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The one thing Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry have most in common and is obvious to everyone is that they are so unaffected by fame that you have to wonder if they even know that they were great players.
Morning in Florida usually put Yogi Berra in the best of moods, but Ron Guidry could see right away that his old friend was cranky, not his usual sprightly self.
Normally Berra would be waiting for Guidry in front of his hotel, smiling and waving at the many well-wishers and fans until his ride to the park pulled up to the curb. But not this day. Not this time. As Guidry approached, Berra was pacing, and Guidry could hear him through the open passenger side window mumbling under his breath: “Goddamn, son of a . . .”
Guidry checked his watch to see if he was late—which was one of the few things that always made Berra grumpy—but, no, he was actually a few minutes early. He leaned across the seat and pushed open the door.
As Berra climbed into the truck, Guidry said, “Yogi, what’s the problem?”
“Ah, I just found that I got to fly to LA Friday morning,” Berra said.
“LA?” Guidry said. “What the hell for?”
Guidry pulled away from the hotel, out into traffic, on the way to the Yankees’ spring training complex.
Berra complained, “I got to make an affliction commercial.”
Guidry looked at him with bemusement, thinking, Is he doing something with some kind of hospital?
“You know,” Berra said, “with that goddamn duck.”
And then it struck Guidry what Berra was talking about.
“You mean the Aflac commercial?” he said.
“Yeah,” Berra growled, “that damn duck.”
Guidry burst out laughing, couldn’t stop, to the point where he had to pull over to the side of the road. He sat there for a minute, practically doubled over, reddened face against the wheel.
And then, out of the corner of his eye, he looked over at Berra, who was laughing at himself, suddenly in on his own joke.
Guidry shook his head and thought, Anytime you can share a laugh like this with this man, it’s a great moment.
on Guidry steered his white Ford F-150 pickup with the NEW YORK YANKEES plates to the curb of the Continental Airlines arrivals area at Tampa International Airport. He pushed open the driver’s side door, stood up, and looked around for the airport traffic attendant. He hoped it would be the same sympathetic fellow he had encountered the previous year.
“Can I help you?” the guy had said when he’d noticed Guidry looking around uneasily.
“Yeah, I’m waiting for a highly valued package,” Guidry had replied. “Are you a baseball fan?”
The attendant had said no, not really. But when Guidry had told him who he had come to pick up—“I’m waiting for a little dude by the name of Berra”—he had gotten the thoroughly predictable response.
The attendant’s eyes had widened. Of course he had heard of Berra. “Yogi’s coming?” he had said. “Why don’t you go inside and wait for him? I’ll watch your truck.”
Unfortunately, a year had passed, and now all Guidry saw was a uniformed female employee who eyed him suspiciously as he edged a few steps from the truck in the direction of the terminal. Guidry decided not to risk it, because the only thing worse than not being where Berra expected him to be would be having the truck towed.
So Guidry stood like a sentry in his white, short-sleeved, button-down shirt, which hung just below the belt line of his dark slacks. At age sixty, he was starting to turn gray, his combed-back hair barely clinging to its natural dark glint. Otherwise, the man celebrated by Yankees fans as “Louisiana Lightning” remained trim and tanned enough to be mistaken at a glance for a player in his prime.
It was late on the afternoon of February 22, 2011. Being in Tampa at this time of year was a ritual of late winter for Guidry, a foreshadowing of the calendar spring. After his retirement from the Yankees in 1989, he had returned every year as a special camp instructor, with the exception of the two years he had served as the team’s pitching coach, 2006 and 2007, and the strike year, 1995, when baseball had tried to ram replacement players down the public’s throat. There was no way he was showing up for that.
He never flew to Tampa, preferring instead to load his truck for the eleven-hour drive from his handsome gated home on about seventy rustic acres outside Lafayette, Louisiana, a straight shot on Interstate 10 across Mississippi, Alabama, and on into northern Florida’s western flank. From there, Guidry would head south on Interstate 75, the final leg into the Yankees’ training base, directly across Dale Mabry Highway from Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
By this breezy Tuesday afternoon, he had already been in camp for about a week, having timed his arrival, as always, to pitchers and catchers. It never took long—a workout or two—for Guidry to get his head back in the game. But his heart beat to a different rhythm, to a conviction that no spring training could really begin until the most famous catcher of all had arrived.
That would be Lawrence Peter Berra, the American icon with the most endearing nickname known to man, bestowed on him by a childhood friend because of the yoga-like position he assumed while waiting for his turn to bat during neighborhood sandlot games on benchless St. Louis ball fields. Guidry was at the airport to pick up the eighty-five-year-old “package,” his dear friend—“my best friend,” he would say, as a matter of fact—coming for his annual stay of several weeks.
