Déjà vu all over again

In the immortal words of the great Yankee sage, Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

In the immortal words of the great Yankee sage Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Wait a minute, didn’t I just say that? It just goes to prove something else the great Yankee sage said: “It’s déjà vu all over again!” In both cases, he could have been talking about the 2000 presidential election.

Another illustrious philosopher George Santayana surely understood what Yogi meant when he wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Over the past three weeks, I have not been able to shake the feeling that we’ve been through this nightmare before and are doomed to keep repeating it. The last three weeks have felt like a cross between a wooly roller coaster ride and the movie Groundhog Day. Each day brings a stunning development in the race; each night, a 180-degree reversal of fortune. Just when we think we finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, the floor drops out from under us and we endure another free fall. The term for what we are experiencing is cognitive dissonance, a weird sense that something is not quite right. In other words, a feeling of déjà vu all over again.

The man who coined the phrase “It’s déjà vu all over again”, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra was one of my favorite players growing up in New York City. Perhaps because he was such an improbable hero on such an elite team. Even Yogi’s nickname did not measure up to the nicknames given to immortal Yankee Legends like the Sultan of Swat, the Iron Horse, the Yankee Clipper, and the Chairman of the Board.

Opposing players, managers and general managers underestimated Yogi. In 1942, Yogi was playing minor league ball and was approached by Cardinals General Manager, Branch Rickey. Rickey had just signed another catcher, Joe Garagiola, for $500, but he didn’t think Yogi was worth $500. So Rickey offered Yogi $250 and Yogi turned him down. Rickey reportedly said of Yogi, “He’ll never make anything more than a Triple A ballplayer at best.” It proved to be a fairly accurate assessment . . . of Joe Garagiola, not Yogi. But Yankees scout Leo Browne saw something in Yogi that every other scout missed. Browne convinced the Yankees that Yogi was worth the $500, so the Yankees signed him. Over the next dozen years, Yogi proved himself the best investment the Yankees made since they bought Babe Ruth’s contract from the Boston Red Sox for $125,000.

With his loveable goofy grin, teeth spaced too far apart, and squat pudgy body, Yogi looked like he didn’t belong in a New York Yankee uniform. He looked like a nobody standing next to his idol Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper. So graceful on the field, so dignified off the field, Joltin’ Joe was the antithesis of the squat slow-footed catcher. By every definable, tangible, quantifiable predictor of talent, Yogi simply didn’t measure up. But there exists no tool to measure the size of a man’s heart, in baseball or in life.

Overshadowed by superstar teammates like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Yogi was not graceful in the field, nor swift of foot, nor blessed with raw power or a picture perfect swing. In the batter’s box, he was a notorious hacker who chased pitches way out of the strike zone. And yet, despite his seeming lack of discipline, Yogi rarely struck out. In 1950, he fanned only 12 times in 597 at bats, an amazing accomplishment considering his wild swing.

Off the field too, Yogi was overshadowed by the notorious antics of hard drinking and barroom brawling teammates like Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle. Yogi eschewed the nightlife to spend time at home with his beloved wife Carmen or giving generously of his time to numerous youth organizations and other charitable causes. A modest man who made the most of his modest gifts, Yogi quietly led a remarkable life on and off the field. During World War II, he participated in the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach. He played on ten World Championship Yankee teams and won three Most Valuable Player awards (no one else won more). He managed both the New York Yankees and the New York Mets to pennants, and was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

When Yogi joined the Yankees in 1947, his roommate was Dr. Bobby Brown. Doctor Brown, then studying to become a medical doctor, was easily the smartest player in baseball at the time. The introverted intellectual Brown and the extroverted common man Yogi were the quintessential baseball Odd Couple. Yogi and Brown would sit next to each other on the bench, Brown poring over a medical textbook while Yogi read comic books. Once after finishing his comic book, Yogi turned to his roommate and naively asked: “Will you let me know how yours turns out?” When Yogi was given the rare tribute of a Yogi Berra Day, he was terrified at the prospect of having to deliver a speech in front of 60,000 people. His roommate Brown scripted a short speech for Yogi. In his stage fright, Yogi had trouble delivering his scripted remarks. He began by thanking his teammates and fans “for making this night necessary”. Yogi’s speech was an unintentional comedy hit, and a distinctly American oratorical device was born that night — the Yogi-ism.

Yogi’s unique genius consists of his ability to mangle the most commonplace of baseball cliches into wondrous paradoxes. The best Yogi-isms are not literally malapropisms, but a unique type of verbal faux pas that are on the surface nonsensical, but sometimes capture elusive truths. Some of my favorite Yogi-isms:

“I always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, when I die, they won’t go to mine.”

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

“That place used to be really popular before it got so crowded.”

“If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop them.”

