Grampa Yogi's pal was no ordinary Joe

May 17th, 2016

PHOENIX -- I heard my Grampa Yogi say a thousand times, I never knew a time when I didn't know Joe. And I heard Joe Garagiola say a hundred times, I never knew a time when I didn't know Yogi. And it was the same with the kids and grandkids. Grampa and Joe were so intertwined in each other's lives that the younger generations of Garagiolas and Berras naturally developed strong relationships, too.

Which is why I was thrilled and honored to be part of the Arizona D-backs' tribute to Joe prior to their game against the Yankees Monday night at Chase Field. Joe was my Grampa's best friend for nine decades and the D-backs' color analyst for 15 of his 57-year, Hall of Fame-broadcasting career. Joe's stunning wife, Audrie, who was a great friend to my Grammy Carmen, and the three Garagiola children -- Joe Jr., senior vice-president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball and former D-backs GM, Steve Garagiola, and Gina Bridgeman -- were all in attendance.

The Garagiola children accompanied three children from St. Peter Indian Mission School -- which Joe devoted years of his life to helping -- onto the field. All three school children threw out ceremonial first pitches. Naturally, they asked me to catch one, alongside MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre and former D-backs manager and broadcaster Bob Brenly. My pitch was over my head, and yes, I dropped it. Torre dropped his, too, and I know Grampa and Joe are upstairs, having a good chuckle at our expense.

Prior to the pitches, during a program officiated by D-backs radio play-by-play announcer Greg Schulte, Torre, D-backs president Derrick Hall, owner Ken Kendrick and Joe Jr. all shared memories of Garagiola, who was a big league catcher, World Series champ, master humorist, brilliant storyteller, and most of all, a wonderful human being and humanitarian.

Joe was a longtime president of the Baseball Assistance Team, which provides confidential financial assistance to former ballplayers, and campaigned tirelessly against the use of smokeless tobacco.

"Joe was just a special individual," Torre said. "He did so much for charities because he cared about people. Yogi and Joe, they were both catchers, they both played in the big leagues, they both played in the World Series, but the thing they did better than anything else is they would entertain and educate. You didn't know you were getting taught a lesson until all of a sudden it came to your mind later on, about the subject matter they happened to be talking about. When you were in his company, you learned something, and I feel, became a better person."

Joe Jr., who was Arizona's GM when the D-backs beat the Yankees in seven games in the 2001 World Series, talked of his father's love for the D-backs and the pride in his efforts to bring professional baseball to Phoenix. He spoke of how much his parents enjoyed coming to games, whether sitting behind home plate -- where he could offer "constructive suggestions" to the umpires and the catcher -- or in their season-ticket seats in section 213.

"It's so appropriate that we're here in this building," Garagiola, Jr. said. "In 70-plus years of baseball, he always told me the biggest thrill he ever had was right here, the night we won the World Series."

Vin Scully, Tommy Lasorda, Bob Costas, Tim McCarver, Miguel Montero and Tony Kubek also talked about Garagiola via a pre-recorded video.

The last time I visited Joe and his wife Audrie, during Spring Training of 2015, we had dinner at a restaurant in Scottsdale. Joe regaled me with stories of growing up on The Hill in St. Louis, he at No. 5446 and Grampa at No. 5447, when "Lawdie" was still years away from becoming "Yogi," and their sandlot team, the Stags, prided itself on beating the team from Edwards Restaurant, which had the audacity to have proper uniforms.

At the Garagiola's apartment later on, Joe took me into his study -- D-backs game on in the living room, with the sound way up so we could hear it in the other room -- and showed me sleeve after sleeve of photos of him and Grampa with other famous ballplayers, presidents and other politicians, actors, singers and fellas from The Hill. Occasionally, I would get my mail at home and find a similar sleeve of photos in an envelope, with a handwritten note from Joe. Something like, "Notice that everyone in the picture is laughing, if Yogi is in it."

Grampa and Joe's relationship is famous. They were the best men in each other's weddings and the best men in each other's lives, until my grandfather passed away on Sept. 22. Joe had called Grampa just a few days earlier, and I was privileged, as I was on many occasions, to be in the room for the conversation. Grampa had been snoozing all afternoon, but when he got on the phone with Joe, he came alive. When they talked, their voices crackled with the joyfulness of youth and the better part of a century of love, and it made you feel like all was right with the world. Joe passed away six months and a day after my Grampa, and no doubt, when Joe arrived, Grampa tapped his watch and said, "Hey, you're late."

I am certain they watched tonight's ceremony together, from the great ballpark in the sky, where it is always a summer Saturday afternoon, the bloopers all drop in for hits and they are always young.