“It’s like I’m the valet,” Guidry said. “Actually, I am the valet.”
And when Berra hit town, there could be no excuse for failing to be there on time to meet him. Everyone who knew the old man understood the one essential requirement to maintaining a relationship with him: he did not accept lateness, most of all in himself. Guidry knew it as well as anyone in Berra’s immediate family: “Yogi is never late.”
So there was little chance, Guidry reasoned, that flight 518 from the notoriously congested Newark Liberty International Airport would dare fail to touch down at its appointed time. Not with Berra—a man who inspired people earthbound and airborne alike to please him—on board.
The punctual side of Yogi Berra was never plainer—and more painful—to those closest to him than the previous summer, after he took a fateful step just outside the front door of his home in Montclair, New Jersey, on a Friday afternoon, July 16, 2010.
It was an emotional time for Berra, reeling from the deaths of the most famous of all Yankees voices, the longtime public-address announcer Bob Sheppard on July 11 and “the Boss” himself, George Steinbrenner, two days later. It was also the day before Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium—the Yankees being the team that originated the concept and the last to continue it, primarily because they continued to churn out players to celebrate, decade after decade. Not that anyone had planned it this way, but the timing of the deaths was another clear illustration that no organization in sports did pomp and pathos quite like the Yankees.
Given the magnitude of the occasion, Berra decided it might be a good idea to tidy up his appearance. He normally had his hair cut at a local barbershop. But out of respect for Old-Timers’ Day and the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, New York, eight days later, he made an appointment at the Classic Look, his wife Carmen’s salon on Bloomfield Avenue, just across the town border in Verona. In anticipation of having to sign a fair number of autographs, Yogi Berra, metrosexual, whose thick, gnarly fingers had borne the brunt of nineteen years behind the plate, also opted for a manicure.
Checking his watch, anxious to get into his car for the short drive, he forgot about the cracked cement on the front step. He caught his foot and went down fast, face first. Soon blood was everywhere, in a quickly widening pool on the ground, all over his face and clothes.
Having celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday two months earlier, on May 12, he was considered in excellent health for a man his age, but he had been taking the blood thinner Coumadin since being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in his seventies.
So here is what Berra, a man of his word and of unalterable routine, chose to do next: he slowly and achingly got up, staggered back inside the house to change his shirt and locate a towel in a largely futile attempt to stanch the bleeding from his nose—which had taken the worst of the fall—and drove himself to the salon with one hand on the wheel.
There Denise Duke, the stylist, was already wondering what the heck was going on. Berra was late, and that had never happened before when he’d had an appointment with her. He was, in fact, usually a half-hour early. But when he arrived, bleeding profusely and looking as white as a ghost, she became nearly hysterical.
An attractive blond in her midforties, Duke had known the Berras for some time, and as a loyal Yankees fan, she loved doting on Yogi, whom she liked to call “my boyfriend,” especially when Carmen was around. But in all seriousness, she marveled at how unassuming Berra was for a major celebrity and how well he handled the salon patrons, who could never resist getting into his space and telling him what big fans they were as a prelude to asking for an autograph. He almost never refused.
Once, Duke introduced her nephew—a gangly high school baseball player who happened to be a catcher—to her famous friend. Berra signed the boy’s mitt and several weeks later inquired as to how he was doing. Not so well, she said; he had torn up a knee and was going to need it rebuilt.
“He’s broken already?” Berra asked.
What did he mean by “broken”? Then she realized this was just Berra-speak—“nothing fancy, plain English,” and part of why so many people related to him so well.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t relating to her when she begged him to forget about the manicure and get to the hospital immediately. “I’m fine; it’ll stop,” he said of the bleeding. That didn’t seem likely to Duke, who was aware that Berra was on Coumadin—as her father had been—and knew how things could quickly get out of control.
Berra was also breathing heavily and appeared to be trembling. She feared he might be in serious trouble, so she summoned a young police officer who just happened to be standing outside the shop in the small strip mall. He was of no help: Berra charmed the starstruck officer into agreeing with him that he was OK.
While her colleagues tended furiously to Berra’s facial cuts, Duke rushed through the manicure and haircut and told him she would drive him home. No, he said, he’d drive himself home, and besides, she couldn’t possibly drive his car.
“What are you saying, that I can’t drive a Jaguar?” she said.
That’s right, he insisted; only he could drive the Jaguar. But he offered her a compromise: she could ride with him, if that would make her happy.
