For Berra and Guidry, It Happens Every

Barton Silverman/The New York Times
Yogi Berra with Ron Guidry at Yankees spring training in Tampa,
Fla., on Wednesday.
February 23, 2011

For Berra and Guidry, It Happens Every
Spring

TAMPA, Fla. — With all the yearly changes made by the Yankees,
Yogi
Berra
’s arrival at their spring training base adds a timeless quality to
baseball’s most historic franchise.
Berra, the
catching legend and pop culture icon, slips back into the uniform with the
familiar No. 8 that he made famous. He checks into the same hotel in the
vicinity of George
M. Steinbrenner
Field and requests the same room. He plans his days
methodically — wake up at 6 a.m., breakfast at 6:30, depart for the complex by 7
— and steps outside to be greeted by the same driver he has had for the past
dozen years.

The driver has a rather famous name, and nickname, as well.   “It’s like I’m the valet,” said Ron
Guidry
, known around the Yankees as Gator for his Louisiana roots.
“Actually, I am the valet.”   When Berra arrived on Tuesday afternoon from New Jersey for his three-to
four-week stay, Guidry, as always, was waiting for him at Tampa International
Airport. Since Berra forgave George Steinbrenner in 1999 for firing him as the
manager in 1985 through a subordinate and ended
a 14-year boycott
of the team, Guidry has been his faithful friend and loyal
shepherd.   Guidry had a custom-made cap to certify his proud standing. The inscription
reads, “Driving Mr. Yogi.”   “He’s a good guy,” Berra, the
Yankees’ 85-year-old honorary patriarch,
said during an interview at his
museum in Little Falls, N.J. “We hang out together in spring training.”   By “hanging out,” Berra means being in uniform with the Yankees by day and
having dinner with Guidry by night. That is, until Guidry, who loves to cook and
rents a two-bedroom apartment across the road from where Berra stays, demands a
break from their spring training rotation of the five restaurants that meet
Berra’s approval.   “See, I really love the old man, but because of what we share — which is
something very special — I can treat him more as a friend and I can say, ‘Get
your butt in my truck or you’re staying,’ ” Guidry said. “He likes that kind of
camaraderie, wants to be treated like everybody else, but because of who he is,
that’s not how everybody around here treats him.   “So I’ll say, ‘Yogi, tonight we’re going to Fleming’s, then to Lee Roy
Selmon’s tomorrow, and then the night after that you stay in your damn room,
have a ham sandwich or whatever, because the world doesn’t revolve around you
and I’m taking a night off.”   Berra played 18 years for the Yankees, from 1946 to 1962, and was part of 10
World Series champions. Guidry pitched from the mid-1970s through 1988, played
on two World Series winners and was a Cy Young Award winner in 1978, when he was
25-3 with a 1.74 earned run average.   While Guidry was blossoming into one of baseball’s premier left-handers,
Berra was a coach on Manager Billy Martin’s staff (and later became his
manager). They dressed at adjacent stalls in the clubhouse of the old Yankee
Stadium
. Eager to learn, Guidry would pepper Berra with questions about what
he, as a former catcher, thought of hitters.   Berra would say, “You got a great catcher right over there,” nodding in the
direction of Thurman Munson. But Guidry persisted and their lasting bond was
formed.   During
Berra’s self-imposed exile
, Guidry saw him only on occasion, at card-signing
shows and at Berra’s charity golf tournament near his home in Montclair, N.J.
When Berra returned, the retired players he knew best were no longer part of the
invited spring training instructional staff.   “There was really nobody else that he had to sit and talk with, to be around
after the day at the ballpark,” Guidry said. “So I just told him, ‘I’ll pick you
up, we’ll go out to supper,’ and that’s how it started. It wasn’t like I planned
it. It just developed.”   In offering his companionship, Guidry discovered that he was the luckier side
of the partnership spanning generations of Yankees greatness.   “I never got to pitch against Ted
Williams
, for example,” Guidry said. “I’d say, ‘Yogi, when you guys had to
go to Boston and you had to face Williams, how did you work him?’ You know, he’s
like an encyclopedia, and that’s what I loved, all the stories and just being
