I've seen Yogi Berra, I've talked to Yogi Berra, I've nearly tripped Yogi Berra. I still sort of can't believe he ever existed.
Yogi Berra, who died Tuesday night at the age of 90, is such an integral part of American culture, so ingrained with how we think about ourselves, that I've always had to remind myself he was a real person, who walked around, with kids and grandchildren and friends and grocery stores and mortgages and all of it. One of the many reasons to enjoy the work of Lindsay Berra, Yogi's granddaughter and a terrific sportswriter, was that she knew her grandfather not as an oracle or a whimsical character, but as a human being.
We needed the reminder. Yogi didn't just transcend baseball. He transcended celebrity. Yogi was so omnipresent and central to the past 65 years of American history that if he hadn't existed, we would have had to invent him.
My favorite Yogi Berra quote -- and there are so many, all helpfully put in list form for you the day after his death -- is not from Yogi, but about him. It's from Joe Garagiola, one of Yogi's closest friends, in his foreword to Yogi's autobiography. "Fans have labeled Yogi 'Mr. Malaprop,' but I don't think that's accurate," Garagiola wrote. "He doesn't use the wrong words. He just puts words together in ways nobody else would ever do." This is so exactly right that I can't believe it isn't leading every obit this morning. Yogi didn't say anything wrong. It's the rest of us who get it wrong.
"You can observe a lot by just watching." Simple words that, taken in passing, sound almost silly. Yeah, sure: Obviously to observe, you have to watch. But Yogi makes this statement profound by stripping them of everything but their actual meaning. We watch a lot, but we don't observe. Or we observe but don't watch. Or we don't do either. You can get so caught up in everything that you miss it all. Life is endlessly complicated. Yogi reminded us that it doesn't have to be.
"No one goes there nowadays, it's too crowded."
"Slump? I ain't in no slump… I just ain't hitting."
"It gets late early out here."
"If you ask me anything I don't know, I'm not going to answer."
These quotes are about life stripped to its essence, with all the artifice and distractions peeled away. Yogi always said he didn't try to come up with sayings. He said things that were true, and we called them quotes (and, yes, many of them may have not been so accurately transcribed, but it doesn't really matter whether he said a version of them or not -- they live on in his name; they are his).
Yogi lived life, and saw life, the way we all should. When we laughed at Yogi, we laughed at our own failings. We laughed because we weren't like him, but we wished we were. We fought life. He just went with it.
This was, not coincidentally, how Yogi played baseball as well. Pitchers constantly talked about how difficult it was to pitch to him, not because he was so inherently talented (though he of course was), but because he did everything so differently than everyone else did.
Here's Early Wynn, on Yogi: "People think Mickey Mantle is the toughest hitter in the league, but I can usually get him out if I don't make a mistake. The real toughest clutch hitter is Berra. As you change speeds and move around, Berra moves right with you."
Del Rice: "He hit it off the ground. And in the eighth, off the same pitch -- a low, inside fastball -- he hits inside third. Three hits and he didn't hit a good pitch all day. How the hell do you pitch a guy like that?"
Pitchers used the same rules -- set a guy up, throw one in the dirt, confuse him by changing speeds -- with Yogi that they did with everybody else. And they didn't work. Because Yogi simply wasn't like everybody else.
This became folklore, and turning Yogi into some sort of floating, almost Buddhist presence, this American myth, became the common way of dealing with him, rather than accepting that he was living right and the rest of us were living wrong. We had to make Yogi into an otherworldly presence rather than accept him as what he was: a regular person who just had it figured out better than the rest of us. He transcended baseball -- impressive, for a guy who won three MVPs, who won 10 World Series as a player -- because he transcended all of us. We made him into a distant, mythic figure, because how do you deal with someone like Yogi otherwise?
At the Yankees' Spring Training complex in Tampa, where I spent several consecutive Marches covering the Yankees for New York Magazine, former players are all invited to come into the clubhouse at any time. You'll be standing in there, waiting for Cody Ransom to get dressed or something, and then suddenly, Reggie Jackson is standing next to you. Or Joe Torre. Or Whitey Ford. It can be disorienting, because you start to get used to it: "Oh, there's another Yankees legend, just hanging out in this cramped, sweaty room in Tampa."
But when Yogi showed up -- and he always did -- everything stopped. Players stopped dressing. Coaches stopped their game prep. Reporters stopped their interviews. Yogi walked in, and suddenly nothing else mattered. He always seemed to be glowing, this crouched, smiling, unassuming man, just shuffling through, living life, as we all cleared out a path for him.
Or at least tried to. One year, I didn't notice when he walked in. (I was probably diddling around with my phone like a dope.) I took a random step backward … and darn near knocked Yogi over. I turned around, realized who I just almost tripped and turned white, aghast. Yogi looked at me, this whimpering, apologizing idiot, and just waved a paw at me and winked. He was just being Yogi, a nice man who saw the world the right way. To me, he appeared to be floating.
That was what it felt like to be in the room with Yogi Berra: It felt like the Pope was there. It was the only way to process him. We should all feel lucky, blessed, that he was ever here in the first place. We should still strive to be more like him, and less like ourselves. Hello, Pope.