“Straight back," says the man coaching Yogi Berra into a chair in a restaurant overlooking Old Tampa Bay.
Berra sits, and the man scoots his chair toward the table. "Dude, you need to go on a diet," he grunts. Berra cackles.
Who talks like that to one of baseball's greatest living legends? One of his best friends, fellow former New York Yankee Ron Guidry.
The longtime camaraderie between the catcher and the pitcher is the subject of Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball's Greatest Gift, a new book by New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton.
In it, Araton tells the story of the friendship that developed between the pair when they began hanging out together during Yankees spring training in 2000. Because much of Driving Mr. Yogi takes place in and around Tampa, Araton's publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, held a book launch party March 14 at the Rusty Pelican restaurant for family, friends and media. (The book's publication date is Tuesday.)
Considered one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, Berra holds enough honors and records to fill another book. He actually did fill another book, The Yogi Book, with trademark "Yogi-isms" like "You can observe a lot by watching" and "It ain't over till it's over."
At 86, the formerly formidable athlete has had some health problems. He walks slowly, with a cane, and looks to have lost several inches in height. But, clad in a Yankees jacket, he smiles and chats with friends over dinner.
Guidry is 25 years younger, fit, tanned and dapper in black silk shirt and slacks. The much-honored pitcher known as "Gator" and "Louisiana Lightning" jokes that the dinner menu was supposed to include Cajun-style frog legs — one of his specialties as a chef, and a huge favorite of Berra's, as Araton writes. "Yogi was afraid we wouldn't have enough for him," Guidry says.
Araton, who lives in Montclair, N.J., is in attendance at the launch party, too. The book began a couple of years ago, he says, "when my black Lab died, the dog of my life." His friend and neighbor Dave Kaplan and Kaplan's wife took Araton and his wife out to dinner to console them. Kaplan is the director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center; he mentioned that when Berra went to spring training, it was always Guidry who picked him up at the airport and helped him get around.
Araton scented a story; it appeared in the New York Times in February 2011, then grew into the book. The long form gave Araton room to recap highlights of both men's careers, as well as describe the events that led to Berra's 14 years of self-imposed exile from Yankee Stadium and spring training.
Team owner George Steinbrenner, notorious for his cavalier treatment of employees, fired Berra as the Yankees' manager in April 1985, after promising Berra not to make a change that season. Steinbrenner "didn't even deliver the news himself," Araton writes, "leaving it to his general manager, Clyde King, to tell Berra. . . . it was a terrible demonstration by the Boss, one that Berra would not soon forgive or forget."
It would be 1999 before, with prodding from sportscaster Suzyn Waldman (also on hand for the book party), Steinbrenner would travel to the Yogi Berra Museum and apologize.
That opened the door for Berra to begin attending spring training again. Then working as a pitching scout for the Yankees, Guidry jumped at the chance to spend time with him, remembering that Berra had mentored him back in the day.
Driving Mr. Yogi paints a warm and funny picture of the resulting friendship, wrapped around plenty of raucous baseball stories and laced with the insults and banter that don't really hide the deep relationship between the two baseball greats.
"He's real happy about the book, but he won't read it," says Berra's wife, Carmen, chic in a flowing blue scarf. "He likes to read, but he never reads about himself. He never has."
Guidry echoes that a few minutes later, addressing the crowd. "I won't read this book. I hope you all like it, and I know Harvey has done a good job.
"But I don't need to read it. I lived it." He puts his hands on Berra's shoulders. "I got what I need right here."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.