Anxious to get him home however she could, where hopefully Carmen could talk some sense into him, Duke agreed to the terms. She asked her shampoo girl to follow them so that she would have a ride back to the shop, but she regretted this arrangement as soon as Berra pulled onto Bloomfield Avenue, a crowded roadway, and began drifting from one lane to the other.
“Yogi, be careful,” she said.
“It’s OK,” he said, assuring her that other cars always had a habit of avoiding his.
How, exactly, was that? she asked skeptically. He shrugged. That apparently was just how it was.
When they reached Berra’s quiet street, Duke asked if Carmen was at home. He said he didn’t know. Then the bleeding octogenarian with a crimson paper towel stuck to his nose turned to her and snapped, “I hope she isn’t, because if she sees me bringing you home with me, you’ll be bleeding worse than me.”
Under the circumstances, Duke didn’t know whether to crack up or cry. But when she saw the bloodstains on the front walk, she began to believe that this most unusual man must indeed have an angel guiding him.
It was an absolute miracle, she thought, that he had even made it to the shop. And come to think of it, his determination to keep his appointment was probably a blessing. Lord knows what would have happened had he gone back inside the house and stayed there.
Now she argued with Berra about what to do next. He wanted to take a shower. She implored him to call Carmen, who was not home, and to get to the hospital. Remembering she had clients waiting for her at the salon, Duke finally decided to leave. On the ride back to the shop, she came up with a number for Larry Berra, the oldest of Yogi’s three sons, and told him to contact Carmen immediately and get someone to the house.
Larry reached Carmen on her cell phone, in her car, which at the moment was plugged into a pump at the gas station. “Well,” she said, “I can’t pull out just yet.”
When she finally got home, she, too, was shocked and frightened by the sight of the blood outside and even more so when she saw her husband—a well-groomed sight—sitting in his favorite blue leather chair in the den, holding a compress to his face, watching TV.
“We’re going to the hospital,” she said.
“I’m going to Old-Timers’ Day,” he said.
Within a couple of hours, Carmen Berra, no slouch in the face of her husband’s legendary stubbornness, finally coaxed him to go to a nearby emergency room. Doctors attended to the cuts and, strangely, sent him home, where blood continued to ooze. The following morning, Carmen convinced him to return, and this time—noticing that Berra was walking stiffly and fearing he had suffered a fracture—the doctors decided to admit him.
Sadly, he was forced to watch Old-Timers’ Day on television, fielding get-well calls from a lineup of heavy hitters: Joe Girardi, the manager and former Yankees catcher; Derek Jeter, the beloved captain; Nick Swisher, the congenitally cheerful right fielder. On it went, the lines burning up from the South Bronx, where the collection of former heroes trotted out from the dugout for the first time in eleven years without the greatest of all living Yankees.
Berra wound up stuck in the hospital for almost two excruciating weeks, hating every minute of it. Except for the day Ron Guidry came to visit.
What Guidry initially saw when he knocked on the door and walked inside—Carmen sitting on the edge of the bed, with an expressionless Yogi slumped in a chair, his chin sinking into his chest—was sobering.
“Hey, buddy, how you doing?” Guidry said.
“Gator!” Berra replied, sitting up straighter, calling Guidry by the nickname that always made perfect sense to Yogi, who believed that his friend lived “in the swamps” along with the real gators. His eyes crinkled, and his craggy face broke into an illuminating smile.
Guidry kissed him on the top of his head, and they proceeded to talk for a while about Old-Timers’ Day and the coming Hall of Fame weekend, which Guidry was still planning to attend, though less happily now that Berra wasn’t going.
“So, Yogi, really, how’re you feeling?” Guidry asked.
“All right,” he said. “But I can’t have no vodka.”
More than most, Guidry understood the calamity of the situation. He knew how much Berra relished the few daily ounces—three was the current allowance—that his doctors permitted him to have.
“Not good at all, dude,” Guidry said.
Soon a physician arrived to say that the battery of tests they had run on Berra had checked out well. There were just a few minor concerns—residual issues from the fall—that would require him to remain in the hospital for a few more days of therapy and observation.
“Any questions?” the doctor asked.
Guidry decided yes, matter of fact, he did have one.
“And you are?” the doctor asked.
“That’s Gator,” Berra said, making the informal introduction.
“What about the vodka?” Guidry asked.
“Are you asking if Mr. Berra can have vodka?” she said.
The doctor thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Sure, I don’t see why not.” When she left the room, Guidry pulled a flask from his pocket. Inside were a few ounces of Ketel One, the Dutch brand Berra insisted on.
“That’s for you, buddy,” Guidry said.
Berra and Guidry passed the next hour doing what they usually did in each other’s company—talking baseball and teasing each other—the storied Yankees pitcher and iconic catcher drawing on an endless reservoir of camaraderie. When it was time for Guidry to go, he leaned close to Berra and said, “See you again in spring training, OK, Yog?”
