Shortly after being released by the Houston Astros following the 1987 season, the Baltimore Orioles contacted Dale Berra about becoming a player-coach with their Triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings. The son of beloved American icon Yogi Berra was grateful an organization would still see something in him and be willing to take a chance on a person whose career had been tainted by his involvement in a sport-rocking drug scandal just a few years earlier. In the time it took a Nolan Ryan 100 mph fastball to zoom from finger tips to catcher’s mitt, Dale accepted the Orioles’ offer.
Though 30 years old, he thought he still might be able to resurrect his playing career. And Wings manager Johnny Oates gave him ample opportunity to show he still had it. He played Berra at every infield position and even allowed him to mop-up four games on the mound. But it soon became apparent that years of cocaine usage had, in Berra’s words, “eaten into my reflexes.” A dozen seasons after being drafted out of high school in the first round by the Pittsburgh Pirates, he stumbled to the finish with three home runs, 13 runs batted in and a .181 average in 69 games and was released.
As we discover in Berra’s candid new memoir, “My Dad, Yogi,” that would be the swan song to his baseball career, but not to his drug addiction. His self-destructive journey would take him from foul lines to cocaine lines to more bad headlines, from Triple-A to Double-A—Alcoholics Anonymous. Returning to his native New Jersey and old habits, he wound up being arrested a second time for cocaine possession in 1989.
As part of a plea bargain, Berra agreed to pay a $1,000 fine, attend rehab and speak to students about the dangers of drugs. As is the case with many addicts, he stayed sober for about a year, then relapsed. His habit damaged not only him, but also his family, leading to a divorce from his first wife. Montclair, N.J. is a small town, and word spread in 1992 that Dale was using again. Early that year, after a night of more coke snorting, he received an early morning phone call from his dad.
“Get up and get over here,’’ Yogi told him in a stern voice. “I want to talk to you.”
When Dale arrived, he saw his father, mother and two brothers, Larry and Tim, seated in the living room. He quickly realized this was an intervention. The last of them to speak was Yogi.
“As ever, he was direct, blunt,’’ Dale wrote. “No wasted words. ‘I want to be your dad, but if you keep on doing this, you’re not a Berra anymore. That’s it.’ ”
Dale said his father’s ultimatum hit him “like a fastball to the noggin. I could tell he wasn’t (kidding). He meant it. He’d thought about it and was down to his wit’s end with me. And he wanted no more of it. That was when I knew my game was up. The con was over.”
Yogi went on to tell Dale: “You’ll have no brothers and no mom and dad. We won’t be in your life.” The Berras had always been a close-knit family, and Dale couldn’t fathom a life without his parents and siblings. After a few seconds of stunned silence, he responded, with Yogi-like brevity, but deep meaning, “Okay, got it.”
To paraphrase two of his father’s most quoted malapropisms, Dale had reached a fork in the road. It really was over.
“As funny as it sounds, my first thought was that I’d been handed a gift, a gift from God,’’ he wrote. “I’d been given my life back, to restart it, to push the reboot button. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind I would never do drugs or take a drink again.” He’s been sober for 27 years, in large part, because a Hall of Fame ballplayer/dad wound up making a save far more significant than any you’ll ever find in a boxscore.
Dale’s book provides insight and perspective into what it was like to be the son of an All-Star catcher who helped guide the New York Yankees to 10 World Series titles. Though the shadow cast by Yogi was formidable, Dale blames poor personal choices rather than his father’s fame for causing his addiction. The subtitle says this is a “Memoir of Family and Baseball,” but this is as much a book about a son’s struggle with drugs and alcohol, and how a father never gave up on him despite all the grief Dale caused. From the moment of the intervention until Yogi’s death in 2015, he and Dale developed an even stronger bond. America may have come to love the late Berra for his humorous wordsmithing—“It ain’t over till it’s over” and “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But it wasn’t a Yogi-ism that resonated most deeply with Dale. Instead, it was a simple conversation near the end of his dad’s life.
“You all right, kid?’’ he asked Dale.
“Yeah, Dad, I’m all right.”
“Kid, that’s all I want to hear.”
You won’t find those words in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” but you will find them in Dale Berra’s new book and in his heart. During difficult times, he remembers that brief, loving exchange with his father. It helps him make it through another day.
“He said people who turn their life around get a lot of respect,’’ Dale wrote. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been sober for the last 27 years, and there’s nothing that will prevent me from remaining that way. For him. And for me.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.