Michael Yastrzemski pulled on his Aberdeen IronBirds uniform Monday afternoon and stepped onto the freshly cut grass at LeLacheur Park in Lowell. For all intents and purposes, he was home, donning a professional jersey in front of more than 50 family members and friends, including his mother, Anne-Marie.
It was the first time that the St. John’s Prep graduate from Andover had stepped onto a field in the Bay State since he spent the summer of 2011 suiting up for the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod League.
After a 1-for-5 performance at the plate against the host Spinners, the 23-year-old outfielder admitted that the nerves had subsided prior to Tuesday’s New York-Penn League game. Yastrzemski, grandson of Hall of Famer Carl, chatted with friends who included Walt Hriniak, the former Red Sox hitting coach, before taking a few pregame cuts.
“The jitters were high just because you’re in front of all the people you know and you’re not really used to playing in front of them,” said Yastrzemski, who stretched his hitting streak to five games with hits in the final two games of the three-game set, including a triple Wednesday night.
“[I was] just trying to put on a good show for them and just go out there and have fun while being in good company.”
Outside of the cage tucked underneath LeLacheur’s grandstand, Yastrzemski stood beside Aberdeen manager Matt Merullo, a former Hriniak disciple during his days as a catcher with the White Sox, as the former hitting coach dispensed some knowledge of the game.
Hriniak “is close with Carl and worked with Mike in the offseason,” said Merullo. “The three of us were just talking about grinding it out and that’s what professional baseball is all about, especially that first year.”
From his early days playing for the Cardinals in the Andover Little League, to St. John’s Prep and the Andover American Legion program, Yastrzemski was finding it a grind to play up to the name that his grandfather had made synonymous with greatness.
“When I was younger I would feel pressure because I would put it on myself,” said Yastrzemski. “Expectations to play better, to be better on the field than everyone else, I felt that I needed to do that. As I got older and realized what this game is all about, I started to realize how much of my own person I was.”
Those lessons started in high school. Yastrzemski was a three-year starter at St. John’s, a team captain, and a Catholic Conference all-star as a junior.
Five days after his high school career on the same LeLacheur Park field that he had returned to earlier this week — in the Division 1 state tournament — Yastrzemski was drafted by the Red Sox in the 36th round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
As tempting as it was to join the franchise that his grandfather suited up for during his entire 23-year Major League career, he knew that college ball was where he needed to be to elevate his game.
“It was an easy decision,” said Yastrzemski, who enrolled at Vanderbilt University and played in the challenging Southeastern Conference. “I knew I wanted to go to college, I wanted to experience what that was like and get an education.”
A “preferred walk-on” with the Commodores, Yastrzemski did not immediately earn a scholarship and his spot on the team was not guaranteed.
As a freshman he proved more than capable, starting in 35 of the 58 games in which he appeared, making only one error in 70 chances in the outfield.
He was a starter for the remainder of his time in Nashville, hitting .292 with a .977 fielding percentage in 253 games.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Yastrzemski once again chose Vanderbilt over pro ball when he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners following his junior season. By the time he departed after his senior year, he had become a part of more wins than any other player in program history (188), capping his career with a 54-win season in which Vandy won a league record 26 of its 29 games in the SEC.
“He is a remarkably even guy,” said Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin in a phone interview. “I will be forever indebted to his decision [to come back]. He’s the best leader we’ve ever had. He will always be known as a Vanderbilt player.”
Yastrzemski said “it was tough to be able to turn [Seattle] down. I felt confident enough that a [Vanderbilt] team I was going to play for again would help me be able to have both a final year in college and a chance to play professionally.”
The Baltimore Orioles, now under the leadership of former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, gave him that chance, drafting Yastrzemski in the 14th round of the MLB Draft in June. He arrived in Aberdeen, Md., and was an immediate contributor, hitting .337 over his first 30 games while supplying stellar defense in the outfield, whether he was in center (31 games), left (11 games), or right (10 games).
“He just carries himself with such class and professionalism,” said Merullo. “He’s very quiet and not flashy and goes about his work every day. He’s been our best player all-around.”
Through Wednesday, Yastrzemski was hitting a solid .269, with three home runs and 20 RBIs.
His efforts earned him a place on the American League roster in the NY-Penn All-Star Game, which was played a little over 100 miles from home in Norwich, Conn.
“It was great to play with some of the best competition in this league,” said Yastrzemski, who had an eye on the IronBirds schedule knowing he would get even closer to home this past week.
That return trip to the region came with a flourish of memories of the days when his grandfather roamed the grass in Fenway’s left field.
“A lot of people don’t understand how much intentful focus this game takes, and [Carl] taught me that from a young age,” said Yastrzemski. “I picked up on those things by being around him all the time.”
His own father, Mike Yastrzemski, who reached the Triple A level in the White Sox organization, died in 2004 at age 44 after complications from surgery.
Yastrzemski has used the lessons to carve his own niche in the game, and as his pro career begins to blossom, people are noticing that there is more to his game than just his last name.
“It’s kind of like I was with my dad and grandpa,” said Lowell Spinners pitcher Corey Littrell whose grandfather, Jack, played for the Chicago Cubs in the 1950s.
“You don’t get tired of it, but you want to set your own expectations, you want to be your own player. I’m sure he loves that his grandpa is ‘Yaz,’ but I’m sure he’s just like me and he wants to make his own name.”
The only thing the younger Yastrzemski might have no control over is living with the same iconic nickname as his grandfather, and he is more than happy grinding on with that.Craig Forde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.