Happiness for this Hall of Famer is hauling in a good-sized striper -- but, of course, the Red Sox' World Series victory last fall was a source of joy, too. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)  <a href='' onclick='openWindow('','','width=775,height=585,resizable=yes,scrollbars=yes,toolbar=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no'); return false;'> Photo gallery
Happiness for this Hall of Famer is hauling in a good-sized striper -- but, of course, the Red Sox' World Series victory last fall was a source of joy, too. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

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Fishing-boat captain

Lure of nostalgia can't reel him in; there's only one sport for Yaz now

By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / September 27, 2005
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SOMEWHERE NEAR PLUM ISLAND -- The striped bass are in a feeding frenzy, splashing about in shallow waters, gorging on bait fish. Carl Yastrzemski glides his boat upriver, grabs his fishing pole, and sends the lure screaming toward them. A line drive throw that approximates the distance from Fenway's Green Monster to second base. A throw Captain Carl perfected in a 23-year Hall of Fame career.

Yaz works the rod, making the lure zigzag like a minnow. One striper breaks loose and chases it, snaps and misses. Strike one. Yaz giggles, and slows down his reeling, ever so slightly. The striper bolts again and there's a big splash as it gulps the lure. Yaz laughs, pulls back, sets the hook, his fists wrapped tightly over the rod, his hands up high, as in his old batting stance. He reels in the striper, which is not a keeper. Then he pulls out the needle-nose pliers and releases the hook. He leans forward and asks the striper a direct question: ''Where is your father?" The fish disappears back into the river.

The great Yastrzemski, the last man to win the Triple Crown in 1967, is drifting downstream. It is a perfect September day. The weather is warm, the pennant race is hot. We will see more geese than people, and Yaz likes it that way.

''Just say we're fishing the Merrimack River," says Yaz, flashing that famous smile. ''Be vague."

He is now 66 years old and still can't go to a restaurant without being disturbed by autograph hounds. ''In Florida I can, but not here," he says. He doesn't fish in the ocean much anymore. ''I stopped ocean," he says. ''I got too beat up." But No. 8 is a master fisherman.

He once hooked a 500-pound blue marlin.

''It was off Cabo," he says. ''I saw him coming, the big fin. It hit me like a train. I wouldn't let the captain back up. That's a no-no with me. It's cheating. He did 10 jumps, he was absolutely beautiful. Then he went down, down, and got off. I never got him in. I was glad. I fought him for two hours. Now I like to just cut the engine and drift."

Drifting with Yaz near the Merrimack River is fun. He never anchors, just floats with the tide. He doesn't have a fishfinder on board his 19-foot skiff because he is a fishfinder. ''Those things don't work anyway," he says. ''They only spot the baitfish."

He is a hard-core fisherman, out there rain or shine, and he never seems to get skunked.

For the first American Leaguer to garner 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, this is heaven. In eight years rolling on the river, he has never had to sign an autograph. Yaz shuns the limelight. He's not looking to be a broadcaster or do a book. He has nothing he wants to promote. He only goes to the ballpark five times a year, preferring to watch the games on TV. ''I need to see the pitch location," he says. And he never looks back.

Boatload of memories
The last year has been extremely difficult for Yaz. His son Michael died after hip replacement surgery last September. He was 44. After his death, it was discovered that he had run up a huge credit card debt using his father's identity. Yaz dealt with that. But losing a son is a pain that will never heal.

''You never get over it," says Yaz, mourning the second of his four children. ''I make more of an effort to see my grandkid."

In May, Sports Illustrated acknowledged Yaz as the greatest living Red Sox player. But the magazine portrayed him as a recluse, saying he took no visible role in the Red Sox' first championship season since 1918. That's not true.

Yaz threw out the first ball before Game 1 of the 2004 World Series. He also raised the championship banner with Johnny Pesky on Opening Day this year. Then why the shot from SI? ''I guess I turned down an invitation for one of their dinners," Yaz says, laughing. ''They wanted to come out and take my picture and I just didn't feel like it. They have enough pictures of me."