with him. If he’s not the most beloved man in America, I don’t know who is.”   Berra’s wife, Carmen, typically joins her husband in Tampa during spring
training, but charity and family obligations generally limit her time here to a
few days. Guidry, she said, has been “so special to Yogi, like a member of the
family.”   He has asked Berra to stay with him in his apartment, but Berra prefers the
hotel.   “I mean, the only time we’re really not together is when he’s asleep,” Guidry
said. “But you can’t get him out of there because that’s how it’s been. You
can’t change him. When he does it one day, it’s going to be that way for the
next 1,000 days.”   Berra was 73 when he rejoined the Yankees family, but his rigid need for
routines had little to do with his age, Carmen Berra said.   “That’s always been Yogi,” she said. “If the doctor tells him to take a pill
at 9 a.m., the bottle is open at 5 of 9.”   That is why Guidry considers his supreme achievement in their dozen years as
the Yankees’ odd couple to be the day — he guessed it was five years ago — that
he persuaded Berra to try a Cajun culinary staple.   Every spring, Guidry brings from his home in Lafayette, La., about 200 frog
legs and a flour mix to fry them. One day, he took a batch to the clubhouse to
share with the former pitching coach Mel
Stottlemyre
, turned to Berra and said, “Try these.”   Berra shook his head, as if Guidry were offering him tofu.   Guidry told him, “You don’t try it, we’re not going out to supper tonight.”   Berra relented, and soon a dinner of frog legs, green beans wrapped in bacon
and a sweet potato at Guidry’s apartment — usually timed to a weekend of N.C.A.A.
basketball tournament games — became as much a rite of spring as pitchers and
catchers.   “He calls me at home this year to remind me about the frogs’ legs — ‘Did you
get ’em yet?’ ” Guidry said. “I said, ‘Yogi, it’s freaking January, calm
down.’ ”   Though Berra often calls Guidry during the off-season, he has never visited
him in Louisiana. “He lives in the swamps, you know,” Berra said.   When Guidry was the Yankees’ pitching coach in 2006 and 2007, Berra could
count on him being in spring training. Now Guidry must receive an invitation
from the Yankees, which he and Berra anxiously await.   During exhibition games, they sit on the bench together, in the corner by the
water cooler, studying the game. “Every once in a while, Yogi will see something
about a guy and think that he can help,” Guidry said.   Last season, Berra noticed that pitchers were getting Nick Swisher out with
breaking balls and mentioned to Guidry that he thought Swisher might try moving
up in the batter’s box to attack the pitch sooner.   “Tell him, not me,” Guidry said.   “Nah, I don’t want to bother him,” Berra said.   After Swisher grounded out, he walked past Guidry and Berra in the dugout.
Guidry stood up, pointed at Berra. “He wants to talk to you,” Guidry said.
Swisher sat down, heard Berra out and doubled off the wall in his next at-bat.
After he scored, he returned to the dugout and parked himself alongside Berra.   “For Yogi, that meant everything,” Guidry said. “Now who knows if that had
anything to do with the great season Swisher had? But in Yogi’s mind, he made a
friend and he felt, ‘O.K., that justifies me being here,’ even though everybody
loves having him here anyway.”   “But that’s the thing — for Yogi, spring training is his last hold on
baseball,” Guidry added. “When he walks through that door in the clubhouse, sits
at the locker, puts on his uniform, talks to everybody, jokes around, watches
batting practice, goes back in, has something to eat, and then he and I will go
on the bench and watch the game, believe me, I know how much he really looks
forward to it.”   Since taking a fall outside his home last summer that required
hospitalization and a period of inactivity, Berra has slowed. His voice is
softer. His words seem to be sparser.   “I know Carmen feels he’s going to be fine and occupied because I’m around,”
Guidry said. “But this year may be harder than the rest because of what
happened. I’m just going to have to watch a little more closely to see what he
can do.”   The first item on Berra’s agenda, he said, would be to go shopping.   “He buys his roast beef, I buy my bottle of vodka,” Berra said, with a
twinkle in his eye. “We get along real good.”

Copyright.2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved
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