By HARVEY ARATON
The New York Times
February 23, 2011
Edward Linsmier for The New York Times
When Yogi Berra arrived on Tuesday afternoon at Tampa International Airport, Ron Guidry was waiting for him.
TAMPA, Fla. — With all the yearly changes made by the Yankees, Yogi Berra’s arrival at their spring training base adds a timeless quality to baseball’s most historic franchise.
Berra, the catching legend and pop culture icon, slips back into the uniform with the famous and familiar No. 8. He checks into the same hotel in the vicinity of George M. Steinbrenner Field and requests the same room. He plans his days methodically — wake up at 6 a.m., breakfast at 6:30, depart for the complex by 7 — and steps outside to be greeted by the same driver he has had for the past dozen years.
The driver has a rather famous name, and nickname, as well.
“It’s like I’m the valet,” said Ron Guidry, the former star pitcher known around the Yankees as Gator for his Louisiana roots. “Actually, I am the valet.”
When Berra arrived on Tuesday afternoon from New Jersey for his three- to four-week stay, Guidry, as always, was waiting for him at Tampa International Airport. Since Berra forgave George Steinbrenner in 1999 for firing him as the manager in 1985 through a subordinate and ended a 14-year boycott of the team, Guidry has been his faithful friend and loyal shepherd.
Guidry had a custom-made cap to certify his proud standing. The inscription reads, “Driving Mr. Yogi.”
“He’s a good guy,” Berra, the Yankees’ 85-year-old honorary patriarch, said during an interview at his museum in Little Falls, N.J. “We hang out together in spring training.”
By “hanging out,” Berra means being in uniform with the Yankees by day and having dinner with Guidry by night. That is, until Guidry, who loves to cook and rents a two-bedroom apartment across the road from where Berra stays, demands a break from their spring training rotation of the five restaurants that meet Berra’s approval.
“See, I really love the old man, but because of what we share — which is something very special — I can treat him more as a friend and I can say, ‘Get your butt in my truck or you’re staying,’ ” Guidry said. “He likes that kind of camaraderie, wants to be treated like everybody else, but because of who he is, that’s not how everybody around here treats him.
“So I’ll say, ‘Yogi, tonight we’re going to Fleming’s, then to Lee Roy Selmon’s tomorrow, and then the night after that you stay in your damn room, have a ham sandwich or whatever, because the world doesn’t revolve around you and I’m taking a night off.’ ”
Berra played 18 years for the Yankees, from 1946 to 1963, and was part of 10 World Series champions. Guidry pitched from the mid-1970s through 1988, played on two World Series winners and was a Cy Young Award winner in 1978, when he was 25-3 with a 1.74 earned run average.
While Guidry was blossoming into one of baseball’s premier left-handers, Berra was a coach on Manager Billy Martin’s staff (and later became Guidry’s manager). They dressed at adjacent stalls in the clubhouse of the old Yankee Stadium. Eager to learn, Guidry would pepper Berra with questions about what he, as a former catcher, thought of hitters.
Berra would say, “You got a great catcher right over there,” nodding in the direction of Thurman Munson. But Guidry persisted, and their bond was formed.
During Berra’s self-imposed absence, Guidry saw him only on occasion, at card-signing shows and at Berra’s charity golf tournament near his home in Montclair, N.J. When Berra returned, the retired players he knew best were no longer part of the spring training instructional staff.
“There was really nobody else that he had to sit and talk with, to be around after the day at the ballpark,” Guidry said. “So I just told him, ‘I’ll pick you up, we’ll go out to supper,’ and that’s how it started. It wasn’t like I planned it. It just developed.”
Barton Silverman/The New York Times
Yogi Berra with Ron Guidry at Yankees spring training in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday.
In offering his companionship, Guidry discovered that he was the luckier side of the partnership spanning generations of Yankees greatness.
“I never got to pitch against Ted Williams, for example,” Guidry said. “I’d say, ‘Yogi, when you guys had to go to Boston and you had to face Williams, how did you work him?’ You know, he’s like an encyclopedia, and that’s what I loved, all the stories and just being with him. If he’s not the most beloved man in America, I don’t know who is.”
