Friday, May 11, 2012

Araton finds new angle in Driving Mr. Yogi

"We made too many wrong mistakes."

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

"If people don't want to come out to the ball park, nobody's going to stop them."

"I never said most of the things I said."

Yogi-isms help explain America's love affair with Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra. The current "Greatest Living Yankee," he has worn that mantle well by not wearing it at all, humbly deflecting the praise that his predecessor, Joe DiMaggio, demanded. Yogi's approachability and everyman attitude have endeared him even to Yankee haters and spawned an entire subset in the publishing industry, with an endless array of Yogi quote books and numerous biographies of the three-time American League MVP who earned 10 World Series rings in a 15-year stretch.

What can there possibly be left to say?

Harvey Araton stumbled onto a new angle when friend Dave Kaplan, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, mentioned former Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry looked after Berra every spring during training camp. Guidry would meet Berra at the airport, drive him to his hotel, and chauffeur him around Florida for the duration of his stay. A 20-year veteran sports writer with the New York Times, Araton turned the unique friendship between Yankee greats into a 1,500-word story that landed on the front page of his paper last spring.

An overwhelming response convinced Araton there was more to tell than would fit in the Times. So he delved a little deeper and spent more time with both Berra's and Guidry's families and spun the tale into Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball's Greatest Gift.

The friendship dates back to the mid-1970s, when a pre-Louisiana Lightning Guidry eavesdropped on Berra's conversations in the Yankee locker room, hoping to soak up some wisdom from the coach who spilled pearls almost without even realizing how valuable his advice was. Beyond the pitching tips, Guidry learned from watching Yogi how to be a Yankee and what it meant to wear the uniform.

A decade later, Guidry was en route to his third and final 20-win season when Berra was dumped as Yankees manager just 16 games into his second year at the helm. Earning Yogi's ire, and a vow to stay away from the team, owner George Steinbrenner chose to have surrogate Clyde King deliver the news following a three-game sweep in Chicago. For 14 years, Berra boycotted his own club, coming back only after Steinbrenner apologized in person in 1999. Not content with having him only as an old-timer's day attendee, The Boss invited Berra to serve as a catching instructor in spring training, to share his insight with a new generation of Yankee players.

Despite his reputation as one of the game's most beloved characters, Berra can be demanding, particularly when it comes to punctuality. And he sweats the details. How was he going to get from the airport to his hotel, he asked. Would there be a limo? No, he was informed, Guidry would be meeting him. "Gator?" Berra asked. Yes, that Guidry.

Knowing Berra as he did, Guidry knew the then-74-year-old would appreciate seeing a familiar face instead of some anonymous driver. Having driven his Ford F-150 pickup all the way from his home in Louisiana, a few extra miles retrieving a team legend wouldn't hurt. Of course, it soon turned into much more than a ride from the airport, as Berra came to rely on him for trips to the park every morning and to dinner every night. And once done, a favor becomes a precedent with Berra, hence the same daily routines a dozen years later.

Berra's role has diminished over the past decade as he has moved into his mid-80s. He no longer suits up regularly and doesn't sit in the dugout during Grapefruit League games. His celebrated 2011 fall in a Clearwater clubhouse netted him a frustrating trip to the hospital despite his insistence he was fine. At his age, no precautions are spared, and that goes from Guidry right on down the line.

Araton has stripped away the quipping, cartoon Yogi we see in Aflac commercials and shown us a man who might remind us of our own grandfather or father (though Guidry is quick to insist his relationship with Berra is not a pseudo father-son thing). The depth of their relationship really comes across in the final chapters, where a realistic Guidry acknowledges, "Look, we all know at some point in time, it's going to end. He's going to stop going to Florida. This can't be forever." It will be a loss for the baseball world when that day comes, but an even greater loss for his friends.

While Araton does a nice job of drilling to the core of the relationship between Berra and Guidry, Driving Mr. Yogi is a short book that feels padded in spots with well-worn anecdotes from the days of the Bronx Zoo or the battle of Berra and Big Stein. For those love a good Pinstripe yarn, rehearing a tale or two probably won't be a problem. Others may walk away feeling the 1,500-word feature in the Times might have been enough.

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