Yaz's baseball career rounds third and heads for home
Winter Haven, Fla. — For the 25th year in a row - and according to him the last one - Carl Yastrzemski is in spring training with the Boston Red Sox. If he's feeling any special emotions as he prepares for his farewell season, however, he's keeping them all to himself.
''It's the same thing as always,'' he said awaiting his turn in batting practice the other day. ''I just want to get ready, get my timing down, and be able to help the ballclub.''
Yaz has been doing that, of course, ever since his first professional season in 1959. He played that year in Raleigh, N.C., spent the next season in Minneapolis (then the Red Sox' top farm club), then in 1961 moved up to Boston where he has been ever since.
And while all those springs may meld together in his own mind, they hold separate and distinct memories for his father, Carl Sr.
''I remember the first one well,'' said the elder Yastrzemski, who has attended every one of his son's 25 training camps. ''It was in Scottsdale, Ariz. , then, and Carl was only 19. You could see he was pretty anxious - he wanted to make the big club right away. And you could tell he was a little disappointed when he was assigned to the minors. He knew he could already play and hit better than some of the guys on the major league team.
''But he got some good advice. I remember one newspaperman told him, 'You've got a whole career ahead of you. A couple of years in the minors will do you good.' I told him that too. He realized it was best, so he went to Raleigh, had a big year, and was on his way.''
The father's memories of his son the ballplayer go back even further, of course.
''You could always see Carl's ability,'' he recalled. ''I managed his Little League and Babe Ruth League teams, and there was always just that much difference between him and the other kids. He was quite a basketball and football player too.''
But baseball was No. 1, and the New York Yankees eventually became interested in the local area youngster. They sent a scout to the Yastrzemski house on Long Island, and after some talks he suggested that he and Carl's father each write down a bonus figure.
The scout wrote $40,000, and when he saw the father's $100,000 figure - an enormous sum in those days - he ridiculed it.
''He told me we'd never get that much,'' the elder Yastrzemski recalled, and I said, ''Either he gets it or he goes to college.''
So Carl enrolled at Notre Dame, then signed with Boston after his freshman year - for $100,000!
The memories since then are plentiful. There were the three batting titles, the seven Gold Gloves, the 17 All-Star team selections. There were the 400th home run and 3,000th hit, both in 1979, making him the only American Leaguer and the fourth player in baseball history - along with Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays - to reach both plateaus. And now in the twilight of his career there's the constant reminder of his stature in the way he ranks among the all-time leaders in so many categories. Above all, though, there was the ''Impossible Dream'' year of 1967.
''That's the best memory,'' he said recalling Boston's rise from ninth place the previous year; the wild race that saw four teams frequently just a game or two apart; and the triumphant emergence of the Red Sox as pennant winners on the last day of the season.
That was also Carl's most memorable season as he led the league in batting, homers, and RBIs to win the Triple Crown, was generally recognized as the best left fielder in the game, and was a near-unanimous MVP selection. But anyone who remembers the intensity and drive he displayed all year knows Carl isn't kidding when he says those individual statistics never meant anything to him compared to the success of the team.
''The first six years I was with this club we finished last or next-to-last every time,'' he recalled. ''It's no fun playing baseball that way. With a contender you can go 0-for-4 and still help the club - maybe lead off an inning with a walk, or make a big play. But when you're losing, the only way you can have a good day is when you get two or three hits, and that doesn't happen very often.''
One of those options - making the big play - won't exist much any more, however, since Yaz is now penciled in almost exclusively as a designated hitter. He may still play some first base, where he moved from the outfield a few years ago, but probably not much.
''It was when we put him on first last year that he went into a hitting slump ,'' Manager Ralph Houk explained. ''I don't plan to do that again.''
Yaz, who a few years ago expressed his dread of any such partway role, appears resigned to it at this stage of his career.
''I know I need some time off now,'' he said. ''I'd like to play a little first base when it gets warmer. I've talked to Ralph about it. But whatever he wants me to do, I'll do.''
Although Yastrzemski has talked of retirement at other times, he and the Red Sox made it more or less official this year. Carl, who completed a multi-year contract in 1982, signed a one-year pact which he said would be his last. Then the team decorated its media guide with a montage showing him batting, fielding, and waving to the crowd beneath the lettering, ''Yaz - ending an era.''
One person who isn't convinced despite all this evidence is Yastrzemski Sr.
'' He might change his mind then if he has a good year,'' the father said. ''I know I'd like to see him keep going if that happens.''
Indeed, the way Yaz played the first half of 1982 (.348, 5 homers, 16 RBIs in April and continuing strongly through July) he hardly seemed ready for pasture. He did have one of his worst-ever sustained slumps in August, hitting just .144 for the month, but came back to finish with a respectable .275 overall average, 16 homers, and 72 RBIs. He'll turn 44 this summer, however, and he seems to feel strongly that the time has come to move on.
''I guess you can always say there's a chance if you want to, but I very much doubt it,'' he said when the question was posed to him. ''I know I could play another year or two, but sometime it's time to stop,''
And how would he like to end his career? That's easy. In his 22 big league seasons Yastrzemski has experienced just about every kind of thrill, including playing for two pennant winners, but both of those teams (1967 and 1975) lost the World Series.
''Winning the Series - that would sure be a great way to go out,'' he said. ''Let's put it this way: I'd like to have the opportunity one more time, and then we'll take it from there.''