On Yaz

The sporting mob is mercurial. Its many moods range from the stark to the inalienable. There is little room for appeasement. “What have you done for us lately,” is the governing mindset. Given half of a flimsy excuse they’ll turn on anyone.

In Philadelphia, they have booed Santa Claus. In Boston they have taken in vain the name of “Yaz.” The offenses are roughly comparable. Sic transit gloria mundi, etc., ad nauseam, old Sport.

Since his retirement a quarter of a century ago, played out with memorable melodrama, Carl Yastrzemski has gradually receded, quietly inching back ever further year after year, until he has become what he always wanted to be; just another distant if hopefully pleasant memory. It was a modest goal, which he held with great determination and not a shred of guile or pretense.

But then that’s the sort of fellow Yaz was when he played here for an entire generation and it’s the way he is now and will always be. He doesn’t do charm. He has no taste for small talk. The social give and take always pained him. As for the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, well you just know what he would have you do with all that thin and baseless stuff. Call it boring if you wish or even eccentric but recognize it for what it is, a very reasonable and sincere personal choice. Alas, some people have a problem with that.

There has been sniping over the years over the fact that Carl never does the alumni rounds, stays clear of ceremonies, disdains sentimental splashes, rarely graces the ball yard and, when he does, confines himself to a hurried wave and an invariable frown. It is merely Yaz being Yaz, but people don’t take it that way. The man could still be king around here. He could be growing in stature merely by aging and mellowing and willingly taking a bow now and again just the way Ted Williams did. The sporting mob can’t understand why he would dismiss such easy pickings, which can also, by the way, be quite lucrative. “What’s wrong with this guy,” they wonder. But then they never really understood Carl Yastrzemski.

It is the Williams thing that haunts him a half century after it first became an issue, nor does the fact that Ted is dead and gone change any of that. In what was for Carl an unhappy accident of timing he entered upon the stage just as Ted was grandly exiting the thing to thunderous acclaim. The mob expected Carl to pick up the beat with the same exaggerated flair and run with it from the get-go. When it took him seven years to find his stride -- and for the then fat and fatuous Red Sox to assemble a true team around him -- they almost ran him out of town.

In one electrifying season -- 1967 -- Yaz changed all that in an effort that was so monumental it should have been enough to guarantee him an eternal pass with shrill and fickle Red Sox Nation. Williams may have hit .406 and won a couple of all-star games with his heroics and been the most stylish player of his times and cavorted with a majesty that still excites rhapsodic gales among poets and songwriters. But Ted Williams never had a season like the one Carl Yastrzemski had in ’67. Williams never was able to hoist his entire team on his shoulders and carry it to the Promised Land as Yastrzemski did so elegantly that unforgettable summer. Williams was a beautiful player but he wasn’t made of such stern stuff.

Doubtless it’s unfair. On the other hand, it’s irresistible. It’s the crunching of highly selective statistical evidence to support a baseball thesis. Taken to extremes you can easily prove Chuck Klein was better than Babe Ruth. It is not quite so crazy a reach to suggest that in the moments that mattered most Yaz had a huge edge on Ted.

This game within the game was all the rage in the fifties when that irascible tabloid, the Boston Record-American, was driving Sir T. Ballgame nuts with their ceaseless carping. The old rag had a notably savage columnist named Huck Finnegan who utterly delighted in persecuting Williams. At least twice a year, every year, old Huck would devote an entire column to the subject of Ted’s epic failures in the 12 most important games of his career which included the ’46 World Series, the ’48 Playoff, and key games in the doomed pennant races of ’49 and ’50. According to Huck’s creative tabulations Ted, with a .205 batting average, one homer and five ribbies in the big games that counted most, was just another banjo hitter.

It was more than a bit wacky, of course. But that takes nothing away from the fact that no such quibbling about Yastrzemski’s valor in the clutch is possible. In the 24 most important games of his career -- the epic final weekend and World Series of ’67, the post-season in ’75, key pennant-deciding moments including the star-crossed ’78 playoff -- Carl’s batting average was .414 with about a dozen homers and his customary superior defense thrown in for good measure. Over the last two weeks of the ’67 season in the most sizzling pennant race of the modern era, he batted .523 in 12 games with five homers.

These are facts. You can look them up. No one -- not even the bards and minstrels who have so thoroughly romanticized the life and times of Theodore Samuel Williams -- can take that away from Carl Michael Yastrzemski.

In the end, they were simply very, very different people. Ted remains the ultimate baseball avatar, held the more divine the longer the distance between his precious image and the often painful and controversial facts of his life grows. Carl seems almost plebeian by comparison and, as the years pass and he resolutely declines to play “the old-timers’ game,” his stern and gritty profile as a player becomes almost dour. One suspects he could not possibly care less.

Carl was hardly “great” in the sense that Ted was and he had none of Himself’s box-office appeal, for whatever that is worth. But if I had to choose between the two in assembling my dream-team, I would pick Carl over Ted without the slightest hesitation. There’s no doubt in my mind that a team of eight Yastrzemski’s would wipe the floor with eight Williams’. It would be neither close nor pretty.

In the end, Carl was simply a lot tougher than Ted. Of all the statistics pertaining to this conversation my favorite is this one: in his 23 seasons with the Red Sox Yastrzemski made exactly one trip to the disabled list.

Evidence grows that little of this is appreciated as the years pile up. Recently there were swipes at Yaz in the papers and grumbles about him on talk shows because allegedly he was insufficiently charming in public moments linked with Jim Rice’s Hall of fame induction. It seems he was reluctant to stand on a street corner all day signing autographs. Less noticed is the fact that he also doesn’t do card shows and charge the faithful a hundred bucks for his signature. Since his own induction, 20 years ago, Yaz has visited Cooperstown twice. Once for Rice and once for Carlton Fisk. That he only takes part in the circus to honor old-teammates and never to promote himself is also little appreciated.

Yastrzemski is a very private man. He always has been. He’s had keen disappointments in life, which he has deeply grieved. The game came hard to him and he had to work hard to excel at it and he’s not about to pretend otherwise at this late date. There was no ‘‘hotdog’’ in this man. He never sought attention. He never demanded homage. If now in his twilight he merely wishes to be left alone I say, “More power to him!”

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