Rumor sweeping Florida spring training: These are not the Yankees. They are imposters. Pod people. The real Yankees have been kidnapped and are on their way to Jupiter.
Evidence: Like they say in the movies, it’s too quiet. Each spring the Yankees lead the league in soap opera and locker-room turmoil. This year—with Boss Steinbrenner lying low—everyone in camp is laughing, smiling, kissy-face. The sportswriters are deeply depressed.
Especially about the Dale Berra trade. For a while there, it looked like a virtual Berragate. Briefly: The Yanks—who are managed by Yogi Berra, 58—obtained Yogi’s infielder son, Dale, 28, from the Pirates this winter. (The Berras’ père-et-fils act is the first in the big leagues since 1914, when Connie Mack managed his boy Earle.) Immediately fans of the pinstriped version of All My Children licked their lips. Visions of a nepotism-riven clubhouse danced in their heads.
What they got was the Stepford Yankees. “If he does the job, he plays. If not, he sits,” shrugs the imperturbable Yog. “We believe Yogi,” says Don Baylor, Yankee designated hitter. “If the kid earns it, he’ll play.” (Not every day, though. Dale, who hit .222 with 52 RBIs last year, will platoon at third.)
Desperate for our annual fix of Yankee controversy, we travel down to Florida to confront Dale. Does he think he’ll choke under the pressure of playing in New York? The 6-foot, 192-pound infielder just smiles, staring at the Me-He-for-Yoo-Hoo sign (his dad’s endorsement) in right center. “I’m elated; it’s a dream come true,” he says, giving 110 percent in the cliché department like the great athletic interview he is. “This is the first time my dad has seen me play on the pro level.”
Yogi calls Dale an “adequate” infielder. Well, maybe if you happen to be boxer Roberto Duran, whose nickname is “Hands of Stone.” Playing out of position at short last year—the scouts think he’s a natural third baseman—Dale committed a league-leading 30 errors. Is he bitter, we wonder innocently, at the fans who savagely booed his defensive lapses last year? Nah, the kid understands. A lifelong Giants football fan, he admits, “I boo as much as anyone when Phil Simms throws four interceptions.”
Dale and his wife, Leigh, live five minutes from Yogi and his wife, Carmen, in Glen Ridge, N.J. The kid grew up in the leafy suburb of Montclair, N.J. with brothers Larry, now 34 and an ex-Mets prospect, and Tim, 32, a former NFL wide receiver. Psychologically Dale came of age in the Yankee clubhouse of the early ’60s, as Yogi’s Hall of Fame career wound down. “I remember wandering around the locker room,” says Dale. “I’d see Mickey Mantle shaving, Tony Kubek getting dressed…” He was awed and deeply influenced by what he saw—the camaraderie, the needling, even the inane pranks. “I decided that was the kind of life I wanted to lead,” he says. “The ballplayers were grown men, and at the same time they were kids. They were young at heart.” But this is a search for controversy, not lyricism. So when Yogi found out Dale wanted to play ball, he made him practice till his hands were bloody, right? “Dad could care less,” says Dale. “I’d ask him to play catch and he’d say to me, ‘You got brothers, go play with them.’ ” The insensitive, unnurturing macho brute. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Over in the manager’s office, Yogi chews a plug of Red Man and spits daintily into a Styrofoam cup. It’s unfair to compare father and son—so let’s: Dale is a solid major-leaguer. Yogi was one of the all-time greats. In his 18-year career with the Yankees, he won the Most Valuable Player award three times and played in 15 All-Star games. An eighth-grade graduate, Yogi was a “natural” with a flair for lunatic self-expression. “How can you hit and think at the same time?” is one of the more famous Berra-isms. Also: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” While Dale may not be the hitter his father was, he occasionally rises to his level as a linguist. “Our similarities,” he once said, with perfect Berra-istic accuracy, “are different.”
We ask if it’s true Yogi fobbed off poor Dale on his brothers. Turns out it’s a family tradition. “That’s how I learned baseball,” he says. “From my three brothers.” Suddenly Yogi is back in Depression-era St. Louis, in the area then known as Dago Hill. “My dad was an immigrant who wanted me to get a paycheck,” he says. “But my older brothers pleaded for me: ‘Pop, we’re all working. Give him a chance to play.’ ” Berra shakes his head, spits. Were it not for the deferred dreams of his brothers, his son might not be living his dream come true. Berra snaps back to the present. “Yeah,” he says, “I’m excited I finally get to see my son play.”
We’ll see. Baylor remembers what then-Minnesota manager Gene Mauch would say about his shortstop nephew, Roy Smalley: “When he’s hitting, he’s my nephew; when he’s not, he’s my sister’s kid.”
Note to Editor: Would like to do a story about the mysterious disappearance of the real Yankees—the ones who fight and bicker. However, once the winning and losing start in earnest, we feel they will rematerialize. Especially if Detroit jumps out to a 10-game lead. Again.