Meeting Yogi Berra When I Wasn’t Supposed To

I met Yogi Berra on my birthday one time when I wasn’t supposed to. Here’s what happened.

My family had a print shop in Covington, Georgia. I left a job as a sports writer to join the family business. But I had some regrets. Mostly, I missed going to sporting events for free. So I made a plan. It was called The Hillside Tattler.

This was 1986, a great year for Major League Baseball, unless you’re Bill Buckner or a diehard Red Sox fan. Anyway, it was a long time ago.

Back then, before the advent of electric carrier pigeons, if you were a newspaper on the fringes – meaning, you weren’t a metro daily covering major league sports on a regular basis – you got into major league games by writing to the ball club’s media relations department, stating your intentions on a copy of your newspaper’s letterhead. That’s how I’d done it as a legitimate journalist, when I had a press pass.

But now all I had was a press, and a print shop. So I designed a masthead for the phony The Hillside Tattler, shrunk it down to create a piece of letterhead and typed a letter to the Braves media guy (I think it was the late, great Wayne Minshew), begging for a pass, claiming our newspaper, located in a distant rural Georgia town I made up, wanted to write a feature story about what it’s like to play out the string of a major league season. Our uncultured rube readers would get a real kick out of that, I wrote, more or less.

The red hot Houston Astros were coming to Atlanta to play the Braves for a late September three-game weekend series. The Astros were on their way to an epic National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. The Braves were on their way to the cellar. I asked for two passes for a Friday night game, which happened to be my birthday – one for a writer (me, the fake editor of the fake newspaper) and one for a photographer (my brother Steve, who actually is a great photographer).

The passes arrived in the mail and we went to the game. Got there in time to see batting and fielding practice, saw NBC broadcasters Tony Kubek and Bob Costas. My brother, who is a little over 5-foot-8, smiled as he noted how short the 5-foot-7 Costas is.

Then we met Yogi, also 5-foot-7, but that didn’t elicit any cracks from my brother or me. We’d grown up with a father who was a big Yankees fan so Berra was something between a saint and a super hero in our house, the archetype clutch player, one of the greatest catchers ever, who helped the Yankees win 10 World Series then led both the Yankees and the Mets to the World Series as a manager. The bow-legged Berra could have been the size of a bowling trophy. He was still a giant.

He was coaching the Astros at the time, standing near the third-baseline watching the team workout. He kindly answered a couple of questions, and I wrote it down in a reporter’s notepad that I later asked him to sign – further proof that I wasn’t an actual journalist at the time, and I don’t know if Yogi saw through the facade or cared.

The thing is, he didn’t give me any Yogi-isms, just answered my questions about the Astros’ pennant run, said something about the season Houston ace Mike Scott was having, how he looked forward to playing his old team, the heavily favored Mets, in the upcoming NLCS and how he was pretty used to busy Octobers, what with all of his postseason history. “What am I gonna do,” he said, “go on vacation? This is my vacation.”

Then he went back to work.

The Braves won the game, 5-4, then lost seven of their last eight games.

Eventually, we lost the print shop and I went back to sports writing for about 10 years. Covered a lot of baseball games, got to cover some World Series, including the Braves championship run in 1995. Those were some great times, and all of it on the up and up, with actual stories written on deadline and everything.

But the first Major League game I ever covered was the Yogi game, and I was there under false pretenses. So, I didn’t write about it until now, almost 30 years later. Next time, I won’t wait for Yogi Berra to die to get around to it.

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