by Clark Groome

Growing up a Philly sports fan and attending high school in Connecticut, where I was surrounded by avid New York and Boston loyalists, I’ve always disliked the Big Apple’s sports teams.

For all the passion New York haters, including this one, put into their feelings, Yogi Berra, who died last week at 90, made it hard to hate the Yankees.

Thousands of words have been written about what a great baseball player he was. Thousands more have also been written about his classic and often unexpectedly wise approach to the language.

And how many pro athletes have had a cartoon character named for them? None other than Yogi. His cartoon namesake, Yogi Bear, was almost as popular as he was.

You’d have to search pretty hard to find any American sports figure as widely loved as Yogi Berra. But he played for those damn Yankees.

Berra was perhaps the oddest superstar in the baseball era before “superstar’ came into the language. Most of the time he was the New York Yankees’ catcher, with occasional games off from the crouch to play the outfield (mostly in left field but also in right). He even started two games at first base and one at third over his 2,116 games in Yankee pinstripes.

An 18-time all-star, Berra had a career .285 batting average. He connected for 2,150 hits and 358 home runs in his 19 seasons. A Baseball Hall of Famer, he won three American League MVP awards (1951, ’54, ’55) and played in 14 World Series, on the winning side 10 times, earning him more World Series rings than any player in Major League history.

After his playing career was over, he coached and managed, winning three more rings as a coach, two with the Yankees and one with the New York Mets.

Known as much for his open and guileless personality, he enchanted and befuddled people with his use of the language. While on the surface much of what he said sounded ridiculous, on closer examination his Yogi-isms were often filled with wisdom and truth.

When the Mets team he was managing was struggling mid-season he noted, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Turns out he was right. That team went on to win its division that year.

When shadows bothered him in left field, he noted that “It gets late early out there,” which from his perspective indeed it did.

When he couldn’t get into his favorite St. Louis restaurant after years of being a loyal customer because the eatery had become extremely popular he noted, correctly, that “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Some of what he said was just delightfully funny. When asked what time it was he once asked, “You mean now?” Upon hearing that Roman Catholic Dublin, Ireland, had elected a Jewish mayor he said, “Only in America.”

There are others: “It’s déjà vu all over again,” “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore,” and, in another flash of wisdom, “You can observe a lot by watching.” You sure can.

The great thing about this man was that he never took himself seriously. He took what he did seriously, of course, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the numbers he had as a player, coach and manager, but he was self-deprecating and known for his sense of humor and sense of humility.

And he made hating the Yankees just a tad harder than it should have been. That taught me a big lesson.

It’s OK to admire and even root for players who represent the enemy (Wayne Gretsky or Flourtown’s Mike Richter when they played for the New York Rangers, Bill Bradley when he was a New York Knick, Atlanta Brave Chipper Jones and Yankee greats Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter among them) as long as they’re not causing the Home Town Heroes trouble.

Yogi was special. He not only was a great ballplayer, a tremendous ambassador for his game and a first-class human being, he proved Leo Durocher wrong.

The man credited with saying “Nice guys finish last” obviously didn’t know Yogi Berra when he made that statement in 1946.

Yogi and many others have proved that nice guys often do finish first. Few of them, however, had the flair and the appeal of this funny-looking likable Yankee (not, in this case, an oxymoron) from St. Louis who amazed us on the field and delighted us off.