Baseball, Life and a Moment With Yogi Berra
That life-changing day when Yogi Berra said, "Come here, kid."
This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 28, 2015.
By Brian T. Edwards
"Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they won't go to yours."
— Lawrence Berra
Like a lot of people, I've been thinking of Yogi Berra since his death last week at the age of 90. I was lucky enough to meet him once, when I was a kid. As an adult, he inspired me to coach. And I had recently become obsessed with the idea of tracking him down to ask him questions about baseball and life for which I cannot find the answers.
I met him 40 years ago when I was a second-grader. This was during the winter of 1974-75, when he managed the Mets. The YMCA in my town hosted him.
Yogi signed autographs and paused while my mom snapped a photo of my brother Cliff and me by his side. Then we were taken into another room and shown a movie about the 1969 "Amazin' Mets." Yogi was the first-base coach on that team, so that must have been the tie-in.
I couldn't concentrate during the movie. I kept thinking that Yogi might still be in the building. So I left the auditorium and pretended to go to the bathroom. I slowly walked past the room where he had been signing autographs. There he was, still sitting behind the table.
He saw me there staring. "Come here, kid." I don't remember what else he said, but I remember his gravelly voice and calm demeanor. Rather than a Hindu yogi, though, he looked like he could be one of my uncles. On my mother's side, we were a large Italian-American family. Yogi's father and my great-grandparents had arrived at Ellis Island within a few years of each other.
In the black-and-white photo of me and my younger brother next to Yogi Berra, he is in a dark suit, with pudgy body, big ears and nose, and huge smile. From my expression, I look surprised that I am in the same frame as the man who had caught Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. At the end of that famous game, when Yogi jumped into Larsen's arms like a boy (Yogi was 5 feet 8 inches and Larsen was 6-feet-4), it showed how even the game played at its pinnacle brings out the exuberance of youth.
What Berra did when he jumped into Larsen's arms is what I expect every catcher to do when his team wins a championship. It's also, for me, the image of absolute love and joy. On occasion, when one of my kids jumps into my arms that way, perhaps when I come home from a trip, I think to myself: This is perfect.
Yogi once said, "Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets." By my count, I've coached about 20 youth baseball teams, from T-ball to PONY league. At first I coached to spend more time with my kids. But now that I can't coach them anymore (their travel and high school teams use professional coaches), I do it for love of the game — and the fear that baseball is losing ground to lacrosse and soccer.
I love helping kids who are scared of the ball or don't know how to block a ball behind the plate. The goal is not to create all-stars, but to help kids feel good about themselves, understand some of the fine points of the game and make baseball a part of their lives for just a little bit longer.
The late Bart Giamatti, another great Italian-American in baseball, wrote that baseball allows us to "experience a happiness or absence of care so intense, so rare and so fleeting that we associate their experience with experience otherwise described as religious." Coaching is like teaching the catechism at times, and when I instruct my players on signals, how to read the indicator or the rules of the balk, I hope to inspire a reverence for the game and its mysteries.
But baseball is also built around disappointment and failure. As Giamatti put it, "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart."
Baseball is a game of balance always threatened by imbalance. That's what I think Yogi meant in some of his greatest aphorisms, the ones that seem like contradictions, like "Ninety percent of this game is mental, the other half is physical." Or, "It gets late early out there."
At the end of this summer, I was struggling with questions about baseball and life that I couldn't answer anymore.
I got the idea of tracking down Yogi Berra. I thought that he might know how to help. Some of what I wanted to ask him was particular: What do you say on the mound to a pitcher in trouble? How should a father coach his son?
But the bigger mysteries were haunting me: Why do players who make an error almost always get the next ball hit to them? And what does it mean to be the only player looking in the other direction and yet guarding home from those who seek it?
I wasn't looking for aphorisms. But I do think that Berra transmitted knowledge via those great contradictory puzzles. He looked out, from behind a mask and padding, while the rest of the field looked in, eyes between the bars.
I'll never get to have that conversation or write that piece. I feel the loss profoundly.
Yogi, I'm writing this as a way of going to your funeral. I hope when the day comes you'll come to mine.
- Brian T. Edwards is professor of English and American studies at Northwestern University.