Tuesday, September 29, 2015

It ain't over

Masters of malaprop and malfeasance: From left, former Mariners' manager and Yankees®™
star Lou Piniella, former Dodgers©® manager Tommy Lasorda, Hall of Famer Yogi Berra,
Reds superstar and Hall of Fame®™ reject Pete Rose, and Yankees®™ and Mets manager Casey Stengel.
Cover for a book collection of baseball quotes and stories.
My wife says I should write about Yogi Berra, and so I shall, late as usual to the eulogy.

The Associated Press' initial story of Berra's death last week referred to the Hall of Fame®™ Yankees©™catcher as "Yogi Bear."

The error makes perfect sense to me; I will not pass judgment. Having lugged around a Yogi Bear doll through toddlerhood, I was shocked in childhood to discover an actual human named Yogi Berra.

The human had to have been named after the cartoon bear, I reasoned, because cartoons were more real to me at that stage in my life.

In reality, Berra's representatives sued animators Hanna-Barbera unsuccessfully to stop its use of "Yogi Bear" for the porkpie wearing, pick-a-nick-basket-stealing cartoon denizen of Jellystone National Park.

Sued for what, defamation?

Yogi Berra died a cartoon, for all the good and awful that word implies.

For people my age who remember Berra, he was the old baseball manager known mostly for mangling English. He's one of those public figures who became magnets for unfortunate but funny twists of phrases, including those they didn't actually say.

What Berra did actually say:
  • "You can observe a lot by watching."
  • "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
  • "I can't think and hit at the same time."
  • "I want to thank everybody for making this day necessary."
What Berra might have said, though probably not as we know it:
  • "Ninety percent of the game is half mental." (or "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.")
  • "It ain't over 'til it's over." (About his 1974 New York Mets rallying from fifth place to win the division). He might have said instead, "You're not out until you're out." 
What Berra probably didn't say, but seems so darn likely that it's tattooed into his mythos:
  • “It’s déjà vu all over again!” 
  • "Nobody goes there anymore (to a restaurant). It's too crowded."
  • "It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."
Berra appeared to have embraced this malapropping persona, which I and everyone else expected of this grandfatherly little guy with the big black beetly eyebrows behind giant glasses and a bulbous nose above a rubbery grin. He even authored a book subtitled, "I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said!"

Even the source of his nickname — Lawrence Peter Berra is his real name — is fuzzy, maybe or maybe not applied by a baseball teammate for the way he sat, like a yogi, waiting for his turn at bat.

But the gentle buffoonery masked the mastery of his baseball career. Wherever Berra was, championships were sure to follow. The New York Times reports he appeared in 21 World Series from 1946 to 1985 as a Yankees player and a Yankees and Mets coach and manager. Nobody has played in more World Series games, gotten more Series hits or whacked more Series doubles.

Newsreel footage made me think he was an unlikely baseball superstar, and his peers apparently thought likewise. His Yankees manager, Casey Stengel — master of accidental witticisms himself — said, “Mr. Berra is a very strange fellow of very remarkable abilities.”

He looks so tiny in the newsreels, so much smaller than the catchers I grew up watching, and still see today. His bat looked too big for him, but obviously appearances deceive: Berra hit .285 over 19 seasons, with 358 home runs, and was a 15-time All Star®™.

My image of him as a baseball player comes in black and white and gray, when he actually leaps like a little kid into the arms of pitcher Don Larsen after Larsen pitches a perfect Game 5 in the 1956 World Series.

God bless Yogi Berra. He's why I love baseball: Funny names, rich lore, humans playing a game.

I don't do numbers. Though I can tell by a batting average where a hitter stands in the pantheon of the day or of history, I still couldn't tell you with confidence what an earned run is. I am vaguely aware that  a low earned-run average tends to portend a good pitcher. All these other new stats? OPS? WHIP? I'm lost.

Give me a good story, any time. Give me Willie Mays turning a double into a single so the pitcher would be forced to give a good pitch or two to Willie McCovey, hitting next in the batting order. Give me Roberto Clemente, tortured soul on the field, gigantic bleeding heart and soul off it. Give me Coco Crisp, Rusty Staub, "Three Fingers" Brown, Shooty Babitt, Preacher Roe, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Joe Garagiola and Buster Posey, just because.

The San Francisco Giants this week are trying hard not to break my heart. Barring a miracle, they will. They're five games out of first with five games left in the regular season, fielding a starting lineup half of whom were in the minor leagues a month ago. The Giants have to win all five, and the first-place Dodgers, whom the Giants are playing right now, have to lose all five for the Giants to get a chance at winning the division.

It would make quite a story, the Giants flopping into the playoffs on kids and fumes. The odds are not in their favor. It ain't over, though.

Win or lose, the Giants always manage to make new rich memories of the people who played the game, not their statistics.

As Yogi said — or didn't — "The future ain't what it used to be."

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