Seeing his old pal Stump Merrill, the organization lifer who had never been invited to an old timers’ event, Yogi Berra needled, “What took you so long?”
“Yog, what can I say?” Merrill said. “It only took me thirty-six years.” Merrill was delighted to see how much Berra was amused by his self-deprecation. He could also admit that he wished he’d come sooner, considering the sobering sight of Berra – with whom he had shared all those walks along spring training outfield warning tracks – stuck in a wheelchair.
“It’s tough to watch, to be honest,” he said. “I mean, I love the man. He brought me to the big leagues and I’m indebted to him in so many ways. I’ve stayed close to him. All I can tell you is when the day comes that he isn’t here at all it’ll be a sad, sad day for a lot of people.”
Seized with emotion by the mere thought, Merrill coughed and pursed his lips.
“No question, he’s sensitive about people seeing him in the chair,” he continued, his voice softer now. “He’s a proud man. He told me, `Stump, I’m getting therapy. I’m getting better.’ It kills him to not be able to put the whole uniform on, but the one thing I knew was that he would be here today no matter how he had to come -- in a wheelchair, carried in or whatever – because this is all he knows. And I don’t mean it the way it necessarily sounds -- this is a man who loves the people in his life. But if we were in assisted living, we’d all be depressed and would need something like this to put us back in touch with who we are. Being here, surrounded by all these guys, this is who Yogi is and that’s one of the reasons why he’s such a great man.”
Watching the frivolity from the side, Guidry took measure of the greatness in all its late-in-life glory, taking a mental snapshot of the look on Berra’s face. “He’s in his element, he lives for this,” Guidry said. “And I guarantee you in a few minutes he’ll want to be wheeled all the way down to the other end of the goddamned stadium to go see the guys over there, too.”
He meant the contemporary players, especially his favorites, like Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher. Guidry knew Berra like the back of his pitching hand. When the old timers drifted in small groups out onto the field for batting practice and interviews, Berra had Flannino wheel him down the corridor and into the Yankees clubhouse. Swisher – again the only active player to have attended Berra’s golf tournament -- was first to rush over. Then it was Jeter followed by a host of others. As a bonus, Mariano Rivera – injured and out for the season – happened to be in the house. Ready with a greeting that was perfect for the occasion, Berra addressed the forty-two-year-old Rivera as “old timer.” Rivera smiled and kissed him on the top of his Yankees cap.
Finally it was time for the festivities, for the introduction of the old timers, for Debbie Tymon’s carefully planned program to begin.
“Making sure Yogi was comfortable was the most important thing but not the only thing,” she said. “I mean, with Mr. Steinbrenner it was different. He was the Boss, the only owner. Yogi was one of sixty-six old timers and even if he was the most famous, we didn’t want to single him out as the only one who couldn’t walk or run out of the dugout.”
Having already had Guidry drive Berra in from the outfield on his birthday, Tymon had another brilliant stroke of ceremonial choreography: Berra and the five old timers who were Hall of Fame members would get the golf cart treatment after the introduction of the others massed in the dugout. They would come in pairs: first Rickey Henderson riding with Jerry Coleman, the former Yankees’ second baseman who had made the Hall as a broadcaster; then Goose Gossage and Reggie Jackson; and finally Berra alongside Ford, the teammate he’d asked for, driven by Flannino.
Before taking the ride in from the outfield, Berra was helped on with his jersey and he asked if it was all right to not tuck it into his pants, to let it hang over his belt. Of course, he was told. Wear it out. Wear it any way you like. Ford, retired number sixteen, told him to stop being a pain in the ass. They laughed and then basked in the cheers of the crowd on the way to join the others. But the mood turned solemn during the annual scrolling of names from the Yankees’ family, lost since the previous summer.
Once Berra had joked – unwittingly, of course – that he hoped he would never see his name “up there.” But the years now seemed to have gone by in a blur. The most important losses – the boys of summer themselves – continued to mount. Bill “Moose” Skowron’s name flashed on the screen; the death of the former first baseman -- a treasured teammate and friend -- had really hurt.
With the introductions completed, the old timers began stretching in preparation for their casual two-inning affair that promised to be a sticky challenge on what had turned into a brutally hot afternoon. Several gathered round the cart to give Berra a handshake or hug. Guidry waited his turn before stepping up to say goodbye and that they would speak to each other soon.
It had been many years since Berra had participated in the exhibition of geezers but he would typically hang around the dugout, poking fun, inhaling the atmosphere. Not today, though. Fatigued by the excitement and the exertion, he was more than ready to leave. Flannino steered the cart around the track, through the outfield gate and within minutes Berra was back in the car, heading up the Deegan Expressway to the George Washington Bridge.