Yaz felt honored that the Red Sox brain trust selected him to raise the flag.

''I was thinking of all the teams I was on that didn't win," he says. ''In '75, a lot of people don't remember, we didn't have Jim Rice for the World Series. "

From certain angles, the tanned Yaz looks like Ted Williams in the old Sears fishing ads. Tanned and muscular, but much quieter.

On these September fishing trips, in a place where the coast of Massachusetts is protected and timeless, where the geese outnumber the people, Yaz relaxes, and the memories come flowing back.

''I remember Ted asked me to go fishing with him once at Winter Haven," he says. ''It was one of those ponds that are stocked with fish. He told me not to bring any live bait. I got there and he was already waiting for me. He said, 'What's in the cooler?' and I said, 'I brought a couple of beers.' He said, 'No beer on this boat,' and I said, 'No fishing for me on this boat. See ya.' "

Now Yaz just brings bottled water. ''I haven't drank beer for 15 years," he says.

He also changed his eating habits after retiring.

''When you hit 40, it completely changed," he says. ''I used to be able to eat steak and pasta every day and drink beer. Now I eat steak and pasta about once a week. I was putting on too much weight."

One way he stays in shape is by going for long walks with his two German shepherds near his North Shore home.

''The thing is, I think I'm 50," he says. ''I just feel great. I just don't want to be reminded of it, that's all. Wait till you start filling out your Social Security, Medicaid, and all that."

He certainly hasn't lost his passion for fishing. He used to fly fish in remote parts of Alaska with US Rep. Silvio Conte, who died in 1991.

''We didn't see anybody for two weeks," says Yaz. ''I fished until my arm ached. We'd eat salmon pancakes for breakfast, chopped salmon for lunch, and salmon steaks for dinner."

Now Yaz will fish in Massachusetts almost every day until the stripers migrate in mid-October, then head for Florida for the winter.

Clashes with Ted
At spring training, Yaz is a roving instructor for the Red Sox. He works quietly and generously with minor leaguers on the back fields of the minor league complex.

''I'm more patient than people think," says the man who played more games in the major leagues than anyone except Pete Rose. That might be because he remembers how terrified rookies were of Williams.

''Ted used to scare the [expletive] out of them," says Yaz. ''He was a huge man. First time I saw him, 1960, his last year, I thought, 'Splendid Splinter'? Maybe in his younger days. Now he was 6-5, 240-250 pounds. He was huge. Huge arm, huge legs.

''He was very complicated. He'd always uppercut, where I always thought you had to start down. But he was so disciplined that he could just use a short swing. He had a very, very, short swing. I guess the best way to describe it was so short and powerful he looked like he hit the ball with a golfing wedge as far as you would with a driver. You'd have all that motion with a driver and he'd hit it with a little pitching wedge just as far.

''He started talking hitting theories. I didn't know what he was talking about. I kind of stayed away from him. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I said, 'Right, yeah, right.'

''Ted sat in the coaches' room and he'd argue about hitting. Every day. You couldn't win. He'd outshout you. I like Yogi's theory: You can't think and hit at the same time.

''One time we got into it and he starts in on me. I wanted to go fishing. But he'd never lose. He always had to win. So one day he started and started. Finally I said, 'Lemme tell you something. You can stick your theories,' and he said, 'Go ahead, change your stance for the 2,352d time.' I said, 'Ted, if you were my size, you wouldn't hit .250 and 100 home runs for your whole career.' Then as I'm leaving, I hear him talking to himself. He says, 'You told him, Teddy Ballgame,' and he starts laughing to himself out loud."

Yaz admits that he was a scared rookie in 1961, billed as the heir apparent to Williams.

''Pressure? Oh geez, I didn't turn 21 till August of that year," he says. ''There was a ton of pressure. I tried to be him instead of me. Yeah, I was struggling that first year."

To counsel his budding star, Sox owner Tom Yawkey sent for Williams, who was fishing somewhere in New Brunswick.

