Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Yankee Thoughts and a Book Review of 'Driving Mr. Berra'

  It’s been a bad year to be a Yankee fan. The team failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. This hasn’t happened in 20 years. I understand that this may not seem like a big deal to fans of teams that get to the playoffs once or twice in a decade if that often. But when your team spends more money on players than almost every other team getting into the watered down baseball playoffs by finishing with the fifth best record in a 15 team league should be a given. The Yankees payroll this year was 209 MILLION DOLLARS. This was second in baseball to the Dodgers 235 million dollar payroll and 34 million more than the third biggest spender, the Philadelphia Phillies. For their 209 MILLION DOLLAR payroll the Yankees had the 13th best record of baseball’s 30 major league teams.

  If you owned the steak house with the second highest expenses in town but were judged as only serving the 13th best steak what would you do? I would think very hard about getting new management for my steak house. Faced with a similar situation Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner extended the contract of General Manager Brian Cashman for another three years. Cashman has been the Yankee’s General Manager since 1998 and presided over the caretaking of the championship squads of 1996-2000. As that team broke up, Cashman spent millions of dollars on ‘hot’ free agents like Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Abreu, steroid user Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texieria and veteran pitchers like CC Sabathia, Mark Mussina, and Randy Johnson. In the last 14 years, this strategy has yielded exactly one World Series championship, two World Series losses, three AL Championship series losses, and five first round division losses to go along with the three playoff misses.

  Any General Manager with a fat checkbook can sign free agents but to use this strategy to win championships the free agents must supplement home grown players from the farm system and that’s where the Yankees have been lacking. In the last 15 years, the farm system has coughed up one all-star everyday player (Robinson Cano) and one all-star pitcher (reliever David Robertson). Cashman hasn’t shown he can build a farm system that can even produce pedestrian players and yet he is still the General Manager and Joe Girardi is still the manager and the team is in their third longest stretch since 1921 of not being in a World Series (much less winning one) and I see no end in sight. I’m not saying because the Yankees spend twice as much as teams like the Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, or Kansas City Royals they should win twice as many games but when they can’t win at least as many games as these low spenders there’s a problem somewhere and when Cashman’s recent performance is rewarded with a contract extension I have to think the problem starts at ownership.

  Last month I was at the ‘Books-A-Million’ store in Ames and picked up a copy of the 2012 book ‘Driving Mr. Yogi : Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift’ by Harvey Araton. The book advertised itself as a collection of stories about Berra and Guidry’s adventures as spring training instructors for the Yankees over the last decade and a half where one of Guidry’s assignments was to watch over the octogenarian Berra. It looked like some easy reading about a pair of Yankee legends. Ron Guidry was a starting pitcher on the Yankees championship teams of the 1970’s and had one of the great seasons of all time in 1978 when he went 25-3 with nine shutouts and an ERA of under 2. Becayse he was from Louisiana he had nicknames like ‘Gator’ and ‘Louisiana Lightning’ and was portrayed as a Cajun country boy. He was a consistent winner for around 10 years before arm troubles ended his career and had a brief stint as the Yankees pitching coach in the mid-2000’s. The Yankees of the 1970’s were nicknamed ‘The Bronx Zoo’ and the 1980’s version was just as crazy with Billy Martin coming and going as manager and getting into fights with players and strangers in bars. While many of the other players of that era wrote tell-all books and left the team on bad terms, Guidry left the team without any recriminations or hard feelings.

  Yogi Berra is one of the greatest players in baseball history. He won three MVP’s in the 1950s and was on 10 world champion Yankee teams from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. Berra was short and squat and was constantly made fun of by the press early in his career but when it became apparent what a great player the press shifted their focus and treated him as the ‘idiot savant’ of baseball. Anything he said that was slightly off kilter was picked up on and reported on. Yogi was once asked what time it was and he said “Do you mean now?” and when asked about the restaurant he worked at in the off season replied “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded”. These became called known as “Yogisms” and further endeared him to the public as the innocent purveyor of common sense sayings wrapped in contradictions.

