YOGI PLAYED BASEBALL, TOO….

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A few words on the late, great Lawrence Peter Berra, known to one and all, except Yankee manager Casey Stengel, as casey-yogiYogi. The Old Perfessor always referred to him as “my man” or “Mr. Berra”. It was his show of respect for the team’s catcher and long-time clean-up hitter. While others might mock and deride Berra’s squat stature, homely mug and lack of verbal sophistication, wise Casey knew just how key Berra was to the success of the Yankees in those long-ago years when they seemed to win the World Series every year. From behind the plate, he guided the team’s often far from brilliant pitching staff and was always a danger at the bat. A perennial MVP candidate during the 1950’s, Berra won the award three times. Only the dubious Barry Bonds has more.

So I am a little perturbed that so much written about Yogi since he died this month has concentrated on his malapropisms and humourous observations (“You observe a lot by watching”), some of which he may actually have said. People who wouldn’t know an intentional walk from a forced march lapped it up. Inevitable, I suppose, in this day of Google, internet lists, short attention spans and the vast reach of social media, but amid all the renewed merriment, often forgotten was how great a ballplayer Yogi Berra really was.

I haven’t forgotten. From my first moment of baseball consciousness, I hated Yogi’s team, the New York Yankees. How could anyone cheer for the Yanks, especially at World Series time, when they regularly took on the Brooklyn Dodgers? The beloved Bums had not only broken baseball’s colour line with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, they played in an intimate bandbox of a stadium, festooned by signs for local haberdashers and the like. They didn’t even represent a city. Brooklyn was a borough. Admirable underdogs, all the way.

The Yankees, on the other hand, held their home games in soulless, cavernous Yankee Stadium, where no one, not even Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth managed to hit a baseball clean out of the park, they had greedy, colourless owners, and were one of the last teams in the majors to field a black player in their line-up, eight years after Robinson’s historic season. As someone once said, rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors.

They also had Yogi. There was no Yankee batter I feared more than Yogi Berra. Whenever he came up, I got nervous. Sure, Mantle might hit a homer, but he might just as easily strike out. Berra, notorious for swinging at balls so far out of the strike zone they might have been in Poughkeepsie, almost never fanned – just 414 times in 19 seasons. About once every five games. That’s insane for a power hitter. Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter ever, struck out twice as often. But of course, what frightened me more was how often Berra delivered in the clutch. Mantle and Dimaggio, notwithstanding, it was Yogi who led the Yankees in RBI’s for seven straight years. In big games, he seemed nerveless. During the Yankee’s last three World Series against the Dodgers, Berra hit .429, .417 and .369. In 1956, the only Series I really remember, he knocked in 10 runs, while socking three round-trippers, including two in the do-or-die seventh game. Ugh., Berra was not some Bob Uecker-like figure of fun. He was one of the best catchers of all time.

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As much as I couldn’t stand what he did to my favourite teams, it was pretty impossible to dislike Yogi. Grudgingly, and privately, I loved the guy. He was so ordinary, down-to-earth and un-Yankeelike. Although he may have worn the team’s high-class pinstripes,  he was more like your friendly neighbourhood plumber. You wouldn’t catch Berra out partying at New York’s notorious Copacabana Club, or entertaining “baseball Mary’s”. He was married heart and soul to Carmen, a union that lasted 65 years. And when Yogi went to war at the age of 19, he was no bystander, posing for photo-ops. He was an active naval gunner, a decorated veteran of the Allies’ D-Day invasion, and a casualty, wounded during an assault on Marseille.

As for baseball, he hit a home run in his first major league game. His career total of 358 homers is the most by anyone less than 68 inches high. He also had the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, off the ill-starred Ralph Branca in 1947. Much as it hurts, I have to acknowledge, as well, his 10 World Series rings, part of a Yankee dynasty that won those championships in a ridiculously short span of 15 years. Summed up Hall-of-Famer Mel Ott: “He seemed to be doing everything wrong, yet everything came out right. He stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it.”

1960-Yogi-in-left-270-AStill, I’m glad to recount my most cherished fBerra moment. It came in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the 1960 Series against Pittsburgh, with the score tied. When Bill Mazeroski hit his famous walk-off home run to slay the mighty Yankees, it was Berra, out in left field, who was closest to the ball sailing over the high outfield wall. I can hear the announcer now: “Berra’s going back. He’s looking up….and its gone!” Sorry, Yogi.

