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

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.

KID FROM LADNER HITS THE BIG TIME

UPDATE!! (or should i say: “This just in….”) James Paxton also won his second start, pitching 6 scoreless innings a week later in St. Louis against  the playoff-bound Cardinals! He also had to bat for the first time since he was 13. Read about the game and what happened during one of his at-bats  in this article from the Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.com/html/mariners/2021826943_mariners15xml.html

(and further, Paxton, who attended his grandfather’s funeral last weekend, is now 3-0…just threw 7 shutout innings Tuesday night….this is turning into a storybook saga)

There we were at the ballpark on a soft Saturday evening in Seattle – tickets ordered months ago – with no expectation of anything beyond the mundane from the likes of the anonymous Tampa Bay Rays and the woeful, local Mariners. Just to soak in the pleasures of idyllic Safeco Field, heckle the umps and stretch in the 7th inning would be good enough.

We should have known better. It’s baseball, after all. As the celebrated philosopher Yogi Berra put it so well: “There’s one word that describes baseball: you just never know.” We saw something memorable.

  • Seattle Mariners pitcher James Paxton of Richmond, B.C., had an impressive performance in his MLB debut in Saturday’s win over Tampa Bay. (file photo) (DAVID COYLE/UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY)

His first big league pitch was a strike. From there, Paxton was nearly flawless, coolly deposing of the Rays for six solid innings, giving up four hits, one earned run, and striking out three, with but a single walk. Poise personified. And for a change, the banjo hitters from Seattle actually scored some runs. The 24-year old ‘lad’ from Ladner, punctuating his inspiring ascent from the Jupiter Hammerheads to the Clinton LumberKings to the majors, earned the victory.

Adding to the occasion was a huge contingent of hometown fans, friends and family, who made the trip to Seattle for the big game. You couldn’t avoid them. The guy at the urinal next to me said he was Paxton’s “best buddy” back in Ladner. A bit later, I noticed two fans wearing Mariner jerseys with Paxton on the back. They turned out to be his uncle and the pitcher’s brother Tom (not the folksinger). Everyone was pumped.

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As he finished his on-field interviews at the end of the game, during which he talked poignantly about his grandfather, the hero of the day waved to the Ladner fans, who were still raising a ruckus out along the left field line. That produced an even louder roar. Wanting to savour every moment, the Ladner fans wouldn’t leave. They keep cheering, high-fiving each other and brandishing their Pax-Man signs, until ushers finally shooed them out of the darkening, otherwise empty park.

No matter how James Paxton’s career proceeds from here, he will always have that magical first start. It was a thrill to be there.

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/mariners/2013/09/07/james-paxton-looks-sharp-in-his-major-league-debut/

http://www.delta-optimist.com/sports/ladner-s-paxton-makes-mlb-debut-saturday-1.614245