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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Lucky and Good

The first-place Mets, you might say, were lucky Tuesday night. True, they lost for the fifth time in seven games — 6-2 to the Braves — but they won a valuable square foot of real estate in their march toward the National League East title when the Nationals lost to the Orioles. Their magic number dwindled to 6, proving that being lucky on top of being (usually) good has its benefits.

Met luck isn’t always appreciated in the modern age, but once upon a time they were led to the precipice of the promised land by someone considered by his peers the luckiest man on the face of the earth…someone also considered one of the best to ever ply his craft.

Yogi Berra was legendarily lucky and unquestionably good. If you have that going for you, there’s not much that can go against you.

Berra — whose presence as a Met catcher, coach and manager for eleven seasons between 1965 and 1975 was so constant that it barely occurred to a kid reaching baseball consciousness in that period that he’d had anything to do with anybody else — passed away Tuesday night at 90. It was the last night of summer, but fall was already firmly in the air. The first thing I thought of when I heard the news this morning, what with the window open and a soft breeze brushing by, was that this is Yogi’s time of year. When others might be putting a wrap on their baseball seasons, Yogi’s was just getting going. He played, managed or coached in 23 postseasons, from his rookie year with the Yankees in 1947 to 1986, when he was the bench coach for the National League Western Division champion Astros. Nobody came to the plate more often in World Series competition and nobody recorded more hits. Nobody else guided a team from each league to the seventh game of the World Series.

As this autumn alights, each of the three franchises for whom Yogi Berra wore a uniform is well positioned to make it to the playoffs. It’s a fairly fitting tribute to how whatever he touched eventually turned to good.

Yogi Berra was a fall classic unto himself. And he wasn’t bad the rest of the year, either. Take April, for example. April 1972, to be specific. That was the month Yogi accepted his second managing job, taking the reins of our New York Mets. It was under the worst circumstances imaginable. The man he coached first base for, Gil Hodges, had just died young. It still stands as the most tragic episode in the history of the franchise. Gil was already a legend. Now he was a saint. There could be no tougher act to follow.

But Yogi followed it. “I don’t like the way the job came,” he would say later. “But I want to prove I can manage.”

He did so once before, after his Hall of Fame playing career with the Yankees wound down. He took over the 1964 club at the end of its dynastic run and led them to one pennant more than perhaps they were due. They were 5½ out with 38 to play, yet finished first. He got them to Game Seven against Bob Gibson and the Cardinals. For his troubles, he was fired.

The Mets swooped in and gave him a home. Yogi would coach (and briefly catch) for Casey Stengel. Casey gave way to Wes Westrum, who gave way to Salty Parker, who gave way to Gil Hodges, who brought about the miracle of 1969, with three trusted lieutenants from his Washington Senators days — Rube Walker, Joe Pignatano and Eddie Yost — plus Yogi. Always Yogi. A World Series was being played, a World Series was being won, there was Yogi, just as it had been almost without pause for the Yankees before the Yankees booted Berra out of the Bronx.

That worked out fine for us and fine for Yogi. He belonged to us from 1965 forward. He’d put on No. 8, he’d trot out to the first base box and good things would tend to happen. Many things went right in 1969. The luck of Yogi was not to be discounted. How lucky was Yogi?

He was the player who had already booked a later flight and thus wasn’t on board when the team plane was bounced like a basketball.

He was the customer who, during Spring Training, waited for his fellow coaches to pay for and pick up their laundry first and then, as he approached the cash register, discovered his receipt came printed with a star, denoting he was the establishment’s something-thousandth customer and therefore got his clothes back at no charge.

He was, as a teammate once put it, blessed with great luck to even out the grand scheme of things. As Phil Pepe related the theory in The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra, “If God had to make somebody who looked like Yogi, the least he could do was make him lucky.”

Had he not been called to take on the impossible task of following Hodges, Yogi probably could have settled in for the long haul and remained a first-base box fixture at Shea Stadium. Instead, he put himself on the line. He would be the manager of the Mets, with all the pressure that implied. He inherited a ballclub that was supposed to win in 1972. His good humor would be tested. His likeability would be dented. It couldn’t help but be. It was his show.

