Yankees Magazine: Family ties

For many former players and managers, the bond with Yogi Berra was built in Spring Training

February 29th, 2016
Jeter developed a special bond with the Hall-of-Fame catcher.AP Photo

Imagine walking into a convenience store on the side of Interstate 75 in Florida to pick up a soft drink or a bag of chips, and standing in front of you is a Hall of Famer with three MVP Awards and 10 World Series rings.

And he's in full uniform.

For many years, that was a common occurrence with Yogi Berra, who became as much a staple of Yankees Spring Training as sunscreen and fungo bats before he passed away last September.

The pinstriped icon loved coming to Tampa for several weeks every spring, serving as a guest instructor and unofficial bench coach for both Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.

"He had so much to offer," Torre said. "Most guys in his position would say, 'You're going to Fort Myers? Okay, I'll see you tomorrow.' He came to every single place, and it was great. There was certainly an entertainment value for me because I'd have Yogi in the front seat and Zim [Don Zimmer] in the backseat.

"He didn't just show up and go home. He lived it with us. He absolutely looked forward to it every year."

Holding Court

Berra's annual trip to camp may have been one of his favorite times of the year, but for the Yankees' players and coaching staff, his presence was a gift. Not only was it an opportunity to spend time with a living legend, but for many of the men occupying the home clubhouse, it was also a chance to bond with -- and learn from -- one of the greatest players of all time.

"Yogi had a lot of friends in that clubhouse and a ton of admirers," Torre said. "They knew what his history was, but it was more about the kind of person he was. He made the person he was talking to feel so important. That, to me, was really a sign of what he was about. He wasn't impressed with who he was."

Berra might have been the only one that wasn't awestruck by his accomplishments. Virtually every player that met Berra for the first time was overwhelmed by his presence, though that feeling didn't last very long.

"At first, it was intimidating," John Flaherty said of his first encounter with Berra in the spring of 2003. "You have that feeling of, 'Holy smokes, I'm in the same clubhouse as Yogi Berra.' After that, it just became so comfortable because of the way he handled himself and the way he treated everybody.

"That intimidation and sense of awe lasted four or five days, then you'd get into the groove of daily work, and Yogi was just another instructor that was there to help out. It was almost like your grandfather was in the clubhouse with you."

If your grandfather was one of the best catchers in the history of baseball, that is.

"You felt like he was your friend and that you'd known him forever," said Tino Martinez. "You knew he was a 10-time world champion and a Hall of Famer, but he wasn't standoffish. He was so down-to-earth and so real."

Unlike many of the guest instructors who take a hands-on approach -- on any given day, you'll find Goose Gossage and Ron Guidry running pitchers fielding practice or Martinez discussing footwork with a first baseman -- Berra's main contributions were his many observations.

"He was always willing to help you out, whether it was hitting, defense, a game situation; he wasn't afraid to pull you aside and tell you something you could have done differently that might make you better," Martinez said. "He was awesome to have around."

"He would sit with me every game," Torre said. "He would pick something up, then go up to the players and tell them. He just had the personality that it was never offensive; he was just someone trying to help."

Berra's institutional knowledge of the game gave him another useful tool with which to teach younger players, albeit in a very indirect way.

"It wasn't like Yogi came over and told you anything; he was just there for you," Don Mattingly said. "You could ask him questions: 'Yogi, who was the best outfielder you ever saw?' 'Who was the best player you ever saw?' Over time, you'd hear things like, 'This guy didn't run hard; you have to run hard.' His lessons would get handed down almost by osmosis."

For more than a decade following his firing as manager in 1985, Berra was absent from the Yankees Universe. When he and George Steinbrenner cleared the air in January 1999, it opened the door for the Hall of Famer to return to camp to work with a new generation of players.

"This guy was a legend and an icon, so to have him back in our locker room at Spring Training, it was something we didn't take for granted," Martinez said.

The Tools of Ignorance

One of Berra's first missions when he arrived in Tampa in 1999 was to work with Jorge Posada, who was just beginning to blossom into one of the game's best catchers.

"He approached me the first day," Posada recalled. "He came to my locker and said, 'Hey, kid.' I said, 'Yes, sir?' He said, 'No sir; I'm Yogi.' He said he was there to help me out and that was one of the main reasons he was at camp. He made me feel like he was there for me. I was in awe. I felt like, 'I don't want to bother this guy.'"