''I don't know how Yawkey got a hold of him," says Yaz. ''I'm sure there were no telephones up there. But he was here the next day. The first three months I struggled, and then [manager] Mike Higgins came up to me after the game and he said, 'Look, you're going to be my left fielder. Quit trying to be like Ted Williams. Be yourself. Nobody's going to be like that.' "

1967: a fun season
Fishing is a lot easier than hitting.

''You don't have to worry about hitting a fastball, slider, curveball, whatever," says Yaz.

In his North Shore house, he has two trophy-sized largemouth bass he caught in Winter Haven. Most of his baseball trophies are gone, given to the Hall of Fame. He gave Gene Autry one of the seven Gold Gloves he won, and Autry gave Yaz a gun he used in the movies. Autry wrote, ''Hope you get as many hits as I've had with this." The gun and holster are on display in the Hall of Fame.

The stripers are bubbling on the surface, and Yaz picks them off, one by one. Small stripers, catch and release.

He once said that baseball wasn't fun, only hard work. Does he love fishing more?

''No, I loved baseball," says Yaz. ''That one-on-one challenge was unbelievable. You know nobody can help you. It's just you against the pitcher.

''I didn't say '67 wasn't fun. I said my career was tough because of my size [5-11, 180]. Especially when I became a pull hitter. It was hard work. Hard work. Hard work.

''Oh, '67 was fun. The news media said, 'What about the pressure?' I said, 'Pressure? You should've played here the first six years when you're in last place every year and you're lucky to get 10,000 people on a Friday night. You know you better get three hits.'

''No, '67 was baseball again. It's fun. There's no pressure. You're playing a game. You didn't have to get three hits. Make a defensive play, do something, and you'd get a standing ovation. '67 brought baseball back to New England. I mean, my first six years here were tough."

With the pennant up for grabs among four teams that year, Yaz almost singlehandedly won it for Boston, batting .523 in his last 12 games and going 7 for 8 in the crucial last two games against Minnesota.

''It's funny," says Yaz. ''I remember defensive plays as much as offensive. Probably better."

Take the play against Oakland in Game 3 of the 1975 AL Championship Series, when he slapped down a Reggie Jackson gapper that was almost by him and saved a run in the eighth inning. The Red Sox clinched the series with that win.

''I dove for it," says Yaz. ''The other play that sticks out is throwing [Bob] Allison out at second base in 1967.

''I had no idea I won the Triple Crown. I think the reason I won the Triple Crown was nothing was ever written about it in the papers. Nothing. I didn't even know I won the Triple Crown until I read about it the next day in the papers after the season was over.

''Thinking back now, the only player who even mentioned it to me was [Jim] Lonborg. I think it was the last couple weeks of the season. Frank Robinson was close in the batting title race and Lonborg came up to me and said, 'I'm going to give him 0 for 5 today. Get a couple of hits.' That's the only person I remember saying anything about it."

(And, yes, Lonborg held the Oriole slugger hitless that day, according to Yaz.)

Nobody has won a Triple Crown since. The Cubs' Derrek Lee was giving it a run much of the season, but Yaz says he didn't lose sleep over it.

Will anyone ever do it again?

''I think somebody will, but it's hard to do," says Yaz. ''Somebody always gets hot in one category."

Yaz won three batting titles in his career but he says it should have been four. In 1970, he was neck-and-neck with the Angels' Alex Johnson going into the last game.

''My first at bat, I legged out an infield single," he says. ''I twisted my ankle and should have came out of the ballgame. It's your back leg, where all the weight is. But I stayed in."

After Johnson went 2 for 3 in the final game to take the lead, he came out. Yaz lost the batting race by .0003. ''Yeah, I was stupid," said Yaz.

Bluefish and Red Sox
Yaz determines that the birds are chasing the blues. ''They rip up the baitfish," he says.

He doesn't like bluefish.

''They get everything," he says. ''If you get one blue by itself, that's good, but they're in schools and they all hit and break the 10-pound test with a wire, you don't get the action of the plug.

''I like the top-water strike. It's the strike I love."

