Yogi Berra, who last managed the New York Yankees for the first 16 games of 1985, is now in his third year as an all-purpose coach with the Houston Astros. With a half dozen major league teams already rumored looking for new managers for next season, it seemed natural to quiz Yogi about how much interest he has in being in charge of 24 ballplayers again.
After all, how many Hall of Fame players who have played in 14 World Series and managed the Yankees and the New York Mets in two others are available? Would Yogi indeed answer the call?
``First, you gotta be asked,'' Berra replied, that Cheshire grin of his spreading across a face that could hold a day's rain. ``Naw, I like what I'm doin'. I got the perfect job, very little work and no pressure. Of course, nobody should ever say never about nothin'. Maybe if the circumstances were just right, I'd listen. It don't cost nothin' to listen. But then you think about all the headaches that go with managing and you begin to like it more right where you are.''
Asked what makes good managers, Berra responded instantly: ``Great players. The manager doesn't play, you know. He only makes out the lineup card. What you always need is a lot of pitching and today you also gotta have three good arms in the bullpen.
``In the old days, starting pitchers used to go eight or nine innings at a time. If a manager wanted to take his starter out, he had to fight him for the ball. Now you look out at the mound when trouble starts, and except for a few guys, they all want to come out in the sixth inning.''
Although Berra last played in 1965 (four games for the Mets), he is still one of the most popular characters in baseball. Contributing to his fame are the countless stories Joe Garagiola, his boyhood pal in St. Louis and a network broadcaster, tells regularly on national television .
This year Yogi has become a video star in his own right. He reviews films with words and phrases he must have gotten off the walls of some ancient cave. But in getting to the point and making it understandable, Yogi has few peers.
Berra says he never watches TV if he's on it. ``I know what I look like,'' Yogi said. ``But doing this show has been fun. Once a month, whether we're at home or on the road, all these guys with microphones and cameras and lights show up in a hotel room and we shoot for two hours. I might see myself on TV sometime by mistake, but I ain't goin' lookin'.''
Berra always had the tools, but he was never a polished catcher until Casey Stengel became manager of the Yankees in 1949. Before that, nobody seemed to know whether Yogi was better suited to the outfield or crouching behind the plate.
The first thing Stengel did was to take the stiff mitt Berra had been using and replace it with one that had the flexibility of a first baseman's glove. Then he told Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey to teach Yogi the mechanics of his position - how to read hitters and how to call pitches.
What some people may have forgotten is that Berra (now a millionaire) never had it easy growing up. Other kids taunted him because of his muffin face and stumpy body. And he had to leave the ninth grade to go to work because his family needed the money.
As a hitter, Berra never had a strike zone. Any ball he could see, he always thought he could hit. And 2,150 times he was right, not counting another 71 hits he got in 75 World Series games! Angels fly high again
As late as June 15, the California Angels were buried in last place in the American League West, 16 games behind division-leading Oakland. But since then the team has straightened out enough to climb all the way up to third place. During one recent stretch they won 27 of 38 games, which translates to a formidable .711 pace. Yet there are days when they still look terrible.
``The reason we started so badly this season,'' explained rookie California manager Cookie Rojas, ``is because we never had our full team together. It seemed like there were always nine guys on the disabled list. And one of the big keys to winning in baseball is to keep everybody healthy. Getting guys back off the disabled list was the first thing that helped us. The next thing was when we began to hit a lot more with men on base.''
Rojas even had some nice things to say about his beleaguered pitching staff, whose 4.30 team earned-run average is exceeded only by Cleveland, Seattle, and Baltimore.
``You're not going to find pitchers anywhere who can win without runs, and early in the season we weren't giving our guys anything to work with,'' he said. ``I really believe that if we'd hit early, all our starting pitchers with losing records would be just the reverse of what they are now.'' Elsewhere in the majors
This has not been the best of times for George Bell of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Most Valuable Player in the American League last year. George's problems began in spring training after he balked when manager Jimy Williams asked him to become the team's designated hitter. Bell is playing in the field these days, but not always with satisfactory results. Williams chewed him out recently for missing the cutoff man, which caused George to sulk and Jimy to offer this comment to reporters: ``When they [star players] make $2 million a year, they think they're bigger than the ball club. Well, they're not. When they get a base hit and drive in a run, everything is fine. But none of them can handle constructive criticism.'' Look for Mr. Bell's home phone to be ringing in a different city next season.
Whom do you believe? Manager Davey Johnson says general manager Frank Cashen has twice told him that if the New York Mets don't win the National League East this season, he is gone as the team's manager. Cashen claims he never said any such thing. Meanwhile, the Mets' pitching staff recently posted its 16th shutout of the season, best in the major leagues.
When third baseman Gary Gaetti of the Minnesota Twins was asked to rate the thrill of playing in his first All-Star Game, Gaetti replied: ``It's right up there with eating lobster.''