Berra leaves off-field legacy of words



Yogi Berra, left, and Whitey Ford are seen during the New York Yankees 65th Old Timers Day ceremony. The New York Yankees defeated the Colorado Rockies, 6-4, at Yankee Stadium in New York on Sunday, June 26, 2011.

As a Yankees fan, I’m not going to miss the departed Lawrence “Yogi” Berra most for his baseball career.

His No. 8 will hang forever in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park — no player will wear it again. But as much as I love shutting down other baseball fans with “27 rings,” I was alive for precisely zero of the 10 Berra contributed. He is a great name, one to revere, but to me, he is just that — a name.

Berra — the baseball Hall of Famer who passed away Tuesday, at 90 years of age — served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, piloting a landing craft onto the beaches of Normandy. In a later landing, a German bullet injured him, and he was awarded a Purple Heart. At a time when many athletes make bigger and bigger salaries and give less and less back, it’s refreshing to hear his story — leaving the minor league and putting his career on hold to serve his country. But I’m not going to miss him most for his service to the country, either.

I’m going to miss Berra most as a writer, for his wonderful ability to turn a phrase — his “Yogi-isms.”

Imagine you are a sports writer sitting at your computer. It’s a half hour before deadline, as caffeine slowly fills your veins. Your editors are angry, while you are still staring at a blank Google doc. You know what happened in the game. The team was down big and the outlook seemed bleak, but unexpectedly, they came back.

It’s an easy story to write, but you just need a start. The cursor blinks.

But then a quote drifts into the back of your head — “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Berra uttered this when, as manager of the New York Mets in 1973, his team was nine and a half games behind the Chicago Cubs, and reporters questioned him on his team’s playoff chances. The team roared back and won a playoff berth on the last day of the season.

And just as suddenly, the story roars in your head. You have your lede — your starting point. You begin to write, “Down 21 points, the game was over. But as the old saying goes, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over.’”

The rest of the story flows from your fingers.

Berra’s quotes have a beautiful way of summing up — in contradictory language — things that follow common sense.

He has said before, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore” and “I never said most of the things I said.”

The contradictory language made it easy for sports writers of the time to paint Berra as a buffoon.

Berra even said once, “In baseball, you don’t know nothing.” But that was probably a lie. You don’t become known as one of the best catchers of all time by being dim.

Pitch framing is the ability of a catcher to make a borderline pitch appear as a strike to the umpire. It’s recently become a buzzword in sabermetrics — the study of baseball statistics — but to act like it is a new invention is ridiculous. The reason Berra caught 1,699 career games — 14,387 innings squatting down behind home plate — between the ages of 21 and 40 is because he knew how to call a game better than anyone. Of course, Berra would probably just say it was all because of his predecessor, Bill Dickey, from whom he “learned all of his experience.”

At face value, all his quotes seem like gobbledygook. But when you apply life experience, they make perfect sense.

Who wants to go to a crowded restaurant? I don’t — I turn right around when I see a long line. Is a nickel worth a dime anymore? Well, I never lived through a time when nickels or dimes could buy anything, but I’m sure when Berra was born in 1925, a nickel was worth a lot more than a dime is worth now.

But did he say most of the things he said — as in, did they originate from Berra? Well, according to The New York Times, a lot of his quotes — including the crowded quip or “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” — predate Berra’s birth or popularity as a baseball player.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Berra never said these things — just that people claimed he invented them.

And just as Dickey “learned all his experience” to Berra, his quotes will learn all of his experience to the people who find them. Focusing on sabermetrics has enriched baseball. But sometimes, there are things that statistics can’t explain so clearly. And when that happens, reach for your Yogi-isms.

Why is he Yogi, you ask? Because Berra and his friends went to a movie that showed a Buddhist yogi — one who meditates in search of mystical knowledge — in the mountains of southern Asia once, and the monks’ posture reminded Berra’s friend of his own. The nickname stuck.

Mystical knowledge? Yep, sounds like Yogi. It’s déjà vu all over again.