Tuesday, February 9, 2010

8 Days Until Spring Training: Yogi Berra

Like his good friend Phil Rizzuto, Lawrence Peter Berra had a formative experience as a young man with a respected Major League figure who told him that he would never become a professional baseball player. In 1942, Yogi was 17 years old and playing minor league ball when he was approached by Branch Rickey, then the general manager of the Cardinals. Rickey offered him $250 to sign with the Cards but Berra refused. When he did, Rickey supposedly said, "He'll never make anything more than a Triple A ballplayer at best".

Yogi held out for $500 from the Yankees and was assigned to their club in Newport, Virginia. In some ways, you can understand why Rickey wasn't willing to shell out the extra $250. Berra never looked the part of a baseball player (or athlete of any kind, for that matter). He was 5'8" and a sturdy 190-something pounds in his playing days, but his fire plug build made him perfectly suited for catching. They don't call Berra's kind of built "squat" for nothing.

When Yogi turned 18, the year was 1943 and World War II was kicking into high gear. Instead of waiting to being drafted into the armed services, he set aside his dream to play professional baseball and enlisted in the Navy himself. Unlike many established Major Leaguers who were part of the military, Berra spent his years in active duty and participated in the D-Day invasion as a gunner's mate on a rocket-launching craft. After Normandy, he was stationed in North Africa and Italy but suffered a hand injury and was sent back across the Atlantic.

When he got back to the States, Berra was stationed at the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut. After he was discharged from the Navy, he began playing for the Yankees' affiliate in New London. According to lore, Giants manager Mel Ott saw Yogi play in New London and offered the Yankees $50,000 for him. Yanks GM Andy MacPhail wasn't familiar with Berra but was pretty sure that if Ott wanted him that badly, he was worth hanging onto. The following year, Yogi spent half of the season with the AAA Newark Bears before being called up to the Yankees.

Growing up in St. Louis, the only time Berra had seen Yankee Stadium and said he was rendered speechless because it was so much bigger and grander than Sportsman's Park where he had watched the Cardinals as a boy.

It took Berra two seasons to take the starting catcher's job from Aaron Robinson and once he did, he never looked back. The 1948 season began a stretch of 15 uninterrupted All-Star game appearances which included three MVPs and four more top 5 finishes. Yogi's career also encompassed fourteen World Series appearances and ten championships, both of which are Major League records. In addition to those, he also holds the records for World Series games (75), at-bats (259), hits (71), doubles (10), singles (49), games caught (63), and catcher putouts (457).

Between 1949 and 1955, on a team filled with offensive studs including Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, it was Berra who batted clean-up and led the Yankees in RBI for seven consecutive seasons. Yogi was famously excellent at hitting poor pitches. Despite swinging at balls in the dirt and those over his small frame, Berra had nearly as many career home runs (358) as strikeouts (414). In 1950, Berra whiffed only twelve times in 656 plate appearances. When asked about swinging at bad pitches, Berra was reported to say, "If I can hit it, it's a good pitch."

As a fielder, Berra second to none. Under the tutelage of Bill Dickey, he blossomed to one of the better defensive catchers in the league. He was spry and cat-like in his crouch, leading Casey Stengel to say "he springs on bunts like it's another dollar". He led all American League catchers eight times in games caught and chances accepted and left the game with the AL records for catcher putouts (8,723) and chances accepted (9,520).

Yogi was also well-renowned for his ability to handle a pitching staff. He handled pitchers differently depending on their disposition, alternatively coaxing or prodding hurlers based on who he felt needed what. Casey Stengel got a lot of credit for how he deployed his pitching staff during the dynasty of the 50's and 60's, but Berra played a large part in that success as well, displaying a knack for what pitches to call and when. He caught both of Allie Reynolds no-hitters in 1951 along with Don Larsen's perfect World Series game in 1956.

Yogi was also remarkably tough and durable. He averaged 118 games behind the plate from 1949-1959 and caught more than 133 games every year from 1950-1956. In June 1962, at the age of 37, Berra caught an entire 22-inning, seven-hour game against the Tigers.

He was a part of the Yankees until 1963 and even in his last season he was productive, punching up a 138 OPS+ in 164 plate appearances. The following year, he served his first stint as Yankee manager. Despite leading the Yanks to 99 wins and a World Series appearance against his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, Berra was fired and replaced with Cards' manager Johnny Keane.

He resurfaced across town with Mets in 1965 as a player-coach. He put in two games behind the plate and two more as a pinch hitter in May, picking up 2 hits in 9 at-bats but soon decided that he was finished as a player. His coaching career, however, would go on. He stayed with the Mets for the next 8 seasons as an assistant manager under at first under Casey Stengel. He eventually took over as manager in 1972 after the sudden death of Gil Hodges. That same year, he was elected to the Hall of Fame along with Sandy Koufax and Early Wynn.

