Astros, Braves, Yogi, and The Hillside Tattler

One reason that I’m glad the Atlanta Braves will be playing the Houston Astros in the World Series is purely nostalgic. The first Major League Baseball game I ever covered was Astros at Braves on my birthday in 1986. Got to meet Yogi Berra, who was a coach for the playoff-bound Astros at the time. Got to meet Dale Murphy. And the funny thing about it is, I wasn’t supposed to be there.

Here’s what happened.

My family had a print shop in Covington, Georgia. I’d left my job as sports editor at a tri-weekly newspaper in South Carolina to join the business but I missed being a sports writer and had always wanted to cover baseball. So I invented a non-existent newspaper called  The Hillside Tattler.

Back then, if you were a small newspaper on the fringes – or in this case, a fantasy newspaper – you got into major professional or college sporting events by writing to the organization’s media relations department, stating your intentions on a copy of your newspaper’s – or fantasy newspaper’s – letterhead.

So I designed a masthead for The Hillside Tattler, created a piece of letterhead and typed a letter to the Braves media guy, begging for press passes, claiming our newspaper (located in a distant, fictional rural Georgia town) wanted to write a feature story about what it’s like to play out the string of a major league season, because the Braves had been out of the division race since mid July.

My brother Steve took these shots of Yogi Berra at work for the Houston Astros, late in the 1986 season, when Houston was still a rival of the Atlanta Braves in the National League West. Now they’re in different leagues and squaring off in the World Series.

Meanwhile, the red hot Houston Astros were coming to Atlanta to play the Braves for a late September three-game weekend series en route to their epic National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. I asked for two passes for a Friday night game, which happened to be my birthday – one for a writer (me, the fake editor of the fake newspaper) and one for a photographer (my brother Steve, the fake photographer who actually is a great photographer, of the fake newspaper).

The passes were waiting at will call, and we got there in plenty of time to see batting and fielding practice, spoke with NBC broadcasters Tony Kubek and Bob Costas who were there in advance of Saturday’s telecast. Then we met Yogi.

We’d grown up with a father who was a big Yankees fan so Berra was something between a saint and a super hero in our house, maybe the best catcher of all time, the archetype clutch player who helped the Yankees win 10 World Series then managed both the Yankees and Mets to pennants. The bow-legged Berra might have been the size of a bowling trophy, but to us he was still a giant.

He was standing near the third-base line, hitting fly balls to guys in the outfield. He patiently answered a couple of questions and I wrote it down in a reporter’s notepad that I later asked him to sign – a shameless move that proved I wasn’t an actual reporter at the time, though Yogi didn’t see through the façade. Nor did he care. He went back to work.

The Braves won the game, 5-4, then lost seven of their last eight games, falling from fourth to sixth.

Eventually, we lost the print shop and I went back to sports writing for about 10 years. Covered a lot of baseball games, got to cover the World Series, including the Braves championship run in 1995. Those were some great times, and all of it on the up and up, with actual stories written on deadline and everything – no fake letterhead, no asking for autographs, no cheering in the press box.

But the first Major League Baseball game that I ever covered was particularly special. We got to meet Yogi Berra! Sure, it was covered under false pretenses and it would have been better if was, you know, legit. But as Yogi himself said, “if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Right on, Yogi. Right on.

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