Berra says he'll be his own man as Yankee pilot

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Looking out from the first base dugout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, spring training home of the New York Yankees, the pinstriped hydrant that stood deep in left field seemed to move slightly when a long foul ball suddenly curled in its direction.

Upon closer inspection the gnome-like structure turned out to be Yogi Berra, who after eight years as a Yankee coach will manage the Bronx Bombers this season. The last and only other time Berra piloted the Yankees, in 1964, they won the American League pennant.

When New York eventually lost the '64 World Series to St. Louis, Yogi was fired and replaced by Johnny Keane, who had resigned as manager of the Cardinals the day after the Series ended.

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''I don't know why they canned me,'' Berra told me as he watched his charges take batting practice. ''But if I hadn't lost Whitey Ford after he hurt his arm in the first game, we coulda won that thing. Whitey was the kind of pitcher who could win you two or three games in a Series like that. And a lot of people forget we didn't have shortstop Tony Kubek's bat for that Series either. Under the circumstances, I thought I done pretty good.''

Maybe this means nothing, but after Berra left, it was 12 years before the Yankees printed World Series tickets again. Meanwhile the New York Mets, with whom Yogi spent those years, won the only two pennants in their history - in 1969 when he was a coach, and in 1973 when he was manager. Finally, it was in 1976 when he returned to the Yankees as a coach that the team won its first pennant since he had left - and went on to win three more in the next five years.

In other words, Yogi must do something right. All-in-all he has been in 21 World Series - a record 14 as a player, two as a manager, and five as a coach.

Asked about reports that owner George Steinbrenner had twice before offered him the manager's job, Yogi replied: ''I don't know how that story got started, but it ain't true.'' Then he volunteered:

''I almost didn't say yes this time because I had this swell job as a coach that keeps me in New York and that's the only place I want to be. As a manager, all you can really look forward to is getting fired.

''When George spoke to me about managing for him, I told him I'd need a couple of days to think it over. I kind of wanted it, but I still wasn't sure until I talked with my kids. (Yogi has three grown sons, including Dale, the regular shortstop of the Pittsburgh Pirates.)

''Hey, you wouldn't believe how much those kids wanted me to manage the Yankees. They kept telling me I might not get another chance to manage in the big leagues, and that I better take it. So I figured I better take it. I know everyone on the club, so it wasn't like I was putting on a new pair of shoes. I think George wanted me to manage for him because I have a calming influence on people.''

However, the way Steinbrenner goes through managers (he's had 11 in as many years) you have to wonder if Yogi isn't settling into a pretty hot seat. The nicest thing some of his past managers have said about the owner is that he interferes.

''George can call me on the telephone all he wants and I'll listen, only that don't mean I'll do what he says,'' Berra grinned. ''One guy told me George called unbelievably early when the team is on the road, but that don't bother me none because I'm always up early. Besides, I've checked around, and Steinbrenner ain't the only owner who calls up his manager at odd times.''

Reminded that when he played for Casey Stengel's Yankees, the Ol' Perfesser had often called him ''my assistant manager,'' Berra replied:

''I think Stengel liked me and trusted me because I never told him no lies. I used to tell him when our pitchers had lost their stuff and needed to be replaced, and he replaced them. Casey was the best manager I ever played under. Guys used to get mad when he platooned them, but ask them about Casey today and they'll admit his platooning prolonged their careers.

''Listen, I'm gonna platoon Graig Nettles and Toby Harrah. Nettles don't like it, but by using both of them guys I'm going to get 120 RBIs out of third base this season. I might be blowing my job, too, by switching Dave Righetti, who has been a pretty good starter for us, to the bullpen. But if you believe something like that is what you need to win a pennant, you gotta do it and not listen to the critics.''

Even Berra's philosophy for building a strong farm system differs from the standard operating procedures of most clubs.

''Most teams prefer to sign college kids, figuring they won't change as much and they're further advanced,'' explained the man whose formal education stopped with the eighth grade when he went to work to help out his family. ''But usually those kids are at least 21 or 22 when they graduate, and they're also very impatient. If they don't make the big leagues in two or three years, they'll quit on you.

''Me, I'll take the kid fresh out of high school. Chances are he'll hold still for four or five years of minor league ball. Too many kids get rushed to the majors, so anything you can do to keep them learning their trade in the minors is good.''

Because the shape of Berra's 5 ft. 8 in. body resembles a battered oil drum that has been tapered at the waist, and because his legs are stumpy, it is often hard for any one seeing Yogi for the first time to believe his imposing statistics. But six times he drove in more than 100 runs; 11 times hit 20 or more homers; three times was voted the American League's Most Valuable Player; and now, of course, is a member of baseball's Hall of Fame.

''I never knew why I could hit, I just knew I could hit,'' Berra told me. ''I never paid no attention to the width of home plate, and I never had a personal strike zone. It didn't make no difference to me if the ball was in the dirt or up around my ears someplace, if I saw it good, I swung at it.

Yogi says a lot of his sayings that have gone into baseball folklore like: ''It's never over 'til it's over,'' are legitimate, but others were the products of sports writers who needed a rainy day story.

''Joe Garagiola and I grew up together on Goat Hill in St. Louis, so you have to figure Joe is going to tell the truth about me, right?'' Berra asked. ''Well, some of the stories Joe tells about me are true, but a lot of them never happened.

''What got this whole thing started was when Bobby Brown (the new president of the American League) and I were roommates on the Yankees and Brown was studying to become a doctor. I used to read comic books in my spare time and Brown used to read medical books. Well, one night I came back to the room late and he was just finishing one of his books, and I asked him how the story came out.

''Bobby wouldn't tell me, but the next day he shared what I said with some of the writers and they thought it was funny, and the word kind of got around. Years later I got the idea that maybe it would be nice if I pasted all those sayings of mine in a scrapbook, only when I started looking I couldn't remember which were mine and which weren't. But it ain't too bad because my sayings keep showing up in the papers and I keep reading 'em. You know, some of them are pretty funny!''

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