TORONTO – Not a good day in the standings, but certainly a much worse day for history. That’s the pretty easy summary of how things went down for the New York Yankees on Wednesday in Rogers Centre.
The clubhouse was somber before the 4-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays with the news of the passing of Yogi Berra at age 90 overnight. A souvenir lineup card was on the chair at each locker – superimposed over a photo of Berra in catching gear from the 1950s. Some players took pictures of the card on their phones to show friends and family. The Yankees tweeted one for the world to see.
Manager Joe Girardi took a hard breath when thinking about what Berra’s absence will mean. Yogi was a spring training regular until age began to heavily take its toll in 2012.
“It’s going to be really difficult,” Girardi said prior to the game. “Not seeing him in the office, not seeing him talking about the young players. He always seemed to pick one young player a year he was excited about it. He’d say, ‘I got my eye on this guy, I got my eye on this guy.’ And I’m going to miss that.”
The Yankees wore a black No. 8 on their sleeves to honor Berra and it will stay there the rest of the season. There were pregame moments of silence around baseball, including one here completed with a huge round applause as Berra’s photo and the years “1925-2015” were projected on the massive video board in center field.
One of Berra’s famous Yogi-isms we all know is “It ain’t over until it’s over.” Well with apologies to the legend as he watches from that great stadium in the sky, it’s pretty much over in the AL East.
Marcus Stroman continued his remarkable recovery from knee surgery by pitching seven brilliant innings, Kevin Pillar stroked an RBI single in the sixth and Russell Martin swatted a three-run homer in the seventh to send a crowd of 48,056 into delirium. Imagine that. In the first game after Berra’s death, a catcher pretty much puts the Yankees away.
The Blue Jays lead the division by 3½ games with 10 left. They went 13-6 against the Yankees, pretty much making them a lock for the playoffs for the first time since 1993. It leaves the Bombers now in wild-card-or-bust mode.
“You need help from the other teams. … It’s not mathematically impossible but it’s difficult,” a somber Girardi said afterward. “It’s the difference in the standings, what they’ve done to us. We’ve lost some tough ones and tonight is a tough loss.”
The biggest loss, of course, transcended the field. Girardi joked Berra did so much winning, he didn’t have enough fingers for all the World Series rings he had. After all, there were 10. Nobody has ever won more.
“But you would have never known it,” Girardi said. “When he came into your office or you were in Yogi’s presence, I always thought I was talking to my grandfather. I just felt comfortable. I almost felt like he was going to pull something out of his pocket like a piece of licorice and give it to you. It was always a joy to be around him.”
Yogi is far more than a Yankees legend. He’s an icon of American sport, a master of malaprop whose quotes are reproduced far and wide by people who may not even know who the originator was.
“When I was a catcher here, he would be there during drills and talk to us about certain things,” Girardi said. “I used to think, ‘I can’t believe I’m next to this guy. I can’t believe I’m in his presence, in the same dirt he caught in.’ I was always in awe of him but he never made you feel that you should be. That was why he was so special.”
Our sports heroes pass on with reasonable fanfare from time to time but this is a big one. How many of them are easily identifiable by just their first name? President Obama issued a statement of condolence and, in the ways of 2015, tweeted about Yogi.
Alex Rodriguez said before 2009 season, the one that opened with his spring steroid admissions and closed with his first World Series title, Yogi told him he saw a big season ahead for him. As A-Rod recounted, Berra offered some classic advice: “He said, ‘If there’s a fork in the road, take it.’ So I did.”
The forks took Berra so many places in his life. From The Hill in St. Louis, the Italian neighborhood where he grew up with Joe Garagiola. To service in Normandy. To the glorious days in the Bronx. And even to Queens, when he managed the Mets to an unlikely World Series in 1973.
There was the 14-year thaw between Berra and George Steinbrenner when The Boss fired him 16 games into the 1985 season after promising him he would get the whole year. It took until Yogi Berra Day in 1999 for the pair to famously make up. Yogi returned to catch a first pitch from Don Larsen and then handed the ball to, of all people, then-Yankees catcher Girardi.
And what happened when the game started? David Cone threw a perfect game with Yogi and Larsen in the house.
All of it, of course, is surrounded by those Yogi-isms. Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded. A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore. Ninety percent of the game is half-mental. It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.
Girardi said he loves pizza and thus had a personal favorite: “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
On the day the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, Berra was brought into the press room for his impressions of Steinbrenner’s new playpen. He sat at the front giving some plaudits to The Boss and to how the place looked a lot like the one it replaced. Then somebody asked about the clubhouse, which is absurdly New York big.
We got a bit of live Yogi-ism: “If you want to talk to a guy, you’ve got to walk a half-mile.” We howled.
Said former Yankees manager Joe Torre in a statement Wednesday night: “We’ve lost Yogi, but we will always have what he left for us: the memories of a lifetime filled with greatness, humility, integrity and a whole bunch of smiles.”