had been close to Connors, a maintenance man at a New Jersey church who had built his own life around the virtues of an honest day's work.
Jeter didn't say he saw Berra as a grandfatherly figure, and he didn't have to. "Everyone thought that about Yogi," Kaplan said. "I can't tell you how many people said Yogi reminded them of their grandfather because he was so unassuming and projected that kind of warmth."
On his web site, The Players Tribune, Jeter called Berra an even better person than player. "To me he was a dear friend and mentor," the retired captain said. "He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness."
The shortstop's own sincerity and kindness with Berra kept bringing the old catcher back, even as his health failed. Funny how things started with them, too. Some 15 years ago, after Alex Rodriguez signed his record $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers and then publicly suggested his buddy in the Bronx wasn't worth the same cash, an agitated Jeter stood alone behind the Yankees' spring training facility and told me the following:
"I'm not trying to beat Alex's record anyway. The only record I'm concerned with is Yogi's record, and that's the 10 championships."
Berra got the biggest kick out of Jeter's futile chase, and never stopped telling the shortstop he had a few country miles to cover to even come close. Berra had won five consecutive championships from 1949-53, and not long after Jeter's Yankees lost their chance for a four-peat in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona, Yogi hit him where it really hurt.
"Now you've got to start all over," Berra told him.
On a March morning in 2010, months after the Yankees had won their first ring since 2000 and their fifth of the Jeter era, the 35-year-old captain sat at his locker and refused to surrender to the idea that catching the catcher was out of the question.
I asked Jeter whether he felt Yogi's 10 was still doable. "Yeah," he said, "because I think it gives you something to shoot for. ... You never sit around and be happy with what you've done. A few people have won five, so you try to move past those guys. Ten is the highest number, but there are a lot of steps along the way."
Jeter smiled and pointed out that Berra didn't have to survive the division series or American League Championship Series in his day. "If we went straight to the World Series every time we won our division," the shortstop said, "we would've had so many chances. So it's a lot harder now, definitely. I was just joking with Yogi the other day that some of his don't count. But Yogi's not buying it."
Outside the clubhouse that day, I found Berra stepping into a golf cart. No, the 84-year-old Berra was definitely not buying it.
"I tell Jeter he was born at the wrong time," Yogi joked.
"I've got the most rings, more than Mickey [Mantle] and Joe DiMaggio," the wise old man continued. "How many does Derek have now, five? Well, he's got five to go. Tell him I said, 'Good luck.'"
Their back-and-forth never stopped. Jeter was pictured giving Berra bear hugs and planting a World Series trophy on top of Berra's head.
Yogi? One day after Jeter swung and missed on a high, full-count pitch, Berra asked him, "What the hell are you doing swinging at that? You looked terrible."
Jeter reminded Berra that he used to swing at pitches out of the strike zone all the time.
"But I hit them," Yogi shot back. "You don't."
Berra hit them enough in 1950 to only strike out 12 times in 656 plate appearances. He won three MVP awards (or, he might say, three more than Jeter won), and he later managed the Yankees and the Mets to the World Series to boot. It's a shame a generation or two of fans knew him more as the master of the malaprop, just like a generation of fans knew Joe DiMaggio more as Mr. Coffee. But if that bothered Berra, he never let it show.
He died Tuesday at 90 as a D-Day war hero and as the greatest baseball winner of them all. Kaplan, his friend and museum director, visited a sleeping Berra for the final time Tuesday afternoon; he'd said his goodbyes on Saturday, when it was clear the end was near. "I told him Yogi I loved him, and I'd never said that to him before," Kaplan said. "He had a slight smile and just said, 'Yeah, kid.' That's Yogi."
Berra and Kaplan had run some fundraisers and events at the museum over the years, and whenever the catcher needed some star power on the dais, he knew which locker to stake out.
"Yogi would just say, 'Hey Jeet, I need you at the museum,' and Derek's jaw would drop because you knew how many requests he got from people," Kaplan said. "Some guys would say they'd have to check their schedule, but Jeter never did that with Yogi. He always showed up."
The captain of the Yankees always made Yogi Berra feel like he was still the man behind the mask. It was only the greatest play of Derek Jeter's career.