The one thing Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry have most in common and is obvious to everyone is that they are so unaffected by fame that you have to wonder if they even know that they were great players. —Goose Gossage
Morning in Florida usually put Yogi Berra in the best of moods, but Ron Guidry could see right away that his old friend was cranky, not his usual sprightly self.
Normally Berra would be waiting for Guidry in front of his hotel, smiling and waving at the many well-wishers and fans until his ride to the park pulled up to the curb. But not this day. Not this time. As Guidry approached, Berra was pacing, and Guidry could hear him through the open passenger side window mumbling under his breath: “Goddamn, son of a …”
Guidry checked his watch to see if he was late—which was one of the few things that always made Berra grumpy—but, no, he was actually a few minutes early. He leaned across the seat and pushed open the door.
As Berra climbed into the truck, Guidry said, “Yogi, what’s the problem?”
“Ah, I just found that I got to fly to LA Friday morning,” Berra said.
“LA?” Guidry said. “What the hell for?”
Guidry pulled away from the hotel, out into traffic, on the way to the Yankees’ spring training complex.
Berra complained, “I got to make an affliction commercial.”
Guidry looked at him with bemusement, thinking, Is he doing something with some kind of hospital?
“You know,” Berra said, “with that goddamn duck.”
And then it struck Guidry what Berra was talking about.
“You mean the Aflac commercial?” he said.
“Yeah,” Berra growled, “that damn duck.”
Guidry burst out laughing, couldn’t stop, to the point where he had to pull over to the side of the road. He sat there for a minute, practically doubled over, reddened face against the wheel.
And then, out of the corner of his eye, he looked over at Berra, who was laughing at himself, suddenly in on his own joke.
Guidry shook his head and thought, Anytime you can share a laugh like this with this man, it’s a great moment.
Chapter 1: The Pickup
Ron Guidry steered his white Ford F-150 pickup with the NEW YORK YANKEES plates to the curb of the Continental Airlines arrivals area at Tampa International Airport. He pushed open the driver’s side door, stood up, and looked around for the airport traffic attendant. He hoped it would be the same sympathetic fellow he had encountered the previous year.
“Can I help you?” the guy had said when he’d noticed Guidry looking around uneasily.
“Yeah, I’m waiting for a highly valued package,” Guidry had replied. “Are you a baseball fan?”
The attendant had said no, not really. But when Guidry had told him who he had come to pick up—“I’m waiting for a little dude by the name of Berra”—he had gotten the thoroughly predictable response.
The attendant’s eyes had widened. Of course he had heard of Berra. “Yogi’s coming?” he had said. “Why don’t you go inside and wait for him? I’ll watch your truck.”
Unfortunately, a year had passed, and now all Guidry saw was a uniformed female employee who eyed him suspiciously as he edged a few steps from the truck in the direction of the terminal. Guidry decided not to risk it, because the only thing worse than not being where Berra expected him to be would be having the truck towed.
So Guidry stood like a sentry in his white, short-sleeved, button-down shirt, which hung just below the belt line of his dark slacks. At age sixty, he was starting to turn gray, his combed-back hair barely clinging to its natural dark glint. Otherwise, the man celebrated by Yankees fans as “Louisiana Lightning” remained trim and tanned enough to be mistaken at a glance for a player in his prime.
It was late on the afternoon of February 22, 2011. Being in Tampa at this time of year was a ritual of late winter for Guidry, a foreshadowing of the calendar spring. After his retirement from the Yankees in 1989, he had returned every year as a special camp instructor, with the exception of the two years he had served as the team’s pitching coach, 2006 and 2007, and the strike year, 1995, when baseball had tried to ram replacement players down the public’s throat. There was no way he was showing up for that.
He never flew to Tampa, preferring instead to load his truck for the eleven-hour drive from his handsome gated home on about seventy rustic acres outside Lafayette, Louisiana, a straight shot on Interstate 10 across Mississippi, Alabama, and on into northern Florida’s western flank. From there, Guidry would head south on Interstate 75, the final leg into the Yankees’ training base, directly across Dale Mabry Highway from Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
By this breezy Tuesday afternoon, he had already been in camp for about a week, having timed his arrival, as always, to pitchers and catchers. It never took long—a workout or two—for Guidry to get his head back in the game. But his heart beat to a different rhythm, to a conviction that no spring training could really begin until the most famous catcher of all had arrived.
That would be Lawrence Peter Berra, the American icon with the most endearing nickname known to man, bestowed on him by a childhood friend because of the yoga-like position he assumed while waiting for his turn to bat during neighborhood sandlot games on benchless St. Louis ball fields. Guidry was at the airport to pick up the eighty-five-year-old “package,” his dear friend—“my best friend,” he would say, as a matter of fact—coming for his annual stay of several weeks.
“It’s like I’m the valet,” Guidry said. “Actually, I am the valet.”
And when Berra hit town, there could be no excuse for failing to be there on time to meet him. Everyone who knew the old man understood the one essential requirement to maintaining a relationship with him: he did not accept lateness, most of all in himself. Guidry knew it as well as anyone in Berra’s immediate family: “Yogi is never late.”
Excerpted from DRIVING MR. YOGI: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift. Copyright © 2012 by Harvey Araton. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.