Yogi Berra was a fixture on the New York Yankees’ roster for 18 seasons. He is possibly the best catcher in the history of Major League Baseball, winning three Most Valuable Player Awards in his career. He has won more World Series Championships (10) than any other player in the game’s history. Berra managed both the Yankees (Twice!) and the New York Mets after he retired and is still idolized today by fans young and old. He is a veteran of World War II, serving his country on the beaches of Normandy by piloting a rocket launching boat on D-Day. He is a comic and a philosopher all at once. Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra was many things but above all he was a New York Yankee legend.
Berra’s early career was riddled with question marks. There were questions about his ability to catch and he often played other positions like left field while another player served as the backstop. But after the Yankees called in Yogi’s predecessor, Bill Dickey, to help him hone his skills behind the plate. Dickey’s tutelage proved to be exactly what Berra needed and from there his career took off. Over the course of his 19-year career, Yogi would post a lifetime batting average of .285, hit 358 home runs, win three MVP awards, play in 15 All-Star Games and win an incredible 10 World Series Championships during the Yankees’ unprecedented run from the late 40’s to early 60’s.
“It’s like deja-vu all over again”
“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical”
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded”
“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
“It ain’t over till it’s over”
Yogi had a million of them. Over the years there have been books filled with his colorful aphorisms. Comical and philosophical all at once Berra’s phrases reminded many of his manager Casey Stengel whose way of speaking was a language all in it’s own (Stengelese). But, Berra’s combination of superb play and lively personality made him a fan favorite. Yogi’s number “8” is retired by the Yankees and he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972. Although he spent 1965 with the Mets in an attempt to make a comeback he’ll always be remembered as a Yankee, beloved by those young and old.
Excuse me while I speak personally for a moment. I, of course, am not old enough to have ever seen Yogi play in person. I did, however, have the pleasure of spending many years with someone who did. My grandfather, who passed away before the end of this past summer, was a very big fan of the great catcher and we often talked about him together. I would often ask “Gramps, who was the best junk ball hitter of all-time?”. Without fail he would answer with “Yogi”. To be honest I was never entirely sure what it meant but I enjoyed asking him every now and then. Berra was one of his favorite players and it’s obvious why. My grandfather was a great character and had his own share of odd quotes much like Berra. My grandpa is gone now but I’ll always remember how we bonded over the Yankees’ and the great player that was Yogi Berra.
As Yankees fans, we have all experienced those special games or moments that make us forever cherish certain players. For some, it’s Aaron Boone and the epic eleventh-inning home run to beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS; a moment we will never get tired of re-living. For others, it’s Derek Jeter and his awareness to make “The Flip” against the Athletics in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS; a play that many of us believe only Derek could pull off.
For me, a player I will always hold in such high regard is Orlando Hernandez. And who could forget El Duque? With the story of his migration to the United States from Cuba just after his brother, Livan, won a World Series with the Florida Marlins and his signature high leg kick, Orlando was a player that immediately made his mark in the Bronx.
El Duque spent his first five MLB seasons with the Yankees from 1998-2002 and then one more in 2004 after spending the 2003 season with the Montreal Expos but never appearing in a game due to a shoulder injury. Most of us recall how excellent he was in his debut season: Finishing 12-4 in 21 starts with a 3.13 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 141 innings pitched. His performance that year was good enough to finish fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
But what we all really love to reminisce about is how wonderful Hernandez was in the postseason. Winning three World Series titles with the Yanks, he posted a career postseason record of 9-3 with a 2.55 Era and 107 strikeouts over 106 innings. El Duque was excellent in his first three postseasons in New York.
Through the 1998-2000 postseasons, he was 8-1 with a 2.23 ERA. He had a career 1.78 ERA in the ALDS; striking out 25 batters in 30.1 Division Series innings pitched. He was the MVP of the 1999 ALCS against Boston; going 1-0 in 2 games started and allowing only 3 earned runs over 15 innings thrown. In his 5 World Series appearances (including his 2005 appearance with the White Sox), he had 36 strikeouts in 28.2 innings pitched and posted a 2.20 ERA.
But it was Game 2 of the 1998 World Series against the San Diego Padres that immortalized El Duque as a Yankee favorite of mine. I was a very lucky 11 year-old fan that got to attend that game and several others during that magical season. My father and his business partner had season tickets that year, and the June 6th matchup against Livan Hernandez‘s Florida Marlins was the first game I had ever attended. I remember instantly falling in love with the Yankees. It wasn’t hard getting hooked on maybe the best team of all time when I got to go to the Bronx and watch them play so much that season.
The night of October 18th, 1998 was warm, and the Bronx was buzzing after a dramatic comeback win in Game One. Less than 24 hours earlier, the Yanks had surged back to win the opener after scoring 7 runs in the seventh inning by the way of a Chuck Knoblauch three-run homer and that famous grand slam from Tino Martinez.
I went to the game with my grandfather and my dad’s business partner, Terry. Terry had parked the car about a quarter-mile from Yankee Stadium, and I remember the walk in being full of excited, confident fans who were all carrying these promotional “K” strikeout signs that Budweiser was handing out to people on their way into the game. When Terry handed me one, he said, “Get ready to use that a lot tonight. El Duque’s gonna kill ‘em.”
And that was pretty much how it went down on the field that night. The Yanks jumped out to an early lead, scoring seven runs through the first three innings, and they never looked back. Hernandez didn’t give San Diego’s batters a chance at sniffing a comeback, as he struck out seven and allowed only one earned run through seven innings. It was a three-and-a-half-hour party inside Yankee Stadium that night; possibly the most fun I’ve had at any game I’ve ever been to.
As I got older, I began to really appreciate how lucky I was to watch that team play. The 1998 Yankees are probably the greatest baseball team the game has ever seen, and I got to spend several summer afternoons and one amazing October night in Yankee Stadium to watch them play first-hand.
And on that night on October 18th I joined over 56,000 people to watch the 32 year-old rookie out of Cuba make his first World Series start of what would eventually become a brilliant postseason career with the Yanks.
The New York Yankees signed Richard Williams as their 1974 MLB Manager
December 18, 1973- The New York Yankees announced the signing of Richard Williams as their 1974 MLB Manager, precipitating a legal showdown with Oakland A's Owner Charlie Finley. Two days later, American League President Joe Cronin rules that the New York Yankees cannot sign Williams for the 1974 AL season, that he is still legally contracted with the Oakland A’s.
Richard Williams as Oakland A's Manager in 1972 World Series