  As much as he was portrayed as an idiot savant, Berra was no dummy. He was the Yankee manager in 1964 and took the team to the World Series but fired when the team lost to the Cardinals in 7 games. He then became a coach for the New York Mets, took over as manager after Gil Hodges died of a heart attack and took that team to the World Series in 1973, losing in 7 games to the Oakland A’s. After being fired by the Mets in 1975, Berra went back to the Yankees as a coach and in 1984 was given the manager’s job. The 1984 season was over before it started when the Detroit Tigers bolted to a 35-5 record (this was before the days of wild card teams) but the team finished strong and expectations were high for 1985 when future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson was acquired in a trade with the Oakland A’s.

  Owner George Steinbrenner said Berra would be the manager all year, but when the team started with a 6-10 record (including a three game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox) the promise was broken and Berra was fired. It wasn’t the firing that rankled Berra – he knew as well as anyone that all managers were fired – it was that Steinbrenner didn’t tell him in person or even on the phone but instead had one of his lackeys tell Berra the news. All the other Yankees that trashed Steinbrenner and the team on their departure eventually came back to be on the coaching staff or appear at Old Timers day or receive a plaque or award but not Berra. He vowed to never return to Yankee Stadium until Steinbrenner no longer owned the team. And he stuck to his principles until 1999 when Steinbrenner went to the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair to apologize in person. Yogi was already a legend to Yankee fans and being the one man that wouldn’t knuckle under to Steinbrenner only further cemented his legendary status.

  The book starts out with Guidry picking up Berra at the beginning of Spring Training in 2011 and then drifts into a story about how Yogi had to miss the previous year’s Old-Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium because he tripped on his front steps and how the fall caused him to spend time in the hospital and how the time spent recuperating from his fall kept him inactive and slowed him considerably once he was fully recovered. After that downer of a start, the book heads back to the genesis of Guidry and Berra’s friendship in the 1970’s with Berra telling Guidry how to get George Brett out by encouraging him to throw the first pitch up and in and then throw sliders away.

  The majority of the book alternates between Guidry and Berra’s spring training routines and baseball stories from their pasts. In spring training Berra insists on adhering to routines like eating at the same rotation of restaurants and arriving at the ballpark at the same time every day which Guidry goes along with and Guidry cooks an annual feast of Cajun frog legs. There are some spring training stories that show how even in his eighties Berra gives useful and welcomed advice to the current players while Guidry passes on his knowledge to the younger pitchers and how both men have a blast just hanging around in Florida talking baseball with the rest of the old timers for a few weeks every spring.

At the 9:20 mark of this video you can see the famous Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson confrontation

  There were a lot of older stories I remembered and some I hadn’t read about before. An entire chapter was devoted to Steinbrenner’s reconciliation with Berra in early 1999 and another to Yogi Berra day at Yankee Stadium in 1999 where David Cone pitched a perfect game. Guidry gave his account of the famous dugout confrontation between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson in 1977 with a different spin, talking about how former catchers Berra and Elston Howard knew to get between Martin and Jackson. The book was a great read but got more and more depressing as it continues. Berra and Guidry’s stunned reaction to the 2004 collapse against the Red Sox, the Yankees failure to win a playoff series, the firing of Joe Torre (and Guidry as the pitching coach), and the death of Steinbrenner are backdrops for Berra’s aging and increasing enfeeblement. Only the 2009 championship brings relief from the maudlin tone of the second half of the book. By the last few chapters Berra has aged to the point of infirmity and is living in an assisted living facility and asks Guidry for permission not to get into his uniform for 2011 spring training and eventually has so much trouble walking that when preparations for the annual Old-Timer’s day are made it is arranged for the Yankees that are Hall of Fame members to be driven by cart for their introductions to mask the fact that Berra is for the most part wheelchair bound. Thankfully the book ends before a new chapter detailing his further infirmities and the death of his wife Carmen in 2014.

  So what started out as a fun book ended up being depressing journey into old age. Berra and Guidry’s friendship is genuine enough and it is cool to read about the passing down of the Yankee traditions but I could have lived without reading how one of the greatest American success stories of the 20th century ages and becomes infirm to the point of debating to wear dark slacks in case his bladder gives out. It is a real life view and a fairly heartwarming story of a friendship but where Araton attempts to bring out a poignancy in Berra’s health problems he only brings me depression. A far better Yogi Berra book is one written by the man himself “Yogi: It Ain’t Over” which ends in 1989 and has a much more positive tone.