Baseball loses a legend

Steve has noted the passing of Yogi Berra and invited me to comment on him as a player. I rate Berra as the second best catcher of all-time, behind Johnny Bench. This advanced statistical analysis rates him number five, but not far below Gary Carter who comes in second. Carter was great, but give me Yogi every time.

These days, Berra is best known for his sayings. Yet Thomas Boswell says he had countless conversations with Berra and never heard him say anything remotely like a “Berraism.” “When others brought it up,” says Boswell, “he went along with the shtick — gently, maybe even sheepishly — that had been good to him.”

The last phrase is the key one. Berra always struck me as extraordinarily shrewd (yet lovable in spite of it, which might have been his most remarkable off-the-field accomplishment). The Yogi-saying that I think gets closest to heart of the matter was his annual answer to the question of which team he wanted to play in the World Series. “Who has the biggest stadium?” Berra would ask, thus making clear that (1) the Yankees didn’t worry, or even think much, about the opposition and (2) he had his eye where it should have been in those days, on his Series revenue share.

Berra is barely remembered as a manager except to the extent that he was mistreated by George Steinbrenner. Among those who do remember this aspect of his career, the consensus is, I think, that he was a poor-to-mediocre skipper.

Though lucky as a player — anyone who played for the Yankees in that era was lucky — he was unlucky as a manager. He took over the Yankees just as they were collapsing; he succeeded the exceptional Gil Hodges with the Mets; and later he was saddled with Steinbrenner.

I’m of the view that you can’t fairly assess a manager unless you watch him operate day-in and day-out. In 1973, I watched Berra manage for the better of the season and thought he did a good job.

That team suffered from weak hitting and, until late in the season, poor relief pitching (ace Tug McGraw, fighting injuries, carried a 5.05 ERA into September). The Mets one asset was starting pitching — Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, and George Stone.

Berra rode that asset hard and received much criticism for leaving his aces in too long. I thought at the time that he had little choice.

Modern analysis might show that by late in the game it would have been better to use a mediocre reliever than a first-rate but tiring starter. In any case, Yogi went with his gut and the Mets stayed in contention.

Then, down the stretch when McGraw finally returned to form (he gave up only 2 earned runs in September), the Mets closed a 5.5 game deficit to win their division. Isn’t it amazing how well “bad” managers perform when they have a reliable closer? (In 1964, the pattern was similar; the Yankees came from behind to win the pennant with a furious September run after acquiring a closer — the unlikely Pete Ramos).

The numbers suggest that in 1973 St. Louis was the best team in the division and that Pittsburgh was as good as New York. Yet, Yogi’s Mets prevailed, and went on to upset Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the playoffs and take a legendary Oakland team seven games before losing the World Series.

What about Berra’s first stint with the Yankees? It was considered a flop at the time, which is why he lasted only one season. In retrospect, it looks like a success. In 1964, Yogi coaxed 99 wins from an aging club that won only 77 the following year under Johnny Keane, whose Cardinals had defeated Berra’s Yankees in the 1964 World Series.

In the end, Berra managed for six seasons (I don’t count his 16 games in 1985) and made it to two World Series. Few managers can match that ratio, and other than Joe Torre, I can’t think of any great player who had appreciably more managerial success than Yogi.

But Berra’s managing is just a footnote to his career and no part of his legend. I doubt we’ll see his like again in any American sport.