Yogi brought the Mets out of the gate fast — 25 wins in 32 games. A team that could have been excused for grieving was playing its best ball since 1969. It’s a detail that seems to get glossed over when the quick start is recalled. The ’72 team was populated to a great extent by players who matured into major leaguers under Hodges. To this day, they speak reverentially of Gil in tones no player will likely ever summon for a manager again. Yet there they were, in the wake of losing Hodges, playing hard and winning for Yogi.

It had to be more than luck that was transpiring under those trying conditions. None other than Stengel had attested to the smarts and skills Berra brought to bear. “My assistant manager,” Casey called him when he caught so durably and dynamically for the Yankees. “I never play a game without my man.” In the decades to come, it would become fashionable to second-guess the Mets’ choice. They were clumsy in not waiting more than a couple of hours after Hodges’s funeral to name Berra as his successor and they were shortsighted in not giving serious consideration to their farm director (and another Stengel acolyte) Whitey Herzog. Perhaps. But Berra proved the right man to keep the franchise going at its darkest hour. In the rush to quote his most irresistible malapropisms, what he knew about baseball and how he applied it to a team that badly needed it shouldn’t be glossed over.

Once more to Mr. Stengel: “They say Yogi Berra is funny. Well, he has a lovely wife and family, a beautiful home, money in the bank and he plays golf with millionaires. What’s funny about that?” Casey might have mentioned the 358 home runs, the three MVPs, the fifteen All-Star selections, all of that World Series bling, the love and admiration of multiple generations and (though the Ol’ Perfesser had to watch it from the upper Upper Deck) the ability to draw a standing ovation from a Shea Stadium packed with Mets fans and Yankees fans who had been snarling at each other prior to the first pitch of the first interleague game between the two teams in 1998.

The first pitch was delivered by Yogi — in a Mets cap. Of course everybody rose and everybody cheered. Nobody snarled when Yogi Berra was in the house.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much luck could do in the face of mounting injuries as 1972 got away from Yogi and the Mets. But the best of Berra was yet to come. Actually, the worst of mounting injuries was yet to come, too. The 1973 club was supposed to pick up where the 1972 club fell apart. Instead it crumbled further. After a decent enough start, the Mets dipped below .500 in late May and into last place in late June. For extended stretches, there was no Jerry Grote; no Bud Harrelson; no Cleon Jones. Not to mention there was absolutely no clue as to what was wrong with Tug McGraw.

Yet there was a glint of luck shining through. While the newspapers mulled over the possibility that the Mets would do what the Yankees had done nine years earlier and pin the blame on Berra — a possibility chairman of the board M. Donald Grant didn’t exactly discourage from being discussed — the Mets never fell so far into the basement that they fell out of the race. They were aided immeasurably by a division that was never definitively wrested from their theoretical grasp. But what a wild theory it was to think the Mets were still in it. A team in last place as summer churned down to its nub coming on to win a title seemed too fanciful a proposition for even those who bore witness to the miracle of ’69.

But Yogi had been there four years earlier and Yogi understood something everybody else was slow to comprehend.

On August 17, the manager examined the standings in the N.L. East. The Mets hadn’t been very good — 53-65, sixth place in a six-club circuit — but the deficit between them and the first-place Cardinals was a mere 7½ games. The gap had been larger at that stage of 1969, and the Mets had come back then.

So why not now?

“We’re not out of it, yet,” was Berra’s mantra into the middle of that August. “We can still do it.” It was more than a case of the You Gotta Believes in the manager’s mind. “Everybody in our division had some kind of streak except us, and I had my whole team back,” he said. “I felt if we could go on a little streak, we could make a move.”

Indeed, on August 17, Harrelson, Grote and Jones were penciled into the same starting lineup for the first time since August 1. By August 31, the whole team had begun to sharpen. They climbed out of last that day and into fourth on September 5. Two weeks later they were in the midst of the most remarkable journey any team has taken in any week in any September.

On the 18th, they beat the first-place Pirates and sat in fourth place, 2½ back.

On the 19th, they beat the first-place Pirates and reached third place, 1½ back.

On the 20th, they beat the first-place Pirates (the glorious Ball Off the Top of the Wall affair) and took second place, one half-game out.

On the 21st, they became the first-place Mets, beating the Pirates and taking a half-game lead.

Once Yogi’s crew was ensconced, they stayed ensconced. He had the regulars he wanted where he wanted them. Grote behind the plate, John Milner at first, Felix Millan at second, Harrelson at short, Wayne Garrett at third, Jones in left, a platoon of Don Hahn and Dave Schneck in center and Rusty Staub in right. Jones, Garrett and Staub were the hottest hitters on the planet. The pitching — Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman, George Stone forming the most formidable of rotations and a rejuvenated McGraw blowing minds and saving games out of the pen — yielded almost nothing.

