Last night, I hopped in the car with a buddy and drove up to Pawtucket, R.I., to catch the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Syracuse Chiefs in action. Will Middlebrooks hit a double, Che-Hsuan Lin homered and the PawSox reclaimed sole possession of first place in the International League’s North division, while I watched from behind the Pawtucket bullpen with a giant thing of french fries.
It was, all in all, a nice way to celebrate Carl Yastrzemski’s birthday.
The PawSox of course, offer a great atmosphere for baseball. It’s affordable, McCoy Stadium is fantastic, and most importantly, I have a chance to watch the next wave of players for my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time getting into baseball on my own. Watching games in the late 1980s and early ‘90s on TV38, writing down players, collecting baseball cards, reading books, etc., it was all an effort to learn more about this game, to understand its rules and its history.
But I didn’t come to discover baseball entirely by chance. The first Red Sox poster in my room was a byproduct of my dad working at a liquor store when I was a little kid. My parents almost surely got me my first Red Sox hat, visible in pictures from when I was, at most, four years old.
They weren’t terribly big sports fans for a long time, but that changed. The second wave came as I was in high school and my dad caught on to football and the New England Patriots. The first came before I was born, with my parents watching the Red Sox in the late 1970s in their apartment in New Bedford.
The Sox in those days were solid, with big hitters and enough pitching to always make things interesting. Jim Rice was probably their best hitter, Carlton Fisk their center, Fred Lynn the golden boy and Luis Tiant the anchor of the rotation.
But despite the heroics of Rice, Fisk, Lynn and El Tiante, the conversation would usually turn back to Yaz. The only sports memories they usually shared were of the 1978 playoff game against the Yankees (that didn’t end well), and watching Yastrzemski pick up his 3,000th hit the next season.
My dad is funny when remembering those days, specifically, trying to understand why Yastrzemski was even on the team.
“I didn’t care for much for him at first,” he said. “I used to see Rice, Fisk, Reggie Jackson and those guys from the Yankees, they stuck out. They were big guys, they hit home runs. But he was steady, and he was always there. He always hit. He was consistent.”
How accurate that was. In 23 seasons, all in Boston, Yaz probably only had five or six where he was one of the unquestioned great players in the game. And in the rest, he was either good or damn good.
1967 is his most famous season, and rightly so. He won the American League Triple Crown, posted an OPS of 1.044 (equating to a 193 OPS+), won his third Gold Glove and his only Most Valuable Player award, and led the Red Sox on their impossible march to the pennant.
But I always think of 1977 when I think of Yaz. For me, he’s a player that exists solely in stolen clips and baseball almanacs, and ’77 stands out. At 37, he was moved back into left field after a few seasons at first base, shifting the younger Jim Rice to designated hitter. He posted a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 303 chances and led the league with 16 outfield assists — the seventh and final time he did that in his career. He won his seventh gold glove that season, too.
1977 was also the year my parents got married and, after piecing together their stories, I figure that it was also the year they started watching the Red Sox. By then, they thought he was just the older guy in left field. But he kept going.
High performance like that in the face of age is impressive, and it struck a chord. In the annals of my favorite team existed a guy who wasn’t built like a brick house (like Jim Rice) and wasn’t fleet-footed on the basepaths (like Ellis Burks). But he played. And he played well.
Yesterday was Yastrzemski’s birthday — he turned 72. It’s a day celebrated by Red Sox fans everywhere, whether they got to see him play or not.
I don’t remember choosing the Red Sox, they chose me. And whether they wanted it or not, Carl Yastrzemski chose my parents.