In 1973, he led the Mets to the World Series and in so doing, became only the second manager to win a pennant in both leagues, following only Joe McCarthy. He had also completed the feat in only 3 seasons as a skipper.

After two more years as manager for the Mets, he rejoined the Yanks as a coach and the team won its first of three consecutive AL titles. This uncanny ability to bring about good luck was not unnoticed. Stengel once said of him, "He'd fall in a sewer and come up with a gold watch." Berra was eventually elevated to Yankee manager before the 1984 season. The team won 87 games but finished a disappointing 3rd place in the AL East.

Berra agreed to stay with the job for 1985 after receiving assurances from George Steinbrenner that he would not be fired. However, the notoriously impatient Boss axed him after a 6-10 start to the season. Instead of notifying Yogi personally, Steinbrenner dispatched GM Clyde King to deliver the news for him. This caused a rift between the two men that would not be mended for almost 15 years. Yogi's replacement? If you guessed Billy Martin, you may or may not be a baseball historian.

On August 22, 1988, Berra and his predecessor Dickey were honored with plaques to be hung in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Berra's plaque calls him "A Legendary Yankee" and cites his most frequent quote, "It ain't over till it's over." However, the honor was not enough to cure the relationship between Steinbrenner and Yogi. That would not happen until January of 1999 when Steinbrenner publicly apologized to Berra. According to Steinbrenner at the time, "It's the worst mistake I ever made in baseball." The power broker behind the meeting? Suzyn Waldman.

Armed with only an 8th grade education, an unenviable physique and an uncanny wit, Berra became on of the most famous people in the world. Yogi has been featured in advertisements for Yoohoo, AFLAC, Entenmann's, and Stovetop Stuffing. Although he wasn't especially fond of being called "Yogi Bear", he did have the honor of having a Hanna Barbera cartoon named after him.

Of all the Yankee legends still with us, Yogi is undoubtedly the greatest character. Eighty four years young and still active with the franchise, today's Yankee fans are incredibly lucky to have him around. He currently operates the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Montclair, New Jersey. He spends a lot of time at the facility so if you make a trip out to the Museum, you just might have the privilege of chatting with the man himself.

Non-Roster Invitees Announced

At long last, the Yankees announced their non-roster invitees for Spring Training yesterday, tacking the list on to the tail end of the press release announcing the Marcus Thames signing. The announcement of the list comes just shy of the start of Spring Training, about a month later than it is usually announced, but most of the names on the list had either leaked previously or are no surprise.

A non-roster invitee is any player in camp who is not on the 40 man roster. Essentially the list is comprised of young prospects who don't yet need to be added to the 40 man, fringe prospects who aren't good enough to make the 40 man nor be selected in the Rule 5 draft, and veterans signed to minor league contracts. The Yankees' 40 man roster is currently full, so someone would need to be placed on the 60 day DL, traded, or designated for assignment in order for one of the twenty non-roster invitees to make the club. Very few of them have any real chance of making the team; most of them will serve to play the late innings of spring game and round out the split squad rosters. The Yankees have a lot of veterans on their team and none of them are likely to volunteer to make a three hour bus trip to Fort Myers.

That said, here's a look at the invitees:
Pitchers (10)
Wilkins Arias, LHP
Jeremy Bleich, LHP
Grant Duff, RHP
Jason Hirsh, RHP
Kei Igawa, LHP
Zach McAllister, RHP
Royce Ring, LHP
Amaury Sanit, RHP
Zach Segovia, RHP
Kevin Whelan, RHP
The lefties - yes even Igawa - have the best chance to earn a roster spot as second southpaw in the pen after Damaso Marte. To do so though, they'll have to leap frog Boone Logan, who was acquired as part of the Javier Vazquez trade. McAllister will be interesting to watch. He's the most polished starting pitcher in the organization and could see the Bronx at some point later in 2010. Hirsch, who has 150+ innings of experience with the Rockies and Astros, will likely start in Scranton. Bleich was a supplemental first round pick in 2008 but still figures to be a year or two away. Duff and Whelan are hard throwing relievers with control issues, both of whom just missed being added to the 40 man roster prior to the most recent Rule 5 draft.
Catchers (5)
Kyle Higashioka
Jesus Montero
P.J. Pilittere
Mike Rivera
Austin Romine
As exciting as it will be to see Montero and Romine in Major League camp, don't get your hopes about either sticking around. The Yankees will have 32 pitchers in camp and someone has to catch all those bullpen sessions. This actually will be the third consecutive year the young catching duo will be in Major League camp. Still, it'd be awfully nice to see these two top prospects do some damage at the plate this spring. It may not mean anything, but it'll certainly keep our hopes up for the future. Higashioka is another interesting prospect who figures to spend this year at low-A Charleston. Rivera has spent parts of the last four seasons as the Brewers' back up and is this year's Kevin Cash/Chad Moeller emergency option. Pilittere is an organizational player who should join Montero and Rivera in Scranton.
Outfielders (5)
Colin Curtis
Reid Gorecki
Marcus Thames
John Weber
David Winfree
Thames, as previously covered, will compete with Randy Winn and Jamie Hoffmann for the final two outfield spots. The rest of the invitees will likley combine with recent acquisition Greg Golson to make up the Scranton outfield. The Yankees' system is thin on upper-level outfield depth, particularly in the wake of dealing Austin Jackson, DFA'ing Shelley Duncan, and allowing John Rodriguez to walk this off-season. Curtis, coming off a strong stint in the Arizona Fall League, will be the only returnee from last year's AAA squad. Gorecki, Weber, and Winfree all spent last season in AAA for other teams. Gorecki and Weber are beyond prospect status, but Winfree is just 24 and may still have a future ahead of him.

