My warmest memory of Yankee Stadium is of a rainy and chilly day. This was April 9, 1999, the day Yogi Berra finally came home.
It was a day so many waited for and feared might never happen. For 14 years, Yogi, a man always at peace with himself, never buckled under constant pressures to return to the place where he'd become such a beloved legend. I learned a lot about Yogi in my new job as director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center. Mostly I learned that beyond his warm and fuzzy public image, he's deeply principled and a man of honor.
And being dishonored by George Steinbrenner two weeks into the 1985 season, when he was fired as manager without the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or personal phone call, rubbed him badly. Yogi's subsequent self-imposed exile he quietly vowed never to return as long as The Boss was in charge was admired by legions. He was the Yankee who couldn't be bought.
Fast forward 14 years when George flew up from Tampa in the dead of winter to our Museum in New Jersey. He came seeking forgiveness, in person, for one of "the worst mistakes I ever made." Yogi graciously accepted his apology in a private meeting, and slyly hinted he would return to Yankee Stadium.
So he did on Opening Day. Yogi and his wife Carmen were encircled by TV crews and photographers right outside the Stadium entrance. I was nervously excited for him as he was ushered into the employee entrance. What was he feeling? Did he ever believe this day would come? Wearing an overcoat and blue blazer and a baseball tie, he ambled his way down the steps into the Stadium's underbelly, through the twisting corridors to the Yankee clubhouse. As I walked alongside him, he almost seemed a little lost, not familiar with the surroundings. Later he admitted to a case of Opening Day nerves as if he'd never been away.
Yogi made his rounds in the clubhouse, warmly greeted by players who'd never met him. Old friends like Joe Torre, Don Zimmer and Mel Stottlemyre eagerly embraced this gnome of a man whose remarkable life and history were so intertwined with Yankee Stadium.
Finally, as the Yankees gathered in the dugout for the pregame ceremonies, which included the raising of the 1998 championship banner, there Yogi sat on the bench. Players walked by patting him on the leg for good luck. Then Bob Sheppard, in his inimitable style, created a hush in the crowd when he said, "Now let's welcome back a special guest..."
He listed Yogi's incredible accomplishments, including his record 10 world championships, and called him "a source of inspiration to his teammates a man of conviction...Let's welcome back," said Sheppard, his voice rising, "Yogi Berra, No. 8." The Stadium erupted with a deafening roar. I was allowed to watch from the corner of the dugout as Yogi walked to the mound in a driving rain where David Cone applauded with his glove. He shook Cone's hand and tossed the first pitch to Joe Girardi, who rushed toward him with the ball, excitedly. "Thanks Yogi, this is a real thrill," he said. Then as Yogi walked off, he gave a half-wave to the crowd which was still standing, cheering and chanting, "Yogi...Yogi...Yogi." For the man famous for saying it ain't over til it's over, it was over. Yogi Berra was back in Yankee Stadium.