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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Yaz is 75, and I hope he's happy

(Associated Press/Steve Senne)

Carl Yastrzemski had a birthday the other day, and a big one at that. The Man They Called Yaz is 75 years old, and as he hits the milestone it appears from an outsider's view that this most private of legends -- who has endured some rough times in recent years -- has plenty to feel good about. 

The young man who shares his famous last name, grandson Mike Yastrzemski, is a rising star in the Baltimore Orioles farm system. Mike has been an extra-base-hit machine at three minor league stops this year, and could even get a September call-up to the majors. Since Carl was a significant influence in Mike's upbringing, especially after the sudden death of his father (Carl's son Michael) in 2004, the 24-year-old outfielder's success is a major source of joy and pride for his grandfather.

Two of Yaz's titanic career statistics have been passed in recent months, his 3,419 hits (now ninth all-time, just eclipsed by Derek Jeter) and his 452 home runs (now 37th, topped by Adam Dunn and David Ortiz). Any player who worked as hard as Yastrzemski to reach those numbers could be justified in feeling a bit sad seeing them drop a notch or two on the record lists, but their mention alongside Jeter, Ortiz, and Dunn's deeds has given fans an opportunity to reflect on (or learn about) what a terrific ballplayer Yaz was during his time in Boston.      
Papi's pal -- and backer. (NESN)

Yastrzemski, in fact, took the opportunity of Ortiz's 453rd home run to offer some gratuitous and classy comments about the new No. 2 man (behind Ted Williams) on Boston's all-time homer list. Ortiz's milestone shot had sparked some debate in newspapers and on sports radio talk shows about whether Big Papi or Yaz should be considered the second-best hitter (after Williams) in Red Sox history. 

Fans were split, with the old-timers mostly going for Yastrzemski -- pointing out that he had to focus on playing the field as well as swinging a bat for the majority of his career. The younger folks took the Ortiz side, noting his three World Series rings (to Yaz's zero) and much higher slugging and on-base percentages.

Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe figured he'd ask Yaz his thoughts on the subject, and their exchange (included in this Shaughnessy column) surprised a public not used to Silent Carl voicing his opinions on such matters -- or much of anything else.

"I would say as a hitter, I would say he's [Ortiz] next to Ted," Yastrzemski told Shaughnessy. "I would put him ahead of me. He had more power than I had." Asked what he would think if he turned on the radio and heard the Papi-Yaz debate raging, the Hall of Famer replied, "I'd be glad that they would have me in the same class as him."   
The Big Three

These comments, so un-Yaz like, blew me away. For a guy who grew up watching Yastrzemski play balls off the Monster from the Fenway bleachers and imitating his bat-twirling, pants-tugging stance in Little League games, there was never any doubt to me that he was No. 2 to Ted -- and I've got plenty of respect for what Ortiz has accomplished. Both are Hall of Famers in my book.

But in addition to being genuinely shocked when I read Shaughnessy's column, it also made me smile. If Yastrzemski is comfortable sharing these thoughts, I surmised, he must be feeling pretty good about himself and his own place in team history. Shaughnessy didn't ask if Yaz thought Ortiz was a better all-around player than him -- that would be no contest, given Yastrzemski's seven Gold Gloves -- but as a hitter, deep down, Captain Carl knew Ortiz had the superior numbers.

In addition to sharing a name, Carl Michael Yastrzemski, and Mike Yastrzemski nearly share a birthday. Mike marked his 24th on August 23 with a hit against the Richmond Flying Squirrels, one day after notching two hits on Carl's big day of August 22 (plus a home run the night before).

Here's hoping that the two got a chance to celebrate their mutual milestones in person or with a phone call. For the joy he gave all of us who were lucky enough to see him play, Yaz deserves the opportunity to savor this time in his life -- and the young man who is bringing him joy.   
Yaz and Yaz (Boston Herald)

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