Soon after, he gets a blue. As he tries to release it, it tries to bite him. It also frays the line, so Yaz sits down and changes it. The rest of the time, he's on his feet, watching the water and the skies.

In the evening, he watches the Sox play on TV.

''I think it's going down to the last three games [against the Yankees] at Fenway," he says.

In 1978, of course, it came down to a one-game playoff against the Yankees. Yaz smashed a home run off Ron Guidry to put the Sox ahead early, but Bucky Dent and Reggie Jackson hit homers, and New York led, 5-4, going into the ninth. The Sox still had a chance, as Yaz faced Goose Gossage with two outs and the tying run at third.

''He was a hell of a pitcher," recalls Yaz. ''I was trying to hit the ball between first and second. I got the pitch I wanted but it just came in on me."

He popped up to Graig Nettles at third to end it.

''That's baseball," Yaz says with a shrug.

He predicts a happier ending this year.

''I still think we have better pitching. I like the way [Craig] Hansen looks, and [Jonathan] Papelbon. They have Randy Johnson but this year you never know how he's going to throw."

Yaz was a Mickey Mantle/Willie Mays fan growing up, as the son of a potato farmer in Southampton, N.Y., on Long Island. At the beginning of his career, the Yankees tried to sign him but struck out. They also wanted him at the end.

Last Aug. 22, when Yaz turned 66, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner sent him a birthday card.

''He always wanted me to finish my career in New York," says Yaz. ''He tried to get Tip [O'Neill] to talk me into it. Tip told him, 'What, are you crazy? You trying to kill me with my constituents?' "

Turning to the current season, Yaz lobbies for David Ortiz over Alex Rodriguez for MVP.

''Ortiz has just been so amazing in the clutch," says Yaz. ''It's not his fault that he's DH. He's a pretty good first baseman. Actually, it's harder to just DH. I did it and I hated it. It's hard to stay in the flow of the game and concentrate."

Yaz also thinks it would be a mistake to trade Manny Ramirez over the winter.

''Manny's in his own world, which is good because he doesn't feel the pressure," says Yaz. ''Manny has tremendous power, he's got the numbers. I'd hate to see that 1-2 punch broken up."

Yaz watched the Red Sox win the World Series on TV last fall.

''I just knew we were going to win," he says. ''You could feel the momentum. I didn't drink champagne. I hate champagne."

He hasn't seen the movie ''Fever Pitch," in which Jess Cain's ''Yaz Song" is played and Jimmy Fallon has a Yaz photo in his room. And he says he doesn't drift downstream and think much about his baseball days.

''I never really reflect back unless somebody brings it up," he says. ''I'd have an at-bat, come in and analyze it, what I did right or what I did wrong, and then I'd forget about it. Boom. Forget about it and concentrate on the next thing."

The wind is picking up, small whitecaps are starting to show. Conditions are deteriorating. Yaz has a hunch; he guides the boat toward some reeds, and sends the lure screaming into 2 feet of water. A striper snatches it in a mini-explosion and runs like Dave Roberts making for second base. Yaz gleefully lets the fish run.

''It's only a 10-pound test," he says. ''He'll try to rub it on the bottom and break it."

Now Captain Carl is in command.

''Raise the engine," he orders.

The fishing pole is bent over, almost to the water. The light tackle makes for an exciting battle -- a panicked striper versus the man they call Yaz. Five minutes later, a beautiful striped bass is in the boat.

''That's a good-looking fish," says Yaz. ''I'd say 36 inches, 15-20 pounds."

Yaz gently removes the hook and returns the fish to the sea.

The stunned, exhausted striper lies on its side for a moment, one eye staring at the great Yastrzemski. Then with a flip of the tail, it disappears into the churning green water.

''I'll get you again someday, when you're bigger," says Yaz, looking as if he's just taken Guidry deep. ''It feels like hitting a home run."

Why not bring the fish home for dinner? On the grill. A little ginger soy sauce, a little lemon, perhaps?

Captain Carl starts the engine.

''If I want fish, I go to the fish market and buy scrod," he says.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Yaz the angler
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