At 70, Yaz still takes the cake

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / August 22, 2009

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Yaz is 70.

It just doesn’t compute. He was still getting around on Ron Guidry’s fastball a couple of years ago, wasn’t he?

Guess not.

Seventy years ago today, baby Carl Yastrzemski was born in Southampton on Long Island.

“Hard to believe,’’ the greatest living Red Sox player said yesterday afternoon after a morning round of golf. “I plan on not even acknowledging it. I first thought about it this spring. I have a friend from back home who I grew up with and when I was in Florida he came to visit me. The first thing he said was, ‘Can you believe we’re going to be 70?’ ’’

Just over a year ago Yaz had a face-to-face encounter with mortality. He was rushed to Mass. General where he underwent a six-hour, triple-bypass surgery.

“Just before they put me under, I was saying, ‘Do I have to have this? You got any pill for me?’ Then I kind of gave up and gave in and I almost didn’t care.’’

He came out of it beautifully and was hitting golf balls three months later. It took much longer to get to the bottom of the mountain of mail that came from around the world .

“I couldn’t believe all the Mass cards and get-well wishes and telegrams and all the stuff I received,’’ he said. “It made me feel great, you know?’’

We know.

Yaz’s heart event presented him with an opportunity to see and feel how much he is loved in Red Sox Nation. Without the near-death experience he might have never known. This is because he’s been almost invisible since hanging ’em up at the end of the 1983 season.

On the day Yaz retired, he had played in more games (3,308) than anyone in baseball history. Pete Rose eventually surpassed Captain Carl, but nobody ever played more games for the same team. Probably, nobody ever will.

Just don’t ask him to sign autographs at your kid’s bar mitzvah.

Since he stopped playing, Yaz has been a hardball J.D. Salinger. He was gracious and reverent when he took his rightful place in Cooperstown with Johnny Bench in 1989. Otherwise, he’s been scarce. He’s served the Sox as a stealth spring training instructor (early hitting instruction, then off to fish or golf) for several decades and he has occasionally (and reluctantly) agreed to toss out a ceremonial first pitch. One year he joined Keith Lockhart on stage at the Esplanade on the Fourth of July and he looked about as comfortable as Bill Russell at a memorabilia convention.

When it comes to bringing attention to himself and hogging the spotlight, Yaz makes Bill Russell look like Bill O’Reilly.

Yastrzemski is just a private guy. He gave us his game and that’s going to have to be enough.

Remember all those great moments from 1967? Remember Yaz putting on the greatest exhibition of clutch play in baseball history? Remember Yastrzemski winning the Triple Crown, going 7 for 8 in the final two games, and hitting .400 with three homers in the World Series?

Good. Keep it to yourself. The last thing Yaz wants is for you to slobber all over him and tell him about that game in Detroit when he hit the homer into the upper deck. Maybe it changed your life. For Yaz, it was just another day of grinding, getting the job done.

I once interviewed him regarding his All-Star Game appearances. It was not a short conversation. He played in 14 All-Star Games and there was a lot to remember, so we went year by year. When I got to 1975, I noted that he had homered at County Stadium in Milwaukee. Who’d he hit the homer off, I wondered.

“I think I hit it off Seaver,’’ he offered.

That killed me. Who else could hit a home run off Tom Seaver in an All-Star Game, and not be quite sure of the identity of the pitcher?

Only the man we call Yaz. And yes, he hit the home run off Tom Seaver.

What about it, Carl? How come you shun the attention now?

“I just don’t like it,’’ he said. “I had my time in the sun. It’s the way I enjoy it.’’

His first time in the sun came when he was 14 years old in the summer of 1954, playing for the Bridgehampton White Eagles. Just about everybody on that team was a Yastrzemski or a Skonieczny (his mother’s side of the family). Young Yaz played center with uncle Jerry in left, uncle Mike in right, uncle Ray at third, uncle Stosh behind the plate, uncle Chet on the mound . . . and Yaz’s dad at short.

Thirteen years later, with no help from cousins, uncles, or his dad, 27-year-old Carl Yastrzemski carried the Red Sox to the World Series in the most important season in franchise history.

And today he is 70 years old. And we wish him peace, good health, and a happy birthday.

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