Everyone remembers Yogi Berra for different things; die hard Yankees fans will remember him for his steady gutsy play. Baseball purists will remember him for all the World Series wins and the Hall of Fame induction, and yet most casual observers will remember him for the way his ‘Yogi-isms' have permeated through the society to become regular colloquialisms and sayings that many can’t even attribute to the proper owner.
But I'll remember him forever for something entirely different. I'll always remember Yogi for possibly the only Yogi-ism that actually made a good bit of rational sense, and most importantly, it was personal to me. I'll never forget the conversation we had, even if ever so brief in the bowels of the famed Yankee Stadium.
So let's jump back a bit...
In 2011, I worked with the New York Yankees, handling a number of tasks and projects related to business operations and the legal department, even having the opportunity to develop great relationships with the then Chief Financial Officer, General Counsel and the Chief Operating Officer. While there, in addition to an unforgettable professional experience, my greatest hope was to meet some of the Yankee legends. This is in spite of the fact that I grew up loving both the Yankees and the cross-town Mets.
Now, I know that sounds contradictory, as most fans don't cross the subway series line - but there's good reason. My father grew up in the South Bronx, just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, old and new, and as I child many of my summers were spent at my grandparent's apartment near Grand Concourse hearing the sounds of summer emanating from the stadium.
My love for the Mets however was much more isolated and relegated to my favorite baseball player, and a brilliant business man, Bobby Bonilla. The reason is exceptionally arbitrary, and really he’s my favorite player for no real good reason, but instead because his name was etched into my first baseball glove, shallow I know, but I loved the Mets because of it.
Well even the most-casual Yankee fan knows the names Jackson, Berra, Jeter, Ruth, Mantle, Munson, etc. But not all Yankee legends are still alive, so my hopes were limited in whose path I might cross. Before it was all said and done, I got the chance to meet and interact with Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mark Textiera, Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, and many others. Barely missing Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, who had come down my hall when I was out on a research assignment.
But there's only one player, whom I had a chance to speak with, that I remember everything they said when I met him to this day.
It was the Yogi!
On an assignment, I had to do some research in the bowels of the stadium, as that's where the archived records are retained and catalogued. Preparing for a rather mundane task, that was brightened by the opportunity to spend some time in Records with the nice team who operated the area, I wasn't expecting much from the day.
However, as soon as I exited the service elevator at the field level, I saw the Yogi. As it was hours before game day, I wasn't anticipating seeing any of the VIPs or Legends. My tie was loosened, I don't even believe I had my suit jacket on, I was probably whistling something out of tune - all this to say, I wasn't prepared for my encounter. I tried to not look too starstruck, but don't believe I could help myself.
Yogi was there with one or two others, and I reached out to shake his hand. He gave me the warmest, toothy smile he was well known for, shook my hand graciously, and very politely asked my name. I'm sure I stammered through it, and then he took notice of my ID badge, which would indicate that I was working in the executive office, and I'm sure my youthful face didn't reflect the experience that the badge imposed and we sparked conversation.
Yogi asked me a couple of questions that's stuck out at me; he asked, what department I worked in, I told him legal and business operations. He countered with an inquisitive, "you're a lawyer?" and all I could say is, "I'm working on it, that's the next step, but I'm in law school now”.
He asked what law school I went to, and what year I was. I proudly told him, and he asked me how school was going. I couldn't tell you exactly what my response to him was, but I do remember what he said next.
In his old-time Italian accent he retorted to me:
"I was never a good student, that's why I quit; and really, I wasn't a great baseball player either..."
I took that last statement as a joke and let him know I thought it was. The not a good student part, I couldn’t argue with, I had heard the stories of how he quit in grade school and became a student of the baseball diamond. But because of that, and all he’d done, how could the great Yogi Berra be saying he was never a great baseball player? He was the starting catcher for the Yankees, played in more World Series than any other player and had NUMEROUS wins under his belt. But what he said next was a piece of some of the best advice in business, law and general life that I've ever received.
"No, I was never a great baseball player, but I worked hard. And that's the one thing they can never take away from you, your own hard work. No matter where you start, it's all about where you end…so never be afraid to work hard."
I was taken aback, it was some of the most poignant information anyone had ever said to me. But what did it mean? I don’t think I was able to process it at the time he said it; but my subconscious heard the message, and retained the information. The affable nature of my response made Yogi and his entourage laugh - like I said, my shock and star-stuckness wouldn’t subside.
The power of Yogi’s words didn’t set in until I was back in my office, but the smile on my spirit has lasted to this day. Another great Yankee has a more famous quote about hard work,
“…its hard to beat a person who never gives up…”
- Babe Ruth
While the Ruth quote is true, the Yogi quote is the one that will always stick in my heart. No matter what material you achieve in life, or in business you an lose a lot; but as Yogi said, your own hard work is the one thing that no one can ever take from you, “...so never be afraid to work hard."
So thank you Yogi for being not only a great Yankee, and making my day, but also giving me something that will always stick with me. Life and the journey you take is never about where you start, but solely on where you end, and ultimately what will get you to the end is your own hard work.
With that said, rest in peace Yogi!