As for all those Yogi-isms, I’m so old I can remember when there were only a few of them, lovingly recounted in the Baseball Digest, which I bought every month at the local drugstore. The fact they were in the Digest, before non-baseball fans twigged to how funny Yogi could be and began piling on, makes me think he really did say those things. “I’d like to thank everyone for making this night necessary,” he told fans during Yogi Berra night in St. Louis. “Bill Dickey is learning me his experiences.” The great comment that no one goes to a certain restaurant anymore, because it’s always crowded? If memory serves, Baseball Digest reported that one in the 1960’s, referencing it to an Italian eatery in Minneapolis. So it must be true. “It ain’t over till it’s over” was uttered by Yogi during his time as manager of the New York Mets. And of course, he was right. The Mets came from nowhere to win their division.

But my favourite Yogi-ism referred to the lengthening shadows that would gradually creep over the field at Yankee Stadium, as the game went on. At some point, the pitcher’s mound would be in shadow, while the batter’s box was in sunlight, not an easy situation for a hitter. As Berra put it: “It gets late early out there.” Perfect.

Few players have given such pleasure to those who know baseball, and to those who don’t. Now, it really is over. Lawrence Peter Berra, RIP. And if you come to a fork in the road on the way to the great baseball diamond in the sky, take it.

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P.S. You never know when a Yogi-ism will pop out. At a jazz session I took in Saturday afternoon, keyboard cat Bob Murphy observed: “90 per cent of jazz is half improvisational.” And here is a small, perfect gem of a piece on Yogi Berra by the sweetest prince of all baseball writers, Roger Angell, still turning out gorgeous prose in his 90’s. newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/postscript-yogi-berra-1925-2015

THOUGHTS OF SPACEMAN BILL

Suddenly, baseball is fun again, at least if you’re a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. Although the Montreal Expos remain closest to my heart, I still root for the Jays. Those World Series years of 1992-93 were wonderful. (Devon White!) Of course, it’s been mighty lean pickings, since then. Now, finally, as they tussle with the hated Yankees for first place, Canada is back on the Jays’ bandwagon,

With this renewed whiff of baseball in the air, I offer a special Mickle treat for Canadian ball fans, especially those who remember the Expos from 1979, when they first drove for the pennant, and 1981, when they fell an inning short of the World Series, done in by Rick Monday’s cruel home run off Steve Rogers, a starting pitcher inextricably brought in to pitch the ninth by manager Jim Fanning.

Our guide is the one and only Spaceman, the irrepressible Bill Lee. I talked to him last spring. We focused on one particular game the team won against the Pirates late in 1979, thanks to a pinch-hit double by unknown John Tamargo. We also weighed in on Rick Monday’s mortal blow. According to the Spaceman, Fanning should have let him pitch, not Rogers.

Just back from Cuba, Lee was up in Courtenay, where he’d overseen a weekend baseball school for oldtimers, organized by his good friend, former IWA activist Sy Pederson. That’s pretty well how the 68-year old, one-of-a-kind, endearingly-off beat southpaw makes his living these days. He barnstorms. When he talks, there’s never a dull moment. So sit back and enjoy his his style of candid banter that remains unique in the world of baseball.

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(Bill Lee and Sy Pederson)

Bill: It’s been a rough winter (back east). I lost my voice, but I’m getting over it. It’s because I talk too much.

Me: We’ve had crazy warm weather. You’re a lucky man to be here.

Bill: Yeah, I am. It’s unbelievable how beautiful it is. And we played ball. We had a good time. I’m heading back to Sechelt tomorrow.

Me: Why don’t you stay around?

Bill: Well, I’ve gotta thing…I think it’s called work.

Me: Oh, that.

Bill: Yeah, it’s a weird thing people have to do every Monday through Friday, which I tend to do Friday through Sunday. I work weekends.

Me: You call baseball work?

Bill: Well, I do. Like today, I threw, and I taught a lot of these guys a lesson, about why they don’t quit their day jobs. They found out they couldn’t hit a 70-year old. Then the mayor here, the mayor of Comox, threw to me, and I hit some bullets. He had an Expos uniform on. I said: “You realize, I’ve never hit off an Expos pitcher before.”

Me: Now you know how Mike Schmidt felt.

Bill: Yeah, the first ball I hit went over the right fielder’s head up against the wall, next to his house. I said: “You better move farther back, or I’ll wear your house out.”

Me: Actually, you were a pretty good hitter, weren’t you?

Bill: Yep, and I’m a pretty good hitter right now, because the pitching around me is getting old.

Me: So, let’s talk about the 1979 Expos. There had been all those doubleheaders, but you went into Pittsburgh on top.

Bill: It was the rainiest season, and it cost us because of (Dan) Schatzeder’s performance in Atlanta, when we had a five-run lead in the fifth, and he couldn’t get the third out. That’s the game that killed (manager) Dick Williams. He remembers that game as the coup de grace, not the Pirate games.

