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Former Baseball: Guidry relished being Yogi’s buddy

Kevin Foote, The Advertiser, Oct. 4, 2015

UL’s news Athletic Hall of Famer Ron Guidry relished the close relationship with all-time Yankees legend Yogi Berra before the Hall of Fame catcher’s death on Sept. 22.(Photo: The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE)

Think of the last six weeks that former New York Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry has experienced.

This past weekend, Guidry was inducted into the UL Athletics Hall of Fame.

He spent all weekend receiving a hero’s welcome as the university honored perhaps its greatest all-time athlete.

The former UL southpaw was honored by the recognition. He expressed how much he hoped his ground-breaking inclusion as the first without a degree because of his extraordinary athletic achievements will open up doors for future ex-Cajuns who stood out in the world of professional sports.

About six weeks before that, however, Guidry’s mood was very different.

On Sept. 22, someone whose life and superstar appeal that far exceeded that of Guidry died.

A week later, Guidry attended the funeral of his dear friend, Yogi Berra.

In my mind, Berra lived the greatest sports life of any athlete ever.

And Guidry – yes, that same quiet, young left-hander who pitched on a field that has existed for decades somewhere near Girard Park for the then-USL Bulldogs back in 1969-70 – was one of his closest friends in the last 15 years of his life.

“I agree,” Guidry said. “Yogi was the best. He was a special man. He was a very modest man.

“Yogi loved to talk to you about baseball, but he never really talked about himself or his career, unless you asked him a specific question.”

As the story goes, Guidry drove Berra around spring training one day in 1999.

As Guidry explains it, “Once Yogi got into a routine, that was it.”

It started in 1999 because it took until then for George Steinbrenner to apologize to Berra for not firing him as the club’s manager face-to-face.

Yogi felt he had earned that right and he was correct.

“Those years away from the Yankees were really hard on Yogi,” Guidry said. “He talked about that.”

But once Yogi was back, he needed someone to be his chauffeur. Yogi appointed Guidry and who’s going to argue with Yogi Berra?

Certainly not someone who learned his manners and how to respect your elders in South Louisiana.

“It was hard when Yogi died,” Guidry said. “We had grown very close and we’re all going to miss him.”

Guidry didn’t get to see Yogi before he died.

“And really, I was kind of glad. I didn’t want to remember him that way.”

In a visit Guidry will cherish forever, his last encounter with the legendary Yogi Berra came in June.

“I was able to sit down with him and watch an entire Yankees afternoon game with him,” Guidry said. “I was able to spend four hours with him. We talked baseball, we told stories and we laughed like we always did.

“That’s how I want to remember Yogi, just as he was that day watching the game together.”

Talking baseball and laughing was something the two did at some level for almost four decades.

Berra joined Billy Martin’s coaching staff in 1976. A year later was Guidry’s first full season in the big leagues.

It was a great time to be a young Yankee player.

“Just think about the 1970s,” Guidry said. “So many of the great Yankee legends were all still around then. Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Elston Howard, Whitey Ford, Yogi, so many of those guys.

“The day we always looked forward to the most each year was Old Timers Day. All of those guys would be there. You would walk in and they’d be dressing in your locker. It was a great experience.”

Guidry said he remembers being astonished when Ford raved about how he wishes he had Guidry’s arm when he pitched.

“I was thinking, ‘Yeah right, I’m in my second year in the big leagues and you won over 200 games’,” Guidry said. “When they said things like that to us, in my mind what they were saying was, ‘You could have played when we played.’ That made you feel good.”

By 1999, Gator – as the Yankees call Guidry – was one of those older players than the younger stars and older fans couldn’t wait to run shoulders with as he and Yogi strolled around spring training in Tampa, Fla.

The hero’s welcome that Guidry received this past weekend while attending the UL homecoming ceremonies on campus was nothing compared to how fans reacted when they saw Yogi.

“It always amazed me,” Guidry said. “The look on their faces when they would see Yogi always made me laugh. He was like a rock star. They would come up to him and ask questions and take pictures with him. He was like a god.”

Then there came a time when Yogi was the one asking the questions. Driving this baseball guri to spring training was about more than just getting him there.

“He wouldn’t remember their names, but he’s ask about different players,” Guidry laughed. “It would be about that tall left-handed hitter or however he would describe them. He wanted to know about them. I’d make sure that I had my sheets on all the players ready, so I could answer his questions.”

Perhaps it was time for that role reversal after all the years of Yogi answering everyone else’s baseball questions.

“His knowledge of the game was phenomenal,” Guidry said. “But think about it, he probably started playing baseball when he was about 10 years old and he was 90 when he died. That’s 80 years of playing the game, coaching the game and teaching the game.”

After being around Yogi for so long, Guidry began to realize there was nothing orchestrated with what the baseball icon said.

“We would be eating dinner and he was say something,” Guidry said. “I would have to make him repeat it to make sure I understood what he was saying.

“I don’t think there will ever be another one like Yogi.”