Why it's no coincidence that Yogi Berra was a catcher

Famed baseball player, manager, and cultural figure Yogi Berra died last night at the age on 90. There are countless obituaries and remembrances of him today. I’ll list a few of them at the bottom of this piece and I encourage you to spend a few minutes learning more about him. But for Dear Sports Fan, the question I asked myself about Yogi was, “is there some aspect of his story that you need some type of specialized baseball knowledge to appreciate?” The answer is yes. Yogi Berra was a catcher, and given his position as a cultural icon, a source of folk-wisdom and self-deprecating wit, he could really only have been a catcher.

To be a successful catcher, one must be a talented and diligent student of humanity. Someone who doesn’t know baseball might think that the most important qualities for a catcher are strong knees to withstand all the crouching and fast reflexes to be able to field 100 mile per hour pitches. A catcher’s job is much more subtle and complicated than that. Catchers are the primary person responsible for deciding what pitch a pitcher should throw every time he winds up. Most pitchers have a variety of pitches they can execute: a fastball – which generally flies straight, an off-speed pitch, which looks like a fastball but fools the batter by arriving at the plate a beat or two later than he expects, a curveball, which dips dramatically down as it approaches the plate, a slider, which moves down and to one side. Each of these pitches can also be thrown so that they cross the plate at the center of the strike zone, high, low, inside (toward the body of the batter), outside, or outside of the strike zone in any direction as well. The trick to getting a batter out is to literally trick her by choosing a combination of pitch types and locations that she doesn’t expect and cannot react to. A catcher needs to know the tendencies of each batter and be able to read their state of mind as they walk up to bat and throughout the time they’re there. What was the impact of that last fastball thrown low and outside? Will the batter be fooled by a change-up thrown in the same location or are they now expecting us to try that trick? If they’re expecting it, can we fool them by throwing another fastball in the same spot? At the same time, a catcher has to manage his relationship with the pitcher. What is his mind-state? Is he confident? Shaken? Fatigued? Angry? What will motivate him to throw harder? More accurately?

A great catcher possesses an incisive understanding of his teammates, his opponents, and himself. He is a student of humanity. As we know from his many pithy quotes, whether he said them or not, Yogi was one of the best students of humanity ever. It’s no surprise that he was a catcher. It almost had to be that way. If this understanding of the role of a catcher in baseball is new to you, then you may now understand what Yogi meant when he said of baseball, “90 percent of the game is half mental.” Actually, on second thought, you might still not.

To continue to celebrate Yogi’s life, here is a small selection of the many articles and obituaries published this morning:

Sports Lives, March 2015

Obituaries are a wonderful source of amazing stories about people you wish you had known more about when they were alive. That’s true in sports as in so many aspects of life. This week, I read three amazing pieces about recently departed sports figures.

The Hit

by Stefan Fatsis for Slate

In today’s climate of concern about brain injuries in football, it’s hard to remember that football’s culture was exactly the opposite for many years. Football glorified its violence for decades and in doing so, it made heroes out of players who injured another player in a particularly epic way. Chuck Bednarik became one of those heroes after he hit Frank Gifford in 1960. Gifford was injured so badly on the play that he missed the rest of that season and all of the next. Bednarik was glorified. This one incident became Bednarik’s main claim to fame and was (quite literally as we found out last week) in the first paragraph of his obituary. The hit unquestionably caused a terrible injury, but for the most part, the idea that it was a brutal hit remained unquestioned until Steven Fatsis researched it and wrote about it this week. What he found may surprise you.

So was it a blindside tackle to the chest? A right shoulder under the chin? Or a forearm to the chest? Was Bednarik moving at full speed? Did the blow itself knock Gifford out? Was it one of the hardest hits ever?

Let me respond to those questions: no, no, no, no, no, and no.

Patrick McDarby, Sport Logo Designer, Is Dead at 57

by Margalit Fox for The New York Times

Sports logos are so ingrained into the fabric of the teams that they represent that they’re almost invisible. You can’t think about the Toronto Maple Leafs without the leaf or the Oakland Raiders without their eye-patch festooned pirate. If we rarely think about the logos themselves, we almost never think about the people who design them. Patrick McDarby was one of those people.

Over the years, Mr. McDarby designed more than 200 logos. For each, he received a flat fee, no royalties and, by the nature of his craft, little public recognition…

The design of sports logos entails singular challenges. In a small space, and only two dimensions, the artist must convey a sense of movement, excitement and power. The design must be simple enough to be immediately interpretable but evocative enough to be enduringly memorable. Ideally, it should distill the very essence of the thing it represents.

Dean Smith requested $200 be sent to each of his former players in will

in Sports Illustrated’s Extra Mustard column

When legendary North Carolina basketball coach, Dean Smith, died last month, the sports world poured out an unbelievable slew of tributes to him. He was, by all accounts, a good person as well as a great coach. He was an early leader in integrating college basketball in his area. One of the things that made him special was the tight connection he developed with his players, which continued throughout his and their lives. This week we found out that it actually continued a little bit past Dean Smith’s life.

In the letter Smith’s former players received from Miller McNeish & Breedlove, PA, it was revealed that Smith requested each of his former players be sent a $200 check with the message, “enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Dean Smith.” The enclosed checks also included the notation, “Dinner out.”