It's been baseball's big human interest story all spring: infielder Dale Berra playing for his famous father, Yogi, on the Yankees. Both men insist that on the field it's no different from any other player-manager relationship. But in the overall sense, of course, it's a lot more than that. ``It's a dream come true,'' says Dale, who came to New York in a trade after six years in Pittsburgh. ``Living at home in New Jersey. Playing for my father. Playing for the Yankees. What could be better?''
This is the first father/son, player/manager tandem of any consequence in baseball history (Earle Mack played for his father, Connie, in 1910, 1911, and 1914, but appeared in a grand total of five games, which seems more like a publicity stunt than the real thing). Thus the natural question is: How will it work out? Can Yogi avoid the twin traps of (a) favoring his son, or (b) bending too far backwards in order to avoid any such possibility?
Both of them think he can -- and so do most observers who have watched the early stages of the experiment in spring training and the beginning of the regular season.
``There aren't any problems at all,'' Yogi said while watching his son take infield practice before a game in Boston. ``I treat him just like any other player. He's been around. He knows the score.''
The elder Berra didn't have to add, of course, that he's been around a bit himself. A Hall of Fame catcher with the Yankees in their glory years of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, he has spent the last two decades alternating between managing and coaching for the Yankees and their crosstown rivals, the Mets. He led the Yankees to the American League pennant in 1964, piloted the Mets to the 1973 National League flag, and is now back in the Bronx in the second year of his return as the Yankee field leader.
Dale, the youngest of Yogi's three sons and the only one to reach the major leagues, is no Hall of Fame candidate, but he's a solid all-around infielder who can help a team in a variety of ways. With the Pirates he began as a handyman, filling in at second base, third base, and shortstop, then took over as the regular shortstop from 1982 through 1984. In New York, however, he has a new job. A right-handed hitter (unlike his famous Dad), Dale is platooning at third base against left-handed pitching.
``In another situation, it might bother me,'' he admitted when asked how he liked being a part-time player again after three years as a regular. ``If I'd been traded to some place like Cleveland and was platooning, it might be harder to take. But here in this situation, playing at home, playing for my Dad, it doesn't bother me at all.''
Indeed, the platoon situation is probably a blessing in disguise for all concerned, taking the pressure off Yogi in terms of deciding who plays when. Without a platoon, anytime Dale had a slump the critics would be ready to pounce if the manager kept his son in the lineup too long -- or if he took him out too quickly!
This way, though, it's all cut and dried: Dale plays against southpaws, while the left-handed hitting Mike Pagliarulo goes against right-handers. Furthermore, everyone knows this is no artificial solution. Yogi likes to platoon when he has the personnel for it, and did so at third base last year with Pagliarulo and Toby Harrah. The latter had a bad year, the club decided it wanted another right-handed hitter to take his place, and Dale was the one it got.
``He's here to help the team,'' said Yogi. ``It gives me two solid third basemen, which is a good position to be in. I've got the percentages with me when I platoon them, and I always know that if anything happens to one of them, I've still got somebody who can play the position full-time and not hurt us.''
As the youngest of the three Berra boys, Dale had some pretty tough acts to follow growing up. Not only was his father a famous ballplayer, but both brothers were also star schoolboy athletes. Larry, Jr., now 34, was good enough to play minor league baseball in the New York Mets' organization before knee problems ended his career, while Tim, 32, was a high school and college football star who went on to play in the NFL with both the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts.
``I never worried about any of that stuff, though,'' Dale said. ``I never felt any pressure because of my brothers, or because of my name. My father is a very modest man. As a kid, I never knew how good he was. I knew he was a baseball player, but that's all. I was more interested in my own games. I really never thought much about it at all.
``As for trying to live up to my brothers, I didn't put pressure on myself that way. I just went out there to have fun and do as well as I could.''
That, of course, turned out to be very well indeed. Dale played Little League, American Legion, and semi-pro baseball in his hometown of Montclair, N.J., and was a two-time All-State shortstop at Montclair High School. He also was All-State and captain of both the football and hockey teams. After high school he launched his pro career in the Pittsburgh organization, spending two years in the minor leagues and three more splitting his time between there and the parent club before coming up to the Pirates to stay at the end of the 1979 season.
Berra's best year offensively in Pittsburgh was 1982, his first as the regular shortstop, when he batted .263 with 10 home runs and 61 RBIs. He came close to the same figures in 1983, but tailed off to a .222 average last year.
The Yankees, of course, are hoping that he can at least regain his earlier form -- and indications are good so far. He hit .327 in 24 spring training games, then started off well by going 2-for-4 along with some sharp defensive work in his first regular season game in pinstripes.
Dale's defense is a matter of some concern, for he has been a bit error-prone at times during his career (he tied for the National League lead in errors by shortstops last year with 30, and twice had a similar dubious distinction while playing third base in the minors). The Yankees feel, though, that while he has spent a lot of time at both positions, third base is really the right one for him -- and that once he gets used to it again, his defense won't be any problem. And Dale tends to agree.
``I'm happier playing third,'' he emphasized. ``I feel it's my best position.''
As for his name, that's no problem either. His Pirate teammates used to jokingly call him ``Yogi,'' but the Yankees avoid any confusion in their clubhouse by sticking to Dale.
And what does he call the manager?
``I call him Dad,'' Dale said. ``That's what he is!''