8 Days Until Spring Training: Bill Dickey

With the possible exception of center field, no spot on the diamond has a greater lineage in Yankee history than catcher. We've had the privilege of watching Jorge Posada over the past thirteen seasons. Fans in the seventies had Thurman Munson; the sixties had Elston Howard; the fifties and late forties had Yogi Berra. But the line of great Yankee catchers began with Bill Dickey.

Born in Louisiana and raised in Arkansas, Dickey was purchased from the Jackson Senators in early 1928. Assigned to Class A Little Rock, Dickey spent most of the season there, played three games at Class AA Buffalo, and then made his Major League debut in August. Dickey played sparingly, coming to the plate just 15 times in 10 games, and was a spectator as the Yankees captured their second consecutive World Series.

The following season Dickey took over as the starting catcher, a position he would hold for the next fifteen years. Teammate Babe Ruth had ushered in an offensive era a decade earlier, but any offense coming from up-the-middle positions was still considered icing on the cake for the most part. Dickey, as well as contemporaries Mickey Cochrane, Ernie Lombardi, and Gabby Hartnett would help change that expectation for catchers.

Through the first eleven full seasons of his career, Dickey hit better than .300 ten times, posted an OPS+ of 109 or better each year, including nine seasons of 120 or greater, six seasons greater than 130, three seasons greater than 140, and a whopping 158 in 1936, good for second in the American League. He posted four straight seasons of 20+ HR and 100+ RBI as the Yankees won an unprecedented four consecutive World Series from 1936 through 1939. In an era when catchers were valued for defense first, if not defense only, Dickey was amongst the offensive elite at any position.

Dickey began to slow starting in the 1940 season, his workload gradually being reduced to slightly more than half the schedule. While he no longer posted the same lofty numbers of his prime years, he still produced quite well for a catcher. In 1943, with the talent pool depleted by World War II, Dickey enjoyed a renaissance, posting a .351/.445/.492 line (173 OPS+) in 85 games, setting career highs in average, on base, and OPS+. All three would have been good enough to lead the AL, but the 36 year old catcher did not accrue enough plate appearances to qualify for the leader board.

Dickey enlisted in the Navy the following spring, and missed the 1944 and '45 seasons while serving in Hawaii. He returned to the Yankees for one last season in 1946, but it would be one to forget. In limited duty, Dickey posted decent numbers for a 39 year old catcher, but it were issues outside the lines that made for an unpleasant return. Longtime manager Joe McCarthy resigned 35 games into the season, plagued by off field issues and by conflict with the new Yankee front office. As the veteran leader of the club and the last tie to the Ruth years, Dickey was handed the reigns to the club as player-manager. He managed the club to a 57-48 record over the next 105 games, but didn't finish the season. He appeared in his final game on September 8th and then resigned four days later. Despite their superstars returning from World War II, the team struggled to a third place finish.

Dickey was given his release on September 20, 1946, missing the Major League debut of the next great Yankee catcher by two days. Yogi Berra, a good hitting, poor fielding catcher came up from Newark and made his debut on September 22nd. He spent the next two seasons splitting time behind the plate and in the outfield, hitting extremely well but leaving much to be desired with the glove. In 1949 Dickey rejoined the Yankees as a coach, and as Yogi said "he learned me all of his experience". Berra inherited Dickey's old number eight, and improved vastly behind the plate, going on to become arguably the greatest catcher in history.

Dickey remained on the coaching staff through 1957, scouted in '58 and '59, and rejoined the staff in 1960.

For his career, he made eleven All-Star teams, including nine straight from 1936 through 1943, and finished in the top ten in MVP voting five times. Including his brief stint on the '28 team, he played on nine AL Pennant winners and eight World Series championship teams. He went on to earn another six rings as a coach.

At the time of his retirement, amongst catchers Dickey trailed only Gabby Hartnett in home runs in slugging, was second to Mickey Cochrane in batting average and runs, was fourth in OBP, and was the leader in RBI. He remains on the catching leaderboard in most major offensive categories and still has the fourth best all time OPS+ amongst catchers. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954, and the Yankees retired number eight for both him and Berra in 1972. The pair were later given plaques in Monument Park in 1988.