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Monday, September 23, 2013

Once Bloodied, Captain Carl Yastrzemski Gets Bronzed

Yaz enjoys his day (Associated Press)

I couldn't find my "Yaz Day" shirt yesterday morning, but that was okay -- someone else who spent the past 30 years saving the white tee with the caricature that more closely resembled Governor Mike Dukakis than Captain Carl Yastrzemski managed to dig hers out. It was the least she could do given the circumstances.
Hers still fits -- mine not so much.

They unveiled a statue for Yastrzemski yesterday at Fenway Park, just a few feet away from the bronze likeness of the man he followed in left field for the Red Sox: Ted Williams. Yaz and Teddy Ballgame, together at last outside Gate B. 

After a week that marked the coronation of the 2013 Boston club, an immensely likable and surprisingly talented team that went from last place to an Al East title in one year, Sox fans got to take a short trip back to when the only thing atop the Green Monster was a net and one man spent parts of six presidential administrations guarding it.
Legends from Left: Rice, Ted, Yaz (Justyn Farano)

It had been a rainy morning but there were far more cameras than umbrellas being held up when the festivities got underway at 11 a.m. People complain a lot these days about the "Pink Hatification" of Fenway, but it was definitely a hard-core, blue-collar crowd of several hundred that gathered around the roped-off area where Yaz's family, several teammates, and current Red Sox players were assembled for the ceremony.  

Siblings Mavis and Jim McGetrick, standing right beside me, were a perfect example. They drove up from Providence wearing matching white Yaz painter's hats, each emblazoned with his uniform number eight on top and lined on the sides with some of the stats that helped define the day's honoree: 3,000 hits, 400 home runs, 7 gold gloves, and the 1967 MVP and Triple Crown awards. 
Mavis and Jim still have their pennant too.

The McGetricks also came north toting a boombox of the vintage used by John Cusack to win over Ione Skye in "Say Anything." What did they have in the cassette deck? What else but "The Man They Call Yaz," the Jess Cain tune that flew up the Boston radio charts during the summer of '67 and was later captured on the "Impossible Dream" album found under countless Christmas trees that December.

Another guy behind the McGetricks recalled being a freshman at BU and heading to Fenway for four straight nights in September of 1979 as a slumping Yaz remained stuck on 2,999 hits. He finally got his 3000th against the Yankees, a ground ball that skipped slowly past slick-fielding second baseman Willie Randolph on the Captain's last at-bat before a road trip. Though never proven, the non-play was likely one example in the long, heated Red Sox-Yankees rivalry when respect trumped hatred. Number 3000 was a hit meant to come at home.

His feats in '79 -- when he also had his 400th home run -- were historic, but  1967 was clearly Yastrzemski's most memorable year. In addition to his league-leading 44 homers, 121 RBI, and .326 batting average, he led the upstart Sox to the World Series with a .437 mark in the final 20 pressure-packed games of the greatest pennant race in American League history. He played left field with style and excellence, diving in front of and against the Wall and routinely nailing baserunners who dared to take an extra bag. On the bases himself he was daring but always smart.
Yaz in 1967: The perfect player.

Yaz won games for the Sox in every way imaginable during '67, and reignited Boston's passion for baseball much like the 2013 team has done. The difference is that while it was only one bad September and one bad season that preceded this year's resurgence, the 1967 club was the first in more than 15 years to offer New England fans any September excitement. "Crowds" at Fenway of less than 10,000 fans were common in the mid-1960s; even after least year, it's hard to imagine such apathy ever being repeated.

For those of us born in the late 1960s, a period that coincided with Yaz's peak, our memories of Captain Carl are from his white jumpsuit years -- when he was no longer the best guy on the field but still had the ability to turn on a Ron Guidry fastball or throw out a Willie Wilson at second when the situation demanded. We copied his familiar bat twirl and pants tug, but our only images of him as the perfect player came from highlight films.
Yaz in '78: the Jumpsuit Years.

