Gratitude and Regret: My Yogi Berra Story
My grandfather loved the New York Yankees. These were the Yankees of the early ‘60’s with their big four; Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Tom Tresh and Whitey Ford. And behind the plate was Yogi Berra. Of all the Yankee greats, he was my grandfather’s hero. My grandfather had played catcher in his youth and I was just starting to do the same, so we would listen gleefully to the staticky radio broadcasts of Yankee games cheering on Yogi Berra from my grandfather’s furniture upholstery and refinishing shop in Tacoma, Washington. Many of my early childhood days were filled with the sound of balls and strikes mixed with the smell of wood stain and furniture glue.
Living in the Pacific Northwest in those days meant you could only listen to but never go to see your baseball heroes. So it seemed inevitable that my grandfather would have to settle for cheering for his heroes from afar. That all changed in the mid-eighties when the Seattle Mariners debuted and teams like the Yankees started coming to town. But these were not my grandfather’s Yankees. Except for one. Yogi Berra was named manager of the Yankees in 1984 and they were scheduled to play in Seattle for a weekend series in mid-July. That same year my grandfather turned 80. My mom went to work on the Yankee front office and arranged for a picture to be taken of my grandfather with his hero, Yogi.
I was in charge of the execution of the plan. My wife Linda and I picked my grandfather up on a sunny summer afternoon, loaded his wheelchair into the back of the minivan and headed out to the Kingdome with plenty of time to spare. GP (our nickname for him) sat next to me up front and we talked about what he would say when he met ‘Mr. Berra’ (my grandfather would never call him Yogi). I think I was more nervous than he was. Linda managed the key documents; a special VIP parking pass and three special VIP access passes to the inner sanctum of the stadium where only the athletes and a select few mere mortals are allowed to tread.
And all went according to plan…until it didn’t. We parked in our reserved spot and wheeled my grandfather through the doors guarded by two muscular security guys. We flashed our passes like we did this everyday. With glee we moved grandpa’s wheelchair down the hallways and through more doors finally arriving at the scheduled meeting place for the Yankees PR person to meet us. I looked up and realized we were right at the door that leads onto the field behind home plate. This was way cool!
We were in our place, now all we needed was the Yankees PR lady to arrive. And so we waited, and waited and waited. Out on the field batting practice was winding up and the activity turned toward final pre-game preparations. A deep sense of dread began to well up in me. She isn’t going to show up. I looked down at my grandfather and I sensed he was coming to the same conclusion.
“Look, Scott, I think we’d better go. It’s okay, it’s just not going to work out.” He was right, it wasn’t. As I looked into his eyes I could see the depth of disappointment, and I knew this was the only chance he would have to fulfill a lifelong dream. But what could I do, no PR lady, no Yogi, and now no time left.
I grabbed the handles on my grandfather’s wheelchair to begin a very solemn retreat back out to the land of the common people, but something stopped me. My heart was breaking for a man I had loved and admired for as long as I can remember. To be this close and lose this chance suddenly became unacceptable. So I turned his wheelchair around, walked over to the door to the field, opened it and looked across at the Yankee dugout. And there he was. “Mr. Berra.” I helped my grandfather to his feet and led him over to stand at the door in sight of the Yankee dugout. And then I froze as I considered my next move.
Was I really going to do this? Seriously?
I looked at my grandfather standing in that doorway, and then back across to the New York dugout, took a deep breath, and before my mind could talk me out of it, my feet began to move. I walked out past home plate saying quietly to myself, “this is insane, this is insane.” I walked past Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly who were playing catch. Let me stop there. If you’ve never stood next to a major league baseball player playing catch there are two things that strike you. These guys are really big, and they throw the ball really hard. But I was not there to gawk. I continued past them and found myself standing on the top stairs of the Yankee dugout. And there was Yogi Berra looking over the line-up with Don Zimmer. Yogi Berra and Don Zimmer, right there, in the New York Yankees dugout…with ME!
I froze, not quite believing where I was or what I had just done. Then Don Zimmer looked up and said, “Can we help you?” Okay, there may have been a bit of surprise mixed with sarcasm in his voice, but I considered it an open invitation, so I began.
“Mr. Berra, my mom had arranged with the Yankee front office to have your picture taken with my grandfather.”
Yogi thought for a minute and then nodded, “Oh yeah, someone said something about that.” Then he looked at his watch and back at me. “Hey, sorry kid, but it’s too late for that now, the game’s starting soon.”
I’d come this far and just couldn’t go back alone. I had to give it one last shot. “Mr. Berra, my grandfather is a big fan of yours, he just turned 80 and, well, he’s standing right over there.”
Yogi walked up to the top of the dugout and looked over and spotted my grandfather still standing in place just outside the door to the field. He looked back at me and smiled and said, “OK, sure, let’s go.”
So Yogi Berra and I walked across home plate and over to my grandfather. With every step my grandfather’s eyes grew wider and by the time we arrived he was beaming. For the next few moments Yogi Berra and Al Voigt stood talking like old childhood friends. I know it was only a minute or two, but for us, time stood still. I’d love to tell you what they talked about, but everything from that point on is a blur except for two things.
Yogi turned and put his arm around my grandfather’s shoulders waiting for the photo. And I lifted my camera up and prayed from the depth of my soul that I wouldn’t mess it up. These were the days before digital so I wouldn’t know if we actually got the picture until the next day when I paced like a new father in a delivery waiting room for the one-hour photomat to complete the processing. Happily, the picture would come out.
The shutter clicked twice, Yogi shook my grandfather’s hand, and then mine, and headed back to land of the giants. Linda and I wheeled my grandfather up to our seats and cheered on the Mariners mostly, but quietly I think my grandfather and I were rooting for Yogi’s men in pinstripes.
A few days after the game Linda and I presented my grandfather with a framed photo of him with Mr. Berra. He set it on his nightstand next to his picture of my grandmother who had passed away a decade before. The picture was there every time we visited. It was there when they turned his little apartment into a hospital room. And it was there when he died.
I know Yogi Berra probably stood posing beside a thousand fans in his long and amazing career, but none was more appreciated than this one.
Two weeks ago Yogi Berra died. And when I heard the news I felt a sense of regret that I didn’t find a way to tell him what that small gesture meant to a man that I so dearly loved. And now I never will. So this blog is my way of saying to Yogi, thanks. Maybe a family member of Mr. Berra will see this sometime and know the appreciation my whole family had for this act of kindness.
It also reminded me that the time we have to share our gratitude does not last forever. We must be stewards of these opportunities and not squander them. What act of kindness needs to be acknowledged by you today? Who do you need to call or email or visit to share a word of appreciation and thanks? I encourage you to be generous stewards of gratitude, giving it away freely and as widely as you can.
As for Yogi Berra, perhaps he and my grandfather will meet in heaven where he can tell him face to face and they can talk on into eternity about baseball and lousy calls like two old childhood friends.
Thank you, Mr. Berra.