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Remembering Yogi Berra: The winner, the legend, and the hero

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Yogi was one of few players to ever transcend baseball, and fortunately, few have been better ambassadors for the game.

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About 15 years ago, the popular former Orioles first baseman Boog Powell was interviewed about his time in the big leagues. His career only overlapped Yogi Berra's by a little over two seasons, but he still received the classic Yogi Berra experience as a rookie. Powell noted that when Yogi caught games, he would just talk to the batter in the middle of the plate appearance. It drove incredibly focused hitters like Hall of Famer Ted Williams crazy. This was the gist of one of Powell's at-bats:

Yogi: Hey kid, how ya doing?
Powell: Uh, fine I guess.
/strike one/
Yogi: How's your family?
Powell: Oh, they're good.
/strike two/
Yogi: What do ya think you're gonna do after the game?
Powell: Oh, I don't know.
/strike three/

As Powell recalled, Yogi was smiling the whole time. That's the image of Yogi Berra that I want to remember--a man who never stopped acknowledging that he was playing a game. It was meant to be fun.

The baseball world lost Yogi last night when he passed away due to natural causes at the age of 90. As Tanya noted in the initial article, Yankees fans had an awful premonition of this day coming for quite some time. In the past few years, Yogi has made fewer appearances at Yankee Stadium, even missing a couple Old Timers' Days. Thankfully, he was still able to open the Yankees' new park with its first pitch back in 2009. He had remarkable longevity, as Civil War veterans were still alive when he was born, and he lived long enough to see the 1991-born Mike Trout take over baseball.

There will be nigh-countless tributes today from so many talented authors with wonderful things to say about the man. It's hard to blame them. Yogi Berra was so much bigger than baseball. Yogi remains one of the first ballplayers anyone ever hears about while growing up. He belongs in that rare class with Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth. He was probably even more popular than his legendary teammates Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Everyone knows the quotes.

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

"It's getting late early out there."

"It ain't over 'till it's over."

That's just a small sample. Yet as Hall of Fame second baseman and Yogi pupil Craig Biggio often remarked, there was a wisdom to his words that went beyond the botched English:

"He was the smartest baseball man I’ve been around, no doubt. I would be on the bench and he would come behind me and babble something. I’d kind of look at him. Then the next few innings, it would all happen."

One does not become an 18-time All-Star with three MVP awards by accident. One does not luck into a mind-boggling 14,387 innings and 1,699 games behind the plate. Those kind of abilities take immense talent and skill, and people sometimes forget just how superb a baseball player Yogi Berra was back in his day. If people try to tell you that the greatest catcher in baseball history is someone other than Yogi or Johnny Bench, they are simply wrong.

Thanks to the tutelage of fellow Hall of Famer (and fellow #8) Bill Dickey, Yogi grew from a bit of a clumsy defender to a phenomenal force at catcher. He threw out almost half of all baserunners attempting to steal against him, guided pitching staffs with only one legitimate Hall of Famer to 10 World Series titles, and added contributions at bat far beyond what was expected of a catcher. He hit .285/.348/.482 with 358 homers and a 124 wRC+, then added a .274/.359/.452 batting line with 12 home runs in World Series play. He was an all-around threat in a manner that very few catchers have replicated.

When asked about his postseason success, Yogi frequently had a quick response, "We won 10 World Series, but I was just born at the right time." As good friend Don Mattingly could attest, this reply made sense, but it did not quite give him enough credit. The Yankees won 14 American League pennants with Yogi, and he ended up with one World Series ring for each of his 10 fingers. He was a huge part of those teams, not just a reserve infielder.

Yogi was the glue, always a joy in the clubhouse, always reliable behind the plate, and always a damn pest in the batter's box for opposing pitchers. Long before Ichiro Suzuki or Vladimir Guerrero slashed line drives on pitches way out of the strike zone, Yogi developed a reputation as a "bad ball hitter." It didn't matter where the pitch was; if Yogi liked it, he was swinging, and he made hard contact so often that no one cared. They never had to worry about strikeouts either; Yogi only whiffed 414 times in 2,210 games. In contrast, even the esteemed Derek Jeter struck out 473 times before the end of his fifth season.

