Q. Did they say anything special to you while you were running around the field?
A. They just kept saying, We Love You, Yaz,’ over and over. I’ll never forget it.
- No. 8 on Oct. 1, 1983
He always wanted the other team to think that he was a machine. That was the idea from the beginning. Carl Yastrzemski wanted that strange character on the mound to look down the imaginary tunnel toward the plate and see a walking, talking, long-ball-hitting robot staring back from the plate.
“I guess it was something I did from the time I came up,” he said. “You wanted the opposition to know you’re a machine. That nothing could bother you.”
Well, the machine cried yesterday.
After 23 years of faithful service, Carl Yastrzemski broke down in full public view. The sellout Fenway Park crowd of 33,491 semi-religious ticket holders stood in the gray afternoon and applauded on this Yaz Day, this day to honor this ballplayer of all seasons, and the 44-year-old face cracked and the emotions flowed.
“I thought I had it under control,” Carl Yastrzemski said. “But then, when I started to hear the fans . . . that’s why I put my head down when I got to first base.”
For most of this final season, for the entire final grand tour of the concrete saucers in each and every American League town, he had fought against this very thing. Tributes? No, thank you. Ceremonies? No, that’s all right. Trophies? Please. He didn’t want any fuss, just wanted to be what he always has been, the swinger of the baseball bat, the ballplayer, the worker.
Even this grand goodby at Fenway was treated as a late-season diversion. Yaz Day? OK, fine. We’ll get it over with and then we’ll play the Cleveland Indians.
Heck, for most of this year Carl Yastrzemski wasn’t absolutely, positively sure he was going to retire.
“You’ll remember when Yaz Day was announced, the release only said, A day honoring Carl Yastrzemski,’ “ he said. “I had a meeting with (general manager) Haywood Sullivan and (manager) Ralph Houk and that’s the way we left it. It didn’t say I was retiring.”
“He’d say things like, You’re not planning anything big, are you?’ “ Red Sox public relations director George Sullivan said. “Or he’d say, I’ll just get up there and say a few words and that’ll be it, right?’
“I’d say, well . . .’ ”
Only in the past two weeks, the pennant race finished, the Red Sox going nowhere, did the man seem to accept the inevitability of the situation. Yes, he would retire. Of course, he would retire. Yes, there would be a Yaz Day. Of course, it would be longer than just a few mumbled words into a public-address system.
“He became really involved with it,” assistant public relations director Dick Bresciani said. “We had meetings. We talked a lot about the planning. He wanted to do it right.”
How much did he want to do it right? Sullivan broached a touchy possibility, a drive around the field at the end of the ceremonies in an open car of some sort, a chance to wave at all the fans. Carl Yastrzemski thought about it and had a better idea.
“How would it be,” he said, “if I ran around the field, instead?”
“Beautiful,” George Sullivan said.
As the day arrived, Yastrzemski felt as nervous about it as he’d felt about any day in his life. He gave an emotional speech at the BoSox Club on Friday, and then went to a downtown hotel to welcome friends and relatives arriving for the occasion. He didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning and was still awake at 4 when he suddenly felt very hungry.
“Why am I so hungry?” he asked himself.
“I am hungry,” he finally decided, “because I haven’t eaten all day. I forgot to eat.”
He was in the Red Sox clubhouse by 10, signing bats and balls and pieces of paper for his teammates. He would sign for a while, then start moving, always moving, fighting the nerves. There was an emotional time when his teammates gathered around his locker to make their own, special presentation, and then the public business began.
He ran onto the field at 14 minutes to 2 and the cheering began. For six minutes the noise continued as he stood in front of a little stage at second base, his family and assorted guests around him. For six minutes, he waved and bowed and tried to keep control.
“I was part of the day in Baltimore when Brooks Robinson retired,” he said. “And I was there when Al Kaline retired in Detroit. But nothing compares to this. Nothing.”
A car. A boat. A four-wheel drive Bronco. A Notre Dame freshman jacket. A rocking chair. A silver bowl. A silver bat. A letter from the White House. A Yaz Day song. A four-minute highlight film on the message board. The kind words and the speakers and the bows continued and continued in a 56-minute high mass of sentimentality, until suddenly Carl Yastrzemski was speaking and then he was asking for a moment of silence for his mother and for former owner Tom Yawkey and then he was speaking again and then he was running.
“New England,” Carl Yastremski said into the microphone, “I love you.”
He touched as many hands as he could on his trot. Down the right-field line. Into center, waving to the bleachers. Across the field. Into the left- field corner he worked so long. Down the line. Shaking hands with the fans. Shaking hands with the Cleveland Indians. Past the plate. Into the Red Sox dugout.
“I wanted to show my emotions,” he explained, giving a reason for the run. “For 23 years, I always blocked everything out. I wanted to show these people that deep down, I was emotional for all that time.”
The rest of the day was a semi-conscious blur, a fog. He knew he was in trouble as a hitter when he went to the on-deck circle for some swings with a leaded bat and found he somehow was carrying his regular bat. Every time he
went to the plate he had to back away to the noise, raise his hat again and wave. Four times. One grounder to first. Two grounders to second. A final, feeble grounder to the pitcher to end the game, a 3-1 Indians win.
“I tried to talk to myself, tell myself to come out of it, to concentrate,” this familiar face from all those pictures underneath all those headlines for all these years said. “I tried to concentrate, to just stay on the pitch . . . I didn’t stay on one pitch all day. I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”
He shrugged at the memory.
The machine simply didn’t work. Not on this day. The man had emerged.