Me: I’m thinking of a specific game. You went into Pittsburgh for that series in late September, half a game in front. It started with a twi-night double-header. The Expos got thumped in the first game and were losing 6-3 late in game two. It looked bad.

Bill: Oh, that’s the game (John) Tamargo got the big hit in the eighth inning. That was a great game. (Stan) Bahnsen had to pitch in both games, and (Ross) Grimsley came in in relief…

Me: Your memory is amazing.

Bill: I remember every time we battled back against Pittsburgh. But the game you should look up is that game where williamstwo584Schatzeder only went four and two-thirds. He complained his spikes were muddy, asked for a tongue depressor, couldn’t throw, walked the next guy, and the umpires got mad and called it a wash-out. We had to fly back to Atlanta to replay that game. If we get that out and win that game, then we’re tied with Pittsburgh, and don’t have to go back to Atlanta and play a doubleheader. Look it up. That game broke Dick Williams’ heart. I was sitting next to Dick. I was going to run out and grab the ball from Schatzeder and just say, “Lets go.” I wasn’t even going to warm up. “Give me the goddamned ball, and I’ll get the last out.” I was a great mudder. Schatzeder was a great athlete and a good hitter, but he was stupid that night.

Me: All those doubleheaders in a row were crazy.

Bill: The rain was really nasty. I remember I’d thrown the first three innings in a game, and there was a rain delay. I fell asleep under a table in the family area. Kids were dancing on top of me, jumping up and down. I was sleeping under the table, with my shoes sticking out, like the Wicked Witch of the West when the house fell on her. They wake me up, I go out there, do my running, 50,000 fans are cheering. I start doing long toss to (Gary) Carter. Every pitch, I get a cheer. I go out to the mound and they cheer me on. I pitch into the ninth inning. We win the ball game and they carry me off the field.

Me: Going back to that other game, who’d even heard of Tamargo?

Bill: I’ll tell you, Dick Williams was a genius. He had Tamargo. He had Jerry White, (Tom) Hutton. He always had three or four left-handed hitters. He had switch-hitters, too. Tamargo was a switch-hitter. White switch-hit. Hutton hit left-handed. Then he had (Dave) Cash who could hit right-handed. And he had Rodney Scott, also a switch-hitter. Then he had a complement of left-handed and right-handed relievers, so he could make moves other teams couldn’t. That’s what set Dick Williams apart.

Me: Yet you guys didn’t like him very much.

Bill: Oh, we hated him, but we respected him. Everybody liked (manager Jim) Fanning, but didn’t respect him. Well, a lot of us didn’t even like him….In ‘81, when (Rick) Monday hit the home run, it just broke my heart, because I had warmed up on my own and tapped my cap. Fanning went to the mound. He could have taken Rogers out. Instead he walked back with his hands in his pants, grabbing his nuts. He could have brought me into the game to face Rick Monday. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

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Me: I said at the time it was a mistake to bring Rogers in.

Bill: We all knew that. He didn’t call out to the bullpen to get a lefthander to warm up. I warmed up on my own. People don’t remember this, but Ron Cey hit the first pitch from Rogers 400 feet down the left field line. It was foul by three inches. They had already lit him up. We knew it. I knew it. I was in the bullpen. I saw him warm up. I saw him labour. He couldn’t get loose.

Me: Well, he wasn’t a relief pitcher.

Bill: It took him forever to warm up, and he wasn’t ready.

Me: Let’s go back to 1979.

Bill: We were a team of comebacks, a team of long-haired, hippy freaks that no one wanted. I came to spring training with long hair and a beard. I was arrested. Did you know that? I was brought by police to the park and they wouldn’t let me in. It wasn’t until (Warren) Cromartie said: “No, no, that’s Bill Lee, the new pitcher we signed.” I had a back pack, army fatigues, cut-off shorts, coming to spring training, with long hair and a beard. I was going through a rough time. I was looking the way I felt. And Dick Williams gave me a shot.

Me: You had a great year.

Bill: I had a tremendous year. For a guy who had a bad arm, I went out and I dealt. That’s what I call it. Dealing. Dick source_743_16527-849x1024Williams stuck with me. Here’s a great story you don’t know. The year before, I am 10 and 6. I lose four tough games and (Red Sox manager Don) Zimmer, The Gerbil, benches me for the rest of the season. I was 10 and 10. I go to Montreal, I’m 10 and 6. I lose four tough games. Williams comes to me and says, “Bill, I’m still committed to you. You’re going to be my starter for the second half of the season. Don’t get depressed.” This was at the all-star break. I went out and I won my last six games. That’s the difference between Don Zimmer and Dick Williams.