Yogi Berra hadn’t panicked and Yogi Berra was proven a prophet. He let his players play and he watched his players win. First a division, then a pennant, then three games against the first club that could legitimately claim the dynasty tag since his old Yankees. Yes, he could’ve started Stone in Game Six at Oakland. Yes, he could’ve had a better-rested Seaver ready for Game Seven. Yes, he might’ve thought about sending Willie Mays up for one final at-bat when the Mets were barely holding on against the A’s. Mays was at the end of the line, but he had also been one of the handful of players in the history of baseball who had fashioned a more spectacular career than Berra. Yes, Yogi could have conceivably done a few things differently and maybe helped win the 1973 World Series for the New York Mets.

But no, nobody else got the 1973 New York Mets to the World Series and I don’t know that anybody else could have. We still relish that stretch drive. We still cherish the touchstone that is summed up so logically in his irrefutable statement that it ain’t over till it’s over. We still Believe in Mets team after Mets team because of that Mets team.

Yogi Berra was the manager. Lucky for us he was good at it.

14 comments to Lucky and Good

  • mikeL

    beautiful piece greg!
    that’s the team that marked my entry to baseball and met fandom, though i arrived very late in the season, hopping on the mets colorful bandwagon, led by tug mcgraw.
    ahh, dave schneck. i remember the high hopes i had for him in the season (or two?) that followed – that he would become a big-time slugger.
    RIP yogi…too bad he couldn’t see the mets and astros make it back to the post-season.
    (yes the mets will make it to the post-season! LGM!)

  • Dennis

    Wonderful tribute. RIP to the manager of one of my favorite Mets teams and seasons. A tremendous ambassador for baseball, a true gentleman, veteran for this country, and a great family man who was successful on & off the field. Goodbye Lawrence Peter Berra.

  • Eric

    Fair winds and following seas, S1c Berra.

  • Steve D

    Yogi loved his time with the Mets. It was like a family in the early days. A YOGI 8 patch is definitely warranted for the rest of the season and hopefully into a World Series.

    • Rob D.

      Given the team’s financial issues, I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept all the “KID 8” patches from a couple of years ago, cross out “KID” and handwrite “YOGI” and hope no one notices.

  • Matt in Richmond

    Man, what a ball player and what a character. In my town everything starts closing early, even the bars close at 2am. I am fond of telling newcomers that it gets late early around here. Thanks Yogi

  • Dave

    Aside perhaps from Casey himself (but by now one has to be of a certain age to remember him even as a retired senior citizen), there is no one but Yogi that Mets fans and Yankees fans can agree on…although I’ve always been quick to point out that his most famous quote is date-stamped 1973. And I’m definitely with Steve D, a Yogi patch right now just might help some of that luck rub off.

    I’m a Montclair State alum, and he lived just a few blocks from the campus…in one of the more modest homes on a street filled with extremely immodest homes. Never acted like royalty, but he sure was. And when you get a chance, look at those stats…in 1950 he struck out 12 times – 12 times! – in 650+ plate appearances.

  • rod gaspar

    Great article Greg…we all know what a great baseball player Yogi was, but he was also a very humble and nice man. Whenever I was around him at the ballpark, card shows, etc., he always treated me well…a truly remarkable man.

    rod gaspar, 1969 Mets

  • Pat

    Lovely, Greg. Mr. Berra would smile.

    And put me down for a Yogi patch.

  • eric1973

    “We still Believe in Mets team after Mets team because of that Mets team.”

    How true, Greg. A perfect gentleman.

    Yogi’s wife called him one day and said she just saw Dr. Zhivago. Yogi told her he didn’t even know that she was sick.

  • Kollapse2015 v3.0

    Collapse. 2015.
    Bank on it.

  • metsfaninparadise

    I am a fan BECAUSE of that stretch drive. Before Aug 31 1973 the Mets, and baseball, were a part of the background of my life. Since then they’ve been in my consciousness virtually every minute of every day. Now they’re a welcome distraction as I’m dealing with my father’s brain tumor. From the bottom of my heart, thank you Yogi, and thank you to everyone in the extended Mets family–we’re all true to the orange and blue together