Berra’s wife, Carmen, typically joins her husband in Tampa during spring training, but charity and family obligations generally limit her time here to a few days. Guidry, she said, has been “so special to Yogi, like a member of the family.”
He has asked Berra to stay with him in his apartment, but Berra prefers the hotel.
“I mean, the only time we’re really not together is when he’s asleep,” Guidry said. “But you can’t get him out of there because that’s how it’s been. You can’t change him. When he does it one day, it’s going to be that way for the next 1,000 days.”
Berra was 73 when he rejoined the Yankees family, but his rigid need for routines had little to do with his age, said Carmen Berra, his wife of 62 years.
“That’s always been Yogi,” she said. “If the doctor tells him to take a pill at 9 a.m., the bottle is open at 5 of 9.”
That is why Guidry considers his supreme achievement in their dozen years as the Yankees’ odd couple to be the day — he guessed it was five years ago — that he persuaded Berra to try a Cajun culinary staple.
Every spring, Guidry brings from his home near Lafayette, La., about 200 frog legs and a flour mix to fry them. One day, he took a batch to the clubhouse to share with the former pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, turned to Berra and said, “Try these.”
Berra shook his head, as if Guidry were offering him tofu.
Guidry told him, “You don’t try it, we’re not going out to supper tonight.”
Berra relented, and soon a dinner of frog legs, green beans wrapped in bacon and a sweet potato at Guidry’s apartment — usually timed to a weekend of N.C.A.A. basketball tournament games — became as much a rite of spring as pitchers and catchers.
“He calls me at home this year to remind me about the frogs’ legs — ‘Did you get ’em yet?’ ” Guidry said. “I said, ‘Yogi, it’s freaking January, calm down.’ ”
Though Berra often calls Guidry during the off-season, he has never visited him in Louisiana. “He lives in the swamps, you know,” Berra said.
When Guidry was the Yankees’ pitching coach in 2006 and 2007, Berra could count on him being in spring training. Now Guidry must receive an invitation from the Yankees, which he and Berra anxiously await.
During exhibition games, they sit on the bench together, in the corner by the water cooler, studying the game. “Every once in a while, Yogi will see something about a guy and think that he can help,” Guidry said.
Last season, Berra noticed that pitchers were getting Nick Swisher out with breaking balls and mentioned to Guidry that he thought Swisher might try moving up in the batter’s box to attack the pitch sooner.
“Tell him, not me,” Guidry said.
“Nah, I don’t want to bother him,” Berra said.
After Swisher grounded out, he walked past Guidry and Berra in the dugout. Guidry stood up, pointed at Berra. “He wants to talk to you,” Guidry said. Swisher sat down, heard Berra out and doubled off the wall in his next at-bat. After he scored, he returned to the dugout and parked himself alongside Berra.
“For Yogi, that meant everything,” Guidry said. “Now who knows if that had anything to do with the great season Swisher had? But in Yogi’s mind, he made a friend and he felt, ‘O.K., that justifies me being here,’ even though everybody loves having him here anyway.
“But that’s the thing — for Yogi, spring training is his last hold on baseball,” Guidry added. “When he walks through that door in the clubhouse, sits at the locker, puts on his uniform, talks to everybody, jokes around, watches batting practice, goes back in, has something to eat, and then he and I will go on the bench and watch the game, believe me, I know how much he really looks forward to it.”
Since taking a fall outside his home last summer that required hospitalization and a period of inactivity, Berra has slowed. His voice is softer. His words seem to be sparser.
“I know Carmen feels he’s going to be fine and occupied because I’m around,” Guidry said. “But this year may be harder than the rest because of what happened. I’m just going to have to watch a little more closely to see what he can do.”
The first item on Berra’s agenda, he said, would be to go shopping.
“He buys his roast beef, I buy my bottle of vodka,” Berra said, with a twinkle in his eye. “We get along real good.”