Yogi Berra, the Once and Future Yankee
Baseball lore is often about exaggeration, overvaluing a player's accomplishments or obscuring his true place in the game with hyperbole. That isn't a risk you run when talking about Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday evening at the age of 90.
Overstating Yogi's meaning to almost every generation of baseball fans is impossible. He was a Hall of Famer, a three-time MVP, a 10-time champion, an 18-time All-Star, a war hero, husband, father, grandfather, humanitarian, and wisecracking philosophe. He was, for the decades after his playing career ended, Grandpa Baseball.
For legions of Yankees fans, Yogi was a fixture, a reminder of an era of pinstriped glory to which the team clings through Old Timers' Days, retrospective DVDs, and retirement ceremonies.
Putting your finger on just why Yogi captivated all of us is hard, but I'd say it had something to do with his carefree, almost childlike demeanor. The Yogi-isms that became catchphrases imparted an unlikely wisdom in a sport that tends to overplay its reflections on life. Even as some of us took sports too seriously, there was Yogi, reminding us that baseball is just a game.
At least, that's probably how you see him if you're among the younger generations of fans. As NBC Sports' Craig Calcaterra points out in his excellent remembrance of Yogi, older fans might remember the guy who struggled to make it to the majors, the guy who battled the Nazis on D-Day, the guy who jumped on Don Larsen after his World Series perfect game, the guy who forgettably managed both the Yankees and the Mets, the guy who weathered a 15-year-rift with his storied franchise to eventually become the face of its long line of legends.
That's what Yogi is to us, to the Yankees, to baseball -- he's the common thread tying together every postwar era of pinstriped pride. There's a reason he was the central character in the Broadway play, "Bronx Bombers," in which, amid the clubhouse turmoil of the Munson-Jackson "Bronx Zoo" team, a fictitious Yogi dreams up a dinner featuring Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Howard, Mantle, Jeter. He is, as MLB.com's Mark Newman put it, "The Link."
Like those eras of Yankee greatness and the players who so defined them, Yogi, too, is now gone. Old Timers' Day won't be the same, but his presence will still be felt, every time a golf cart carrying Whitey Ford passes by or David Cone takes the field as highlights of his Yogi Berra Day perfect game play in the background. Yogi will continue to tie it all together, to bridge past and present, to serve as a universal symbol for baseball's attachment to its own history. And he'll be impossible to forget.
Rest in peace, Yogi. Carmen's waiting for you.
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