Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 21, 2013

An Untimely Absence In Tampa

In the days of unfettered hope that are the first few of every Spring Training, in the golden glow of position players reporting and the first full workouts, the familiar routines begin anew. Much that is comforting about this time is the fact that so much of every day is commonplace. The faces are well-known, the activities a matter of habit. Tradition reigns. In Fort Myers on Thursday the Red Sox played their annual double-header against collegiate teams from Northeastern and Boston College. But these days can also remind players and fans alike that no routine is permanent; for time inexorably takes its toll. At the Yankees training complex in Tampa a hole has been torn in the warm and familiar fabric of spring training. In Tampa this year, there is no Yogi.

Even Derek Jeter would likely acknowledge that Lawrence Peter Berra is the greatest living Yankee. From his first call-up late in the 1946 season through the 1963 World Series, Berra played eighteen seasons in the Bronx. His career batting average of .285 and 358 home runs don’t begin to tell the story of his value to the Yankees. He was a fifteen time All-Star and three times the American League MVP. In an eight year stretch beginning in 1950 Berra never finished lower than fourth in the MVP balloting. From 1949 through 1955, through the final years of Joe DiMaggio’s career and the first years of Mickey Mantle’s, it was Berra who was the team’s RBI leader each season.

The postseason record book is filled with references to Berra. His appearances in fourteen World Series and his ten championships are not only both records, they are the rarest kind of sports records. Ones likely never to be broken. With all those trips to the Fall Classic Berra naturally holds the records for the most games played, at bats, hits, doubles, singles, games caught, and catcher putouts. Even casual fans know that it was Berra behind the plate in Game Five of the 1956 Series; for they have seen the grainy old footage of number eight leaping into Don Larsen’s arms at the end of the only perfect game in Series history.

After his playing days ended Berra served as the Yankees manager for one season, and later spent four years managing the New York Mets. In 1973 he guided the team from Queens to its second appearance in the World Series. But the Oakland A’s rallied from a three games to two deficit to win the Series, and Berra was criticized for using starters on short rest for both Games Six and Seven. Fired by the Mets after the 1975 season, Berra was soon back in pinstripes as a coach for the Yankees. He began his second stint as the Bombers’ manager in 1984, but then was fired just sixteen games into the 1985 season.

Berra understood that being fired was an almost inevitable part of the job of big league manager, but he was outraged that owner George Steinbrenner had sent a lackey to do the job rather than telling him face to face. Feeling disrespected, Berra walked away from the Yankees for nearly a decade and a half, even as he opened the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the grounds of Montclair State University in New Jersey. Finally in the cold months prior to the 1999 season Steinbrenner came north from Tampa to meet with Berra at his museum and apologize for the old affront. In July of that year Yogi made a triumphant return to the old Stadium, accompanied by Larsen and cheered by a new generation of fans prior to the game. Then on the day number eight returned to the Bronx, Cone needed just eighty-eight pitches to mirror Larsen’s four decade old perfection.

With his relationship with the Yankees restored, the following spring Berra began making an annual trip to join the team during Spring Training as a guest instructor. The Hall of Famer brought with him his Yogiisms, but also his enormous knowledge of the game and his vast experience, both behind the plate and in the batter’s box. In that first spring trip he played a vital role in mentoring Jorge Posada, who had just taken over the starting catcher’s role from Joe Girardi, who had moved on to Chicago in free agency. Even as Berra developed a successful late-in-life career as a commercial pitchman, the familiar sight of Yogi in pinstripes was a comforting sign of spring for the Yankees and their fans. Over the course of those visits Berra also developed an unlikely but close friendship with retired Yankees left hander Ron Guidry; a relationship recounted in Harvey Araton’s excellent book Driving Mr. Yogi.

But Berra is 87 now, and has suffered a series of recent health problems. First pitchers and catchers, and now position players along with various guest instructors have assembled in Tampa. But this year, for the first time in more than a decade, Yogi Berra will not be joining them. His absence is obviously poignant; but it is also decidedly untimely. For this year the Yankees have no greater hole in their lineup than at catcher.

Over the generations the position has been filled by the likes of Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Posada, in addition to Berra. For the past two seasons Russell Martin gave New York outstanding defense and plenty of power, if not much of a batting average, at that spot in the lineup. But the Yankees’ determination to get below the salary cap next year meant they would not offer Martin a multi-year contract during the recent offseason. So he is now down the Gulf Coast in Bradenton, having signed a two-year deal with the Pirates. In Tampa the Yankees have Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli, and Austin Romine competing to be the starting catcher. Stewart and Cervelli are career backups, while Romine has just nine games at the major league level and missed most of last season due to back surgery. While all three have good defensive skills, they have a combined 9 career home runs. Martin hit 21 into the seats last season alone.

Two of the three will be in the Bronx on April 1st, and one of them will be the Yankees’ starting catcher. Stewart and Cervelli, both out of minor league options, are likely to be the former; while which one turns out to be the latter is anybody’s guess. What is clear is that no matter who jogs out of the dugout on Opening Day, the Yankees’ long tradition of having the catching position be synonymous with power and hits is likely to be broken. As the rhythms of another Spring Training increase in tempo, in Tampa the Yankees and their fans are all missing Yogi. They know all too well that his would-be successors could sure use some of the old man’s advice.

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Responses

  1. Sounds like this could be a transition year of sorts for the Yanks. A-Rod may be done, Martin and Swisher are gone, and who knows what to expect from Jeter or Rivera (let alone most of the pitching staff.) Girardi will certainly be tested this year.
    Yogi is one of the few baseball personalities that both Mets and Yankee fans can agree was one of the greatest in each team’s history.
    Nicely done,
    Bill

    • I agree Bill, though I’m not sure about how my fellow Yankees fans will react to the concept of a “transition” year.

      Mike

      • Well it’s certainly been a long time since you guys had to go through that sort of thing.


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