“It’s like I’m the valet,” said Ron Guidry, the former star pitcher known around the Yankees as Gator for his Louisiana roots. “Actually, I am the valet.”
When Berra arrived on Tuesday afternoon from New Jersey for his three- to four-week stay, Guidry, as always, was waiting for him at Tampa International Airport. Since Berra forgave George Steinbrenner in 1999 for firing him as the manager in 1985 through a subordinate and ended a 14-year boycott of the team, Guidry has been his faithful friend and loyal shepherd.
Guidry had a custom-made cap to certify his proud standing. The inscription reads, “Driving Mr. Yogi.”
“He’s a good guy,” Berra, the Yankees’ 85-year-old honorary patriarch, said during an interview at his museum in Little Falls, N.J. “We hang out together in spring training.”
By “hanging out,” Berra means being in uniform with the Yankees by day and having dinner with Guidry by night. That is, until Guidry, who loves to cook and rents a two-bedroom apartment across the road from where Berra stays, demands a break from their spring training rotation of the five restaurants that meet Berra’s approval.
“See, I really love the old man, but because of what we share — which is something very special — I can treat him more as a friend and I can say, ‘Get your butt in my truck or you’re staying,’ ” Guidry said. “He likes that kind of camaraderie, wants to be treated like everybody else, but because of who he is, that’s not how everybody around here treats him.
“So I’ll say, ‘Yogi, tonight we’re going to Fleming’s, then to Lee Roy Selmon’s tomorrow, and then the night after that you stay in your damn room, have a ham sandwich or whatever, because the world doesn’t revolve around you and I’m taking a night off.’ ”
Berra played 18 years for the Yankees, from 1946 to 1963, and was part of 10 World Series champions. Guidry pitched from the mid-1970s through 1988, played on two World Series winners and was a Cy Young Award winner in 1978, when he was 25-3 with a 1.74 earned run average.
While Guidry was blossoming into one of baseball’s premier left-handers, Berra was a coach on Manager Billy Martin’s staff (and later became Guidry’s manager). They dressed at adjacent stalls in the clubhouse of the old Yankee Stadium. Eager to learn, Guidry would pepper Berra with questions about what he, as a former catcher, thought of hitters.
Berra would say, “You got a great catcher right over there,” nodding in the direction of Thurman Munson. But Guidry persisted, and their bond was formed.
During Berra’s self-imposed absence, Guidry saw him only on occasion, at card-signing shows and at Berra’s charity golf tournament near his home in Montclair, N.J. When Berra returned, the retired players he knew best were no longer part of the spring training instructional staff.
“There was really nobody else that he had to sit and talk with, to be around after the day at the ballpark,” Guidry said. “So I just told him, ‘I’ll pick you up, we’ll go out to supper,’ and that’s how it started. It wasn’t like I planned it. It just developed.”
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