Yastrzemski was not as naturally gifted a hitter as Ted Williams, but he worked just as hard at the craft. One of the most powerful moments of yesterday's ceremony for me was when Yaz's longtime teammate Dwight Evans, another of my favorites as a kid, discussed how Yastrzemski would spend 40 minutes after spring training games taking extra batting practice.

"We didn't wear batting gloves then, and you'd see blood on the handle of the bat," Evans said. Such a tale might seem apocryphal with some ballplayers, but nobody doubted it was true in this case. Yaz was a dirt dog long before the term existed.

I joined Red Sox Nation in April of '67, just before Yastrzemski's magical sixth season began, and I was already into my junior year of high school when I headed on the Green Line to Fenway for his final two games on Oct. 1-2, 1983. I got my Yaz shirt and cap and souvenir program and hoped he'd bow out with a homer like Williams.

Things didn't go quite as dramatically. He managed just a single over the rainy weekend, and popped up on a terrible 3-and-0 pitch in his final at-bat. We didn't really care, however; it was how he ran around the entire ballpark waving goodbye that we would always remember.
Yaz Day: What we remember.

There were programs made up for ceremony too, and I was lucky to get one of the pile handed out to fans by none other than Dr. Chalres Steinberg right after the unveiling. Fans later got a Yaz baseball card as they entered the ballpark, but the neatest piece of memorabilia I picked up was a enlarged, mounted photograph taken at the exact moment depicted in the statue -- Yaz tipping his helmet to a roaring crowd during his last at-bat. 

A guy was selling prints dated and autographed by the photographer for $20 apiece, and when I approached him he said he took the picture himself from his box seat back in 1983. By then he was asking $10 a picture, as sales had not been going well; since I only had a twenty on me, I bought two and gave one to my friend Scott -- who was at Yaz Day with me in '83 and also on hand for Sunday's ceremony.
The $10 photo

In a short but moving speech to the crowd during his 1983 farewell, Yastrzemski mentioned seeing a sign in the crowd that read, "Say it ain't so, Yaz." Pausing, his voice cracked as he said, "I wish it wasn't." This spontaneous and poignant display of emotion from the usually stoic ballplayer earned a roar from the masses.

Mavis and Jim McGetrick remembered the moment perfectly, because they were the ones holding the sign in the left-field seats. They showed me a fading Polaroid to prove it, and Jim laughed and said he had a cassette of the speech with him too if I wanted to hear it.
Mavis (center) holds her sign in 1983....

...and yesterday.

By then it was time for Yaz's latest speech, and as his custom he kept it short. He got a bit choked up only once, when he mentioned how he wished his "biggest fan," his late son Carl Michael, could be there. He praised the current Boston team -- represented at the event by manager John Farrell, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and current left fielders Daniel Nava and Jony Gomes -- and said it reminded him of the '67 crew. When he mentioned that the statue meant as much to him as being inducted into the Hall of Fame, the crowd applauded. 
Yaz admires his likeness (Kelvin Ma, Boston Herald).

There was no speech for Yaz at the ballgame after the ceremony, just a first-pitch strike to current Red Sox hero David Ortiz before the Boston-Toronto contest. Oritz later homered in the game, which finished in 2:13 -- a quick pace far more the norm back in Yastrzemski's day. 

Will Yaz be back one more time in 2013 to throw out a first pitch? If he is, there will likely be a National League team sitting in the visitor's dugout. That would suit Captain Carl just fine.
A hug for Papi. (David Butler II, USA Today)




  1. I"m 10 years older than you, so I remember the Yaz of 1967, which was a player unlike anyone we've ever seen. Great recollections. When I think of Yaz, I recall Peter Gammons calling him the last great Depression Era athlete. He was a grinder who worked hard for everything he accomplished.

    1. I never heard that Gammons quote -- but it's a great description. Yaz technically was not born until right after the Depression but he did have that mind-set and work ethic passed on from his dad. I also read somewhere that he was the first Little Leaguer to make the Hall of Fame, so he was also in that crossover period when baseball for kids was becoming more organized. He really straddled so many eras -- expansion, the move to divisional play and playoffs, free agency, agents and seven-figure contracts, the '81 Strike, etc. Thanks for reading.