Berra nodded. Of course he would.
“You’ll pick me up at the airport?” he said.
After all these years, did he really have to ask? The answer, Guidry knew, was yes—Berra had to ask, over and over, until Guidry was ready to scream.
In the weeks and months ahead, as Berra plotted his Florida journey, his rite of baseball renewal, he would badger Guidry by phone to quiz him on a multitude of arrangements. Carmen, meanwhile, began to have doubts about whether her husband was in any condition to make the trip, to be away from home and from her for several weeks on end.
As is often the case with the elderly, the fall had a permanent effect on the man she had been devoted to for six-plus decades, having married him in 1949. The facial cuts had healed, and he was walking again without pain. But he moved more slowly, spoke more softly, and no longer drove or tested the theory that the Jaguar had a protective bubble around it when he was at the wheel.
As spring training drew closer, Carmen picked up the telephone one day, dialed Guidry’s number, and found herself on the line with his wife, Bonnie. “Maybe you should tell Ronnie not to be encouraging Yogi to go to Florida,” Carmen said, blunt as ever.
Bonnie Guidry didn’t quite know how to respond. She and Ron loved the Berras more than anyone they’d known around the Yankees. She considered Carmen a special friend, too. She had gone out in the city with Carmen several times, once taking in a show with Carmen and Yogi’s adult granddaughter Lindsay.
Bonnie understood why Carmen was apprehensive. Really, she did. But she also knew how much Yogi loved spring training and how crushing it would be for him not to go, especially this of all years, given the franchise’s losses of the previous summer. With Steinbrenner gone, he’d want to be there to help with the healing.
“Carmen,” she said, “you know that something could happen to Yogi anywhere. But if anything were to happen in spring training, at least you know he would be doing something he absolutely loves. And you know that Ron will take care of him.”
That Carmen did know. That much she could count on.
Waiting by his truck, smoothing his mustache, Guidry wondered what the next few weeks were going to be like. No doubt, he figured, this spring training would be much harder than any previous one. Berra was going to need more looking after than usual. Ron had spoken to Carmen after the decision had been made that Yogi would come—which, truth be told, Guidry had never doubted.
“You see, his whole world has always revolved around the game, outside of his family,” Guidry said. “Baseball has always been his life. It’s what the game means to him more than what he means to the game from other people’s eyes. But he doesn’t look at it that way. He just looks at the damn game, ’cause this is what he knows more about than anything else. And I’ve always been afraid if you took that away from him, how that would affect him. Because when you take away something from somebody at that age that he loves so much, they may just quit, and I don’t want that to happen. Nobody wants that to happen.”
Guidry sighed at the mere thought of spring training without Berra—the Yankees without Berra—before pushing it away.
“So I spoke to Carmen about that,” he said. “I love her, too, but I wasn’t afraid to say, ‘You have to let him come.’ She didn’t get mad, not at all. I think she just knew this is how it’s got to be.”
Guidry was also a realist; he knew that his friend had aged more in six months than he had over the past six years. The recovery from the fall had required a good deal of inactivity. “When you take a person of his age and you take away six months, it’s hard to recuperate and pick up where he left off,” he said.
So he waited anxiously for Berra, whose family had prearranged for assistance from the gate to the baggage carousel, where Guidry was supposed to be waiting, or at least had been in the past. He knew that with Berra, if you did something once in a particular way, it had to be done that way for all time.
From outside, peering through the windows, Guidry finally spotted Yogi, a little more slouched than he remembered, looking around for him, already a little flustered. Berra was wearing a blue blazer with an American flag pin on the lapel and a blue-and-white-checked sweater underneath. The coat he would not need in Tampa was draped over his left arm.
Soon Berra was ushered outside by the airline attendant, and his face brightened when he spotted the familiar white truck and Guidry waiting on the sidewalk. Guidry took the bags from the attendant—two moderate-size suitcases, one with the Yankees’ familiar interlocking “NY” logo.
“How come you didn’t come in?” Berra asked, before proceeding to recite the itinerary for the rest of the day—hotel check-in, shopping, supper, and so on.
Guidry rolled his eyes and complained aloud about what he had gotten himself into by serving as Berra’s personal valet.
“Get your ass in the truck,” he barked, and Berra giggled like a little boy on his way to his first ballgame. Guidry reached inside for the dark blue baseball cap with the inscription driving mr. yogi and placed it atop his neatly combed hair. With Guidry at the wheel and Berra in the passenger seat, they pulled into traffic and drove off on another long adventure together, just as they had for eleven glorious years.