“Mr. Berra,” his first Yankee manager Casey Stengel once said, “is a very strange fellow of very remarkable abilities.” He died Tuesday at age 90.
I don’t believe in heaven. Not the kind they try to sell you on TV, anyway. There is no life in the clouds, no harps to greet you, no 24-hour Angel food cake buffet garnished with a bacteria-free chocolate fountain. Saint Peter isn’t at check-in waiting to take your bag and Elvis won’t be noshing on a PBJ & banana with an empty seat in his booth brushed off for you.
But I’m OK with that.
I can’t speak for the man, and lord only knows no man spoke better than he, but I have a good idea Yogi Berra didn’t believe in that heaven either.
Instead, he believed in the one he saw right here on earth. It’s a perfect little heaven, really. There’s cool green grass, a finely cut diamond and a place called home where everyone greets you were you to arrive. There’s bats and balls and caps and baggy pants and chewin’ and spittin’ and pullin’ and swearin’. There’s signs for stealing and there’s paying the consequences should you get caught. There are only so many chances to take the lead and when you run out of those chances—you hang your head in contemplation.
But then, the next day—the most miraculous of miracles happens: You get to try again.
There’s a little bit of heaven in every second chance; nobody knew that better than Yogi.
We tend to think too much on the coaches we call winners. Their pants are always pressed, hair in place, shirts starched, teeth free of a stray piece of spinach. No belt loops missed. No x or o out of place. They’re usually men who portray themselves—or are portrayed—as living statues who eventually freeze and become bronze statues. Glowering over you as you enter the stadium of play. They’re meant to evoke some kind of ideal. Some kind of notion everyone, including them at some point, fell short of.
We’re raised to believe they’re it. The Only Way. The tenets of them: honesty, hard work, dedication, helping out your teammates, the greater goal is always bigger than the person—strident as it may be—works if not for the masses than for the chosen few to emulate.
But I always had a hard time with that. It wasn’t a problem with authority as much as it was, well, their personalities didn’t strike me as being all that welcoming. I shudder at the prospect of having to sit through a spittle-flecked cup of coffee with Vince Lombardi. Trying to parallel park in front of the restaurant with John Wooden riding shotgun would probably leave me a heaving mess as the sweaty steering wheel slipped and the back tires walloped the curb. I can only imagine how pissed Red Auerbach would be if he had to sit there gnawing on his cigar watching me trying to finish packing while the airport shuttle driver lays on the horn in the driveway.
Sorry guys, I know you moved mountains of men with willpower and a crooked grin, but I’ll take my morning flapjacks and orange juice with Yogi.
It’s not that Yogi wasn’t a winner. Quite the contrary: He leaves this world with one World Series ring for every finger. He caught Don Larson’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. He served in the Navy during World War II and was a gunner’s mate on the USS Bayfield during the D-Day invasion. Yogi held the AL records for catcher putouts (8,723) and chances accepted (9,520) upon retirement. He is one of four catchers to field 1.000 for a season and played 88 straight errorless games in 1958. He invented the finger outside the glove technique.
But Yogi didn’t always win: ln 1964, the year after he retired as a player, he skippered the Yankees to the World Series but lost in seven to the Cardinals and was fired. In 1973, he steered the Mets to last place by July. A reporter asked Berra if the season was through and Yogi replied famously: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” The Mets won the pennant that year but lost to the A’s in seven and Yogi was fired a season later. Yogi was named Yankee manager before the 1984 season, lasting one year before George Steinbrenner fired him after the 16th game of the 1985 season. The two didn’t break their silence for a decade and a half until George knocked on Yogi’s door and apologized. In return, Yogi showed up with his suitcase in Florida that spring to tutor a young catching prospect named Jorge Posada.
I don’t believe Yogi Berra is in heaven right now. Not that heaven at least. I don’t believe he’s looking down. He was never one to look down. But when I watch his Yankees take the field for an improbable playoff run this fall, I do believe I’ll Yogi will be there—crouching behind home plate, observing a lot by just watching—filling us with hope, leaving us with heartbreak and giving us a reason to believe in renewal.
Isn’t that, after all, what heaven’s all about?