Even Yogi’s effort to explain that many of the anecdotes about his misstatements were apocryphal somehow came out as yet another Yogi-ism: “I really didn’t say everything I said.”

But underneath the superficial nonsense of the classic Yogi-isms, there is wisdom in his mangled simplicities that transcends the pompous pronouncements of the chattering classes. “You can observe a lot by just watching,” Yogi once said. Surely, the Republican observers watching the hand count of ballots in Palm Beach County can attest to the wisdom of Yogi’s observation about the value of observation. “It ain’t over till it’s over.” The events of the last three weeks clearly testify to the profound truth contained in the most famous Yogi-ism of all. Certainly nothing Yogi ever said can surpass in foolishness some of the preposterous things we’ve been told repeatedly over the past eight years: “Character doesn’t matter,” “Everybody does it,” “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” and “There is no controlling legal authority.”

There is a world of difference between simple truths and clever lies. There is a world of difference between simple honest men and cunning, gifted charlatans. In a way that cannot be explained to people who do not appreciate those differences, Yogi Berra reminds me of George W. Bush. Both men received insults and wisecracks with grace and dignity and let their deeds speak louder than words.

Throughout campaign 2000, the mainstream media painted Bush as an empty suit and a simpleton, who just wasn’t smart enough to be President. Of course they did that to Dan Quayle and Ronald Reagan. As Yogi himself said, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Of course the media failed to point out that Bush’s SAT scores and college grades were higher than Gore’s or that he earned an MBA from Harvard Business School while Al flunked out of divinity school and Vanderbilt Law School. In the media’s eyes, strict conformity to liberal orthodoxy is definitive proof of intellect and compassion. Just ask Ted Kennedy.

In the media’s and liberal intelligentsia’s eyes, George W. doesn’t look like a President any more than Yogi looked the part of a New York Yankee. Bush’s success in business and politics are dismissed by pundits who never ran a business or successfully ran for public office as unearned spoils handed on a silver platter to the spoiled frat boy son of a wealthy and politically powerful ex-President. They see no irony or double standard when they attribute Al Gore’s achievements to a brilliant intellect and diligent work habits. The media belittles George W.’s record of service as a fighter pilot in the National Guard while praising Al Gore’s record of service as a reporter in Vietnam, far removed from the front lines. The media never tires of laughing at every George W.’s verbal faux pas with the same condescending air of know-it-alls who see only foolishness in Yogi-isms.

George W.’s intelligence, political savvy and talent have been continually underestimated by people who achieved less but think they know more. Governor Ann Richards badly underestimated him. It was sweet revenge for the Bush family as the spoiled son of the man with the silver foot in his mouth avenged her insulting comments at the 1992 Democratic Convention. John McCain, the media darling (at least when he was running against other Republicans) thought Bush a lightweight. But Bush surprised him by not folding as McCain and the media predicted when the going got tough. Somehow McCain’s experience and popularity with the pundit classes failed to earn the Senator victory in even one state that did not allow Democrats to vote in the Republican primary. And the self-proclaimed master debater Al Gore somehow managed to lose all three presidential debates to a man who simply showed up and was comfortable being himself while Al Gore preened and postured with histrionic theatrics and multiple borrowed personalities.

Three weeks ago, in a contest for the presidency of the United States, the American people were almost evenly divided between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush won the election by the narrowest of margins, but he won. After the required recount of the ballots in Florida, once again Bush won. In politics as in sports, the margin of victory does not matter as much as who won. Ask the Super Bowl Champion St. Louis Rams or the Tennessee Titans, whose last gasp drive was stopped less than a yard shy of the goal. With a few more seconds or an extra yard on that final drive, the Titans would have won the Super Bowl. When the final gun sounded, the Titans did not send an army of lawyers onto the field to challenge the outcome. Instead, as real heroes do, they walked proudly off the field. They earned more honor in defeat than Al Gore will ever know even if he persuades enough sympathetic judges and partisan canvassing officials to interpret enough dimpled chads as votes for himself or has thousands of unmistakably clear Republican absentee ballots thrown out on a technicality. Whatever the final outcome of this unprecedented assault on the electoral process, Al Gore will always be remembered for what he is — a liar, a loser and a cheat.

Perhaps some unforeseen good is coming out of the nightmare of the past three weeks. Perhaps it takes something as brazen as the attempted theft of a presidential election to rouse the American people out of its long slumber. Perhaps now Americans are beginning to see liberal Democrats for what they really are now that the masks have finally dropped. Three weeks ago, it would have been foolish to suggest that the President-elect had any kind of mandate. Today, by sheer arrogance, brazenness and dishonesty, Al Gore has managed to unite 60 to 70% of the country — against Al Gore.

To borrow a phrase from the great Yankee sage: “Thank you Al Gore and the Democrats for making these past three weeks necessary.”

© November 30, 2000

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