Posada pointed to Berra's contagious attitude -- "he always had a smile and was always happy" -- as one of his finest qualities, helping keep the mood light during what might otherwise have been repetitive, monotonous days.

"He wanted to work, but wanted to have fun while he did it," Posada said. "That was the attitude he pushed on me. He would make fun of me for breaking in my gloves in the middle of Spring Training. I would break in at least three gloves every spring, and he'd tell me, 'I used to use a glove for four or five years.' I'd say, 'Yogi, they don't make them like they used to.'"

Berra worked to instill various habits in Posada, an infielder-turned-catcher who was still trying to perfect his craft. Whether it was framing pitches, handling balls in the dirt or calling the right pitch with a speedy runner at first base, Berra's tutelage was key to Posada's development behind the plate.

"Even though he couldn't do the exercises, he would tell you things that made a lot of sense," Posada said. "It seemed minimal, but there was something about his wisdom that made it easy to understand what he was trying to say. It was important for him to be there. He was a difference-maker for us, and he knew that."

Flaherty was another catcher who benefited from Berra's wisdom, recalling a lesson he learned during his first spring with him.

"When [former catching instructor] Gary Tuck was doing the drills, he would always turn the stage over to Yogi at the end and ask if he had anything to add," Flaherty said. "We tend to make things more complicated, mechanical and in-depth, while Yogi would keep it simple. He was a straightforward, simplistic guy -- and it worked."

Character in the Clubhouse

Berra's presence at camp was about more than baseball. He was a reminder of the greatness of the franchise, linking the new generation to the old guard.

"He didn't hold court and tell you about his career," Mattingly said. "He wasn't like a guy coming back to tell you how great he was; it was just Yogi being around. Being able to interact with him and all those guys, to have that tradition passed down, I felt fortunate."

There was also a sense of comic relief when Berra was around, though that's hardly a surprise given his history of memorable one-liners.

"One time I was trying to arrange a golf date and dinner with our wives, so I asked him about Thursday," Torre said. "He said, 'I can't. I'm doing a commercial.' I asked him who the commercial was for and he said Amtrak. Only it was Aflac. I kidded that Amtrak probably sent him a check, too."

When Martinez joined Berra in the coaches' clubhouse as a guest instructor, it gave the former first baseman a chance to spend more time with him. It was there that Martinez realized how meaningful Berra's time in camp was to him.

"He wasn't just there to show his face and sign autographs; he was there to help out," Martinez said. "He would get to know the guys and their families. He was very involved. I'd go home and tell my friends, 'I'm in the same locker room as Yogi.' People from the outside think that's the most amazing thing ever, but so did we."

Players bonded with Berra each spring, but the relationships he formed with Torre and Girardi were incomparable. Both men treasured their time with Berra, who could frequently be found sitting in the manager's office before they even arrived at the ballpark.

"I would get there about 6:45 in the morning in Spring Training and he would say, 'Where you been?'" Torre said. "I would say, 'I'm going to work out first and then we'll have breakfast,' and he would say, 'I already worked out.' He was a kick."

"The real enjoyable time was riding with him to games and then sitting next to him in the dugout during games," Girardi said.

Those trips came with their share of stories, of course. Girardi recalled the time in 2011 when an 85-year-old Berra fell in the clubhouse at the Phillies' ballpark in Clearwater and had to be taken to the hospital.

"He said, 'Make sure Carmen doesn't find out; I'm afraid she's going to make me come home,'" Girardi recalled. "Here's No. 8 in his uniform, and he's going to the hospital in a world where everyone tweets and takes pictures. I said, 'They're going to know you were there, Yogi.'"

Everybody that spent time with Berra in Spring Training seems to have a favorite story about him. For Torre, it always seems to come back to those road trips -- and the stops along the way.

"Going on the long trips like Port Charlotte or Fort Myers, we would have to stop and he would have to use the bathroom," Torre said. "Well, we traveled in uniform, so there was No. 8 in full regalia, getting out of the car with that beautiful body of his, meandering into the 7-11 to ask where the restroom is. You would see people in the store and in their car doing double takes. One of the last trips we made, he went into the ladies room and some woman was in there. He just apologized and excused himself.

"Every time you mention Yogi Berra, it brings a smile to somebody's face."