Me: It was amazing to put Tamargo, a .230 hitter, into that clutch situation.

Bill: He was a good pinch hitter. Williams knew talent. He knew guys with guts, guys who wanted to go to the plate, guys who didn’t want to go to the plate, guys who didn’t want the baseball. We had to win that game. We were battlin’. But all that energy and stuff didn’t help us the next two games. We just couldn’t beat the Pirates. The following year, Bahnsen gives up the home run to Schmidt, and we lose to the Phillies. And then Monday hits the home run, and we lose to the Dodgers.

Me: I’m laughing, but I’m really crying.

Bill: Well, you’re right. Those are the three things that stick in my craw.

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Me: All those great young players. 1979 was the first year the Expos really gelled.

Bill: They had attitude. Dick Williams brought me in specifically, because he knew that I was a winner. A competitor. We were a contender for three years, and I believe I was responsible for some of that.

Me: The team won 17 out of 18 games down the stretch in 1979. Close again in 1980, and one bad pitch away in 1981.

Bill: Rogers was a great starter, a great competitor. He just didn’t like Dick Williams, which was too bad, because I think that was instrumental in Fanning coming in. The wrong person. After Fanning arrived, we’d lost three in a row, and Cromartie calls a team meeting, just players.  He goes: “Anyone know where Dick Williams lives?” And I stand up, and I chew the whole team out. “You guys hated Dick Williams. You don’t know how good you had it. He was a pain in the ass, but at least he knew how to manage. Fanning can’t manage his way out of a paper bag. If you guys want to win this, you’ve got to do it yourself, and don’t put Fanning in a position to beat you.” Managers don’t win games, they lose games. Players win games. So I yelled at the team, and I told Cromartie to go sit down. I was the rebel guy who stood up and put everybody in their place.

Me: Did you like the guys on the team?

Bill: Oh yeah, I liked ‘em. As (John) Milner said, I was the only white guy allowed in the back of the bus.

Me: 1979 was so much fun. It was beyond expectations. They just got on a roll.

Bill: It was their first great year, and I feel very proud to be instrumental in that. My locker was over on the black side, between Rodney Scott, Andre Dawson, Cromartie and all the guys. All the rednecks, the white guys, were over there. We had an apartheid dressing room. Except for me. I insisted on taking my locker and sticking it right in the middle of the black guys.

Me: But didn’t the players get along, generally?

Bill: No, they didn’t. You had red necks. You had Andre, a nice guy, but he was so quiet he wouldn’t say shit if his mouth was full of it. Cromartie was the loudmouth. He was like a court jester. He would say stuff that nobody understood. Then I would get up and try and interpret what he said.

Me: What about Carter?

Bill: Carter was over there. Me, me, me, I. He was “the Kid”, just an excitable boy. He would sell a load of horseshit, if it fell off on the 401.

Me: And Tony Perez…

Bill: Great guy. Great clutch hitter. You had Rudy May, you had me. You had four lefthanders, four righthanders. Dick Williams knew how to manage. He finally had a team, and he had young guys. (Tim) Raines wasn’t on that team.

Me: Well, he came up at the end of the year, but he couldn’t hit. He was petrified.

Bill: You’re exactly right. He was over-awed. It happened to Mickey Mantle, too, when he first came up.

Me: How was Cuba, by the way?

Bill : I just got back. I was there when (Yoan) Moncada got signed by the Red Sox. I gave him my bats. I was there for the tryout. I’ve got four teams from Cuba in Halifax for the summer to play ball. I’ll be coaching up there. We want friendship first, competition second, between Cuba and Canada. Both great countries.

Me: And you tolerate Sy (Pederson)….

Bill: Sy and I are just a couple of union rabble-rousers. Workers of the world, unite! (Laughs heartily.)

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THE GOOD OLD BASEBALL GAME

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One of my favourites among the many things Yogi Berra never said is: “There’s one word that describes baseball: you never know.” Like so many Berra-isms (“It gets late early out there.”), it has a wisdom all its own. For it really is one of the great things about baseball: you just never know.