After he managed the Yankees from 1949-60 and won seven championships, including five in a row, Casey Stengel was asked about the secret to his success. As recounted in the documentary Baseball, Stengel had a simple answer: "I never play a game without my man."

Sure enough, Stengel never managed a single game for the Yankees without Yogi on his roster.

The mythos of Yogi far exceeded his playing career, too. This was a man who starred in commercials for years and later had one of television's most famous cartoon characters named after him. This was a man who could casually respond to a greeting of "Hello, Yogi" from Pope John Paul II with "Hello, Pope." This was a man with such gravitas that he could feud with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for 14 years over a botched and misguided firing in 1985 by refusing to return to Yankee Stadium and still come out looking better than ever to Yankees fans. (Never forget that in the commemorative day celebrating his return in 1999, Yogi caught the first pitch from 1956 World Series perfect game hero Don Larsen and proceeded to give the glove to catcher Joe Girardi, who then caught David Cone's perfect game that same day.)

Perhaps most importantly, Yogi set the standard for what a professional athlete should be off the field. Already renowned for his service during World War II and the D-Day invasions, Yogi was never involved in any kind of the ugly stories that have brought down similar celebrities. Domestic problems, struggles with drugs or alcohol, and financial woes never came his way, and he spent 65 years with his beloved wife, Carmen, developing close relationships with all of his family members, such as his granddaughter, current MLB.com writer Lindsay Berra. He greeted people of all ages with a smile, opened a museum and learning center in New Jersey for kids, and left a wonderful impression on everyone he met, from writers to celebrities and even the most casual of fans.

Yogi entered baseball at a time when integration had just begun, and he treated everyone equally. The Yankees were, regrettably, one of the last teams to integrate, but when their first African-American player came along in Elston Howard, it could have made for an awkward situation since they wanted Howard to eventually take Yogi's job and catch. Their first spring training together in 1955 was a tense time anyway since the Yankees played in St. Petersburg, a very segregated community. Yogi did not see Howard as a rival, but rather a teammate and new friend. The two hit it off, became very close, and there was never a question of any animosity between them. Howard passed away in 1980, and when Yogi was asked to speak at a ceremony 35 years later honoring them during Black History Month, he wept for his old friend.

In recent years, Yogi emerged as a supporter of another community looking for leaders, as his museum announced a partnership with Athlete Ally. Gay athletes face a difficult road already, and it isn't a challenge to make the connection that Yogi saw between African-Americans struggling to break in 60 years ago and gay athletes now. Yogi's statement was short, but profound:

"Respect the game, respect others -- that's what I always learned in sports. Whatever background or whatever you are, it doesn't matter. Treat everyone the same, that's how it should be."

That is the essence of Yogi, and that is why I will always remember him more fondly than any other Yankee. The son of Italian immigrants, it was always a surprise to him that he reached the fame achieved during his Hall of Fame playing career with the Yankees. He already had an inspirational story behind him. No one would have blinked an eye if he just faded to the back of everyone's memories and rode out a quiet retirement. However, Yogi took it to the next level, remaining quite visible in the media until recent years while encouraging kindness, acceptance, and courtesy to anyone and everyone.

When the old Yankee Stadium sadly closed its doors seven years ago and held its last game on September 21, 2008, the Yankees invited all their old stars back to the famed "House That Ruth Built" for one last hurrah. ESPN had the game that night, and they ran a moving promo featuring--who else? Yogi.

Yogi Berra might not miss this place, but we're sure going to miss the hell out of him. All the best wishes to Yogi's family and friends.

Rest in peace, Yogi. Yankee Stadium won't be the same without you. The monument better be coming soon.