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Striegel: We woke up to loss of 'jewel' Yogi Berra

Catcher Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees

Catcher Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees with the ball which he hit into the upper rightfield bleachers at Detroit's Briggs Stadium for his 237th home run, setting a new major league home run record for catchers in 1956. Credit: AP

Yogi Berra was a lovable paradox. He was a pop culture caricature with the funny name, but a man of character who stood up to the bluster of George Steinbrenner;  a poor man's Shakespeare whose head-scratching bits of wisdom are part of our vernacular; and the rarest of birds, a respected baseball icon with a warm place in the hearts of fans of both the Yankees and Mets.

His plaque at the Hall of Fame tells that he played on more pennant winners (14) and World Series champions (10) than anyone else. He hit 358 home runs and caught 148 games without an error. He was a three-time MVP and managed the Yankees to the pennant in 1964. It's a shame, in a way, that he was inducted into the hall in 1972, because not on the plaque is the fact that he managed the crosstown Mets to their second pennant just a year later, in 1973.

He is the man whose wonderful utterances are quoted by presidents and will entertain us forever: "It's not over till it's over," "Nobody goes there anymore - it's too crowded," "Why buy good luggage; you only use it when you travel," and "I really didn't say everything I said."

He was a simple man but a proud one, too. He managed the Yankees to an 87-75 record in 1984, but missed the playoffs. When the team started 6-10 in 1985, Steinbrenner fired him - and Yogi vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium.

Berra rebuffed invitations to Old-timer's Day, did not attend when the Yanks added a plaque in his honor to Monument Park in 1988, and even stayed away when his friend and old teammate Phil Rizzuto was honored.

Even when Steinbrenner tendered his resignation as general partner in 1990, Yogi refused to return. "'To me, I don't think he's out of it yet, so I don't know when I'll come back,'' Berra told The New York Times.

But the two men made up in 1999 when a contrite Steinbrenner traveled to a museum named after Berra at Montclair State University in New Jersey.  Only after that would Berra return as the prodigal son for Yogi Berra Day on July 18, 1999.

His passing Tuesday at age 90 will grab New York City headlines away from a visiting pope, but one wonders if  Lawrence Peter Berra, a devout Catholic, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio wouldn't be kindred spirits. Both are beloved for their thoughtful decency and humility.

Yogi's simplicity - the uncanny ability to hit balls out of the strike zone without thinking too much, or summing up a moment with an unintended contradiction - was his gift.

Yankees fan Billy Crystal once told "60 Minutes," "I don't think you can explain someone like Yogi. It's too hard to do. I can't even attempt it. Because that would be to damage what is just a delightful little jewel that we should cherish."

Lawrence Striegel is an editor for Newday's Opinion section.