So many sports have a sameness to them, and I don’t mean that as a knock. I’m a huge hockey fan, but basically, the players go up and down the ice trying to score. It’s pretty basic. How many Kevin Bieksa-type stanchion goals are there in a season? Not so with baseball. It’s been played for more than 125 years, and you can still go the ballpark and see something that’s never happened before. Last year, at Safeco Field, I saw the left fielder throw out a runner at first (explanation available on request). On the scoreboard, it was listed as “grounded out to left field”. Surely, a first. And just a few days ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates turned, after all these years, baseball’s first ever, 4-5-4 triple play. (http://thebiglead.com/2015/05/10/the-pittsburgh-pirates-turned-the-first-4-5-4-triple-play-in-mlb-history-last-night/)

So it was last Friday night at warm and fuzzy Safeco Field in Seattle, where we journeyed to watch the hometown Mariners take on the visiting big bad Boston Bruin, er Red Sox. There was nothing as historic as the Pirates’ bizarre triple play, although the infield shift against veteran Boston slugger Big Papi (aka David Ortiz) did produce a pretty rare, 6-5-3 double play. But it was another example of how a game can lumber along, high on the snooze chart, and then, all of a sudden….well, you just never know.

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Big Papi (6’4”, 230 pounds) was a major reason we were there. One of these years will be his last in the big leagues, and maybe it’s this one. Baseball’s best ever designated hitter and an incomparable clutch hitter will be 40 in November, and the diabolical shift applied against him must take a lot of the fun out of the game. Both the shortstop and the second ortiz-red-soxbaseman crowd the infield gap between first and second, while the third baseman plays just to the right of second base, making it almost impossible for Ortiz to pull the ball through the infield for a hit. He was batting a mere .218 coming into the game.

But it’s hard to keep Big Papi’s face in a permanent frown. There he was yukking it up before the game with fellow Latino stars, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, who happen to play for the Mariners. Ortiz gave Cano a big bear hug before they headed to their rival dugouts. I love that stuff.

Once the game started, the Mariners made Boston starter Clay Buchholz look like pre-steroids Roger Clemens on the mound. No matter that Buchholz came into the game with a mere two wins and a bulging ERA of 5.73. He was more than enough for Seattle’s woeful banjo-hitters. Even the mighty Cruz, a one-person wrecking crew for the M’s this year, struck out all three times up against the baffling Buchholz, who was mixing pitches to perfection. His totals after eight innings: 3 hits, no walks, 11 strikeouts. Something to admire if it had been an ace like Roy Halladay or Madison Bumgarner on the mound, but against Clayton Daniel Buchholz from Nederland, Texas? Zzzzz.

In fact, he made only one bad pitch all night. Of course, baseball being baseball, some guy named Seth Smith hit it eight miles high into the centerfield bleachers in the bottom of the sixth inning to tie the game at a scintillating 1-1. That brief moment of excitement, however, failed to temper the accumulating groans, as Mighty Clay Buchholz struck out all three flailing Mariners in the seventh. As my constant companion observed of one hapless victim: “That guy couldn’t hit the nose on his face.”

With the Red Sox almost as quiet against ex-Blue Jay J.A. Happ, it was slumber-land, folks. You know it’s a snoozer when the Green Boat’s video victory in the moronic, between-innings Hydro Challenge produced the loudest cheer of the night.

Then came the last of the ninth. The scoreboard still registered a night of plate failure: seven hits for Boston, three for the hometown Mariners. Score 1-1. For some reason, the crowd woke up. All of a sudden, everyone was on their feet, cheering. With one down, Brad Miller beat out an infield grounder by the hair on his chinny chin chin.

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The slumping Cano was an easy out on a roller to first that sent Miller to second. Two out. But the crowd continued to roar. Maybe that unsettled Red Sox manager John Farrell. He pulled a rock. With first base open and Nelson Cruz, far and away Seattle’s best hitter, coming up, Farrell replaced leftie Tommy Layne with right-hander Junichi Tazawa to face the right-handed hitting Cruz. Sure, he had already fanned three times and was batting just .125 against Tazawa, but he was still the ever-dangerous Nelson Cruz, hitting .355 for the year. Why not leave Layne in the game, walk Cruz and pitch to left-hand hitting Kyle Seager and his mediocre .248 batting average? With two out, a man on second and the scored tied, a runner on first is meaningless.

Farrell ignored my advice from 30 rows up out in right field and decided to pitch to Cruz. The count went to 3-2. Surely now, Tazawa would put him on, or at least give him nothing decent to hit. Nope. With the crowd in a frenzy, the pitch came in across the heart of the plate. Cruz smacked it on a line to the wall in left-centre field. Miller scored easily. In a classic baseball finish, on a full count, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the Mariners had snatched the game. After 8.5 innings of somnambulism, the crowd cheered itself hoarse, and we had an early getaway back to Vancouver, feeling good. You just never know.

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P.S. Afterwards, Farrell admitted he’d been a goof. “Terrible decision on my part,” he said, of not walking Cruz. “I own that one.’’ As has been said more than once, baseball managers don’t win many games, but they sure lose a lot.