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BILL DWYRE

Joe Garagiola still sees the fun in baseball — and life

With the help of eye surgery, Garagiola is as quick as ever at drawing out smiles about the game and its personalities.

January 14, 2011|Bill Dwyre
(Allsport )

From Phoenix — Joe Garagiola's speed on the basepaths was the stuff of legends.

"I'd get to first base and I'd have to beg the guy to hold me on," Garagiola says. "I'd plead with him that my kid was watching at home on TV and I didn't want him to be embarrassed.

"When I was coming up, a scout reported that my speed was deceptive. He said I was slower than I looked."

Garagiola is a month from his 85th birthday, and his real speed, the thing that made him a household name in every household that had a television set for the better part of three decades, remains intact. His quips haven't lost a step.

"You have dinner with Tommy Lasorda," Garagiola says, "and you become like a pitcher. You need four days' rest."

Breakfast with Garagiola is not breakfast. It is a drumroll. Ba-da-bum.

The great news is that he is back. The sad news is that, at his age, people stopped missing him.

After a major league playing career, from 1946 to 1954, that did not lead to the Hall of Fame, he began a broadcasting career that did.

From his humble beginnings in the modest St. Louis neighborhood still known as The Hill, where Yogi Berra also lived and made Garagiola "the second-best catcher on my street," he parlayed a post-baseball, banquet-circuit life into a regular spot on NBC's "Today." Along the way, while doing lots of network baseball broadcasting with the likes of Tony Kubek and Vin Scully, he also sat comfortably and frequently alongside Jack Paar and Johnny Carson and mingled with kings and movie stars.

He has never really retired. He lives in Phoenix and expects to do perhaps a dozen Arizona Diamondbacks broadcasts this season.

A year or so ago, that expectation would have come with the disclaimer: health permitting. Currently, his health is doing exactly that.

His problems started with cataract surgery, when a doctor saw something behind Garagiola's left eye. It turned out to be a sizable tumor, growing so dangerously near his eye socket that few surgeons wanted to tackle it.

"The first guy said, 'I can see it, but I can't do it,'" Garagiola says. "I was a guy with a 3-and-2 pitch and I was barely fouling it off."

Eventually, he found Dr. Joseph Zabramski of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, who said he knew what to do and would do it.

"I told him he should have been a pitcher," Garagiola says. "With confidence like that, he'd win 40 games a year."

Six hours of surgery, a later follow-up procedure and months of therapy have Garagiola back in the game, so much so that he will be among the honorees Saturday night at the annual Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner at the Century Plaza. This dinner attracts some of the biggest names in the game — from Hall of Famers to Commissioner Bud Selig. But Garagiola, a career .257 hitting catcher, needs to take a back seat to no one when it comes to contributions to the game. Many did it with bats and arms; Garagiola did it with his personality.

"There's a lot of ham in me," he says.

And he is off.

"Scully was the best," he says. "I could never be as sharp. One night, we're doing a game and there is a collision at home plate and the catcher's padding, his falsie, flies out. So Scully starts in on me: 'You ever use a falsie? Come on, fess up. You had one in there, right?'

"I didn't. I used a sponge. But he keeps after me and he knows he can get something good out of me. So finally, I just give up and say, 'Nope. Never had a falsie. I didn't want to get emotionally involved.' "

He says that Berra, who lives in Montclair, N.J., and is nine months older, remains important in his life.

"We talk all the time," Garagiola says. "He is a 2 a.m. friend. You can call him at 2 a.m. and he'll be there for you. You only need three of those in your life.

"I still get a kick out of how many lines get put on Yogi. He hasn't said all the stuff everybody gives him credit for. But there are times, well, when he is Yogi. He'll say something and you'll take about four or five steps and stop and say, 'What did he say?'

"He walked into a hotel one time and all they had in his room was a Murphy bed. He had no idea what that was, so he says, 'What am I supposed to do, sleep standing up?' "

The repartee is infectious.

Garagiola says that had Dr. Zabramski not succeeded in his surgery, "I'd be chasing pop fouls for St. Peter now."

Zabramski replies, "I didn't want to be remembered as the guy who traded Joe Garagiola to the Angels."

Garagiola is back. He can't go first to third anymore, but then, we're not sure that mattered.

From this man with the bald head, warm heart and fun-loving approach to life, we never coveted his liners.

Just his lines.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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