The victory trot has become a walk. The nerves of steel are tattered and work hard to hold back the tears. Carl Yastrzemski came back yesterday for his special day at Fenway Park and was as appealing as he had ever been in his illustrious career.
It was fitting that the ceremonies to retire No. 8 -- the number the Hall of Fame outfielder wore for the Red Sox for 23 years -- began in left field and ended at home plate. Yaz went out in his own special way. With gratitude and respect for those who went before him. With pride and humility, and just a hint of the emotion he’d kept inside all the years he toiled before the Fenway Faithful.
Yaz came home for good yesterday. No. 8 joins the numbers worn by Ted Williams (9), Joe Cronin (4) and Bobby Doerr (1) on the facade of the roof above right field. All four players are members of the Hall of Fame. All are a permanent part of Fenway Park.
There was never any question yesterday that No. 8 belonged among the others. As if on cue, the fans cast their ballots with a three-minute ovation before the ceremonies began, and never stopped cheering. There was excitement in the air . . . similar to 1967.
“This is my home,” said Yastrzemski later. “Boston. New England. I thought I was pretty calm coming in here after the Hall of Fame. But the fans at Fenway Park always amazed me. I couldn’t believe that reception I received.
“I’m really thrilled about this. I consider this as great an honor as going into the Hall of Fame. When I was there two weeks ago, there was a speech by the commissioner and I had time to gain my composure. Here, I kind of lost it.”
There are probably a million people who will claim they were in Fenway Park yesterday, just they claim they were there six years ago, when he retired at age 44. The trot around Fenway, shaking hands and waving to the fans, is buried in the memory of most New England fans. This time, however, the parade was done at half speed.
‘’There’s nothing wrong with Yaz,” said former Globe writer Clif Keane, one of only a handful of baseball scribes still around who saw Yaz when he came up in 1961. “He just can’t run with a moneybelt.”
Yastrzemski quickly agreed: “I’m getting too old to run. At least, I didn’t take the golf cart like the Red Sox wanted me to do. It was a privilege that I played here. I chose Boston. I wasn’t drafted.
“I could have left in 1972, the first year they had the rule giving 10- year men who had at least five years with the same club the right to refuse a trade. Harmon Killebrew and I were the first. But I stayed in Boston. I could have become a free agent a couple of times. I thought about it for about five minutes. But I stayed. And I made the right decision.”
The past was emphasized yesterday, yet Yaz remains a fixture with the Red Sox. Each spring he serves as a special hitting instructor for the Red Sox minor leaguers, and only a back problem kept him from working with the big leaguers this spring. His first-ballot election and subsequent induction into the Hall two weeks ago would have left an ordinary man physically and emotionally drained. But yesterday Yaz poured out his heart to a crowd of 33,935.
Since he retired in 1983, Yaz has been seen only occasionally at Fenway Park. The first two years after his retirement were too painful for him to be a casual observer. The last three have been easier, but since his Hall of Fame election, he hasn’t had much time. But he was there yesterday, and he added his number to other Fenway greats. And in so doing, he showed his appreciation for those who’d helped him along the way.
The list included his father, Carl, the Little League (Yaz is the first Little League player to make it to the Hall), Mayor Flynn, President Bush (who
sent a special note), late Red Sox owner Thomas A. Yawkey and his wife Jean, the current team owner.
Yastrzemski left little doubt who headed that list.
‘’I came into the game in a different situation,” said Yaz. “Mr. Yawkey’s friendship for all those years. I could hardly wait to get to the park and talk with him. Baseball. Baseball. Baseball. The game. The game. The game. I had a tremendous friendship with him. It made coming to the ballpark fun.”
To Yastrzemski, it hardly seemed like 28 years had passed since he arrived at Fenway Park as a nervous rookie, and the heir to Williams’ roost in left field. But, as he met former teammates, and renewed acquaintances, he began to reminisce about the many bridges he had crossed in his career. Only three teammates from 1983 remain. He made sure to greet Bob Stanley and Jim Rice, and sent best wishes to Dwight Evans.
Yaz has no idea how many people his career has affected. Red Sox pitcher Rob Murphy is one of them. He grew up in Miami, and Yaz was one of his heroes. He even had a pet mouse, which he named “Yaz.”
“When I was a kid,” said Murphy,”My mother bought me a uniform, and it was No. 8. I named my mouse after him, and wrote him about it. He actually wrote me back. But I’m sure he doesn’t recall that.”
On the field, Yastrzemski was introduced by longtime Red Sox broadcaster Ned Martin, who actually wore a tie for the occasion. He received accolades
from Rico Petrocelli and Mike Andrews, two teammates from the Impossible Dream team.
It was a time to reflect on a brilliant career. And one theme that ran through his reflections was his praise for Tom Yawkey.
‘’Yawkey just had that something about him that I could relate to,” said Yaz. “Because he held his composure so well, a lot of people didn’t understand how badly he wanted to win. I’m the same way.
“In 1967, after we lost in the World Series, he went right to the Cardinals’ dugout and congratulated them. Then, he came to pat the players on the back . . . It had to be killing him inside. In 1972, on that last trip to Detroit, he came into the clubhouse. You knew it was killing him worse than anybody. But he had the composure to say, ‘We’ll get them again next year.’ He was in the clubhouse in 1975. At that time, he thought he had a touch of flu, and watched the game from inside. I know that’s what he thought he had . . . Unless he hid it very well.”
Coming home to Fenway was more than fun yesterday.
“I’ve always had tremendous happiness coming to this ballpark,” said Yaz. “The first two years were difficult for me. Wondering if I’d made the right decision or not. Never in my life did I think I’d make the Hall of Fame and have my number retired. I was competitive because of my size. I worked, and just working so hard overshadowed everything, and never gave me a chance to think about it. I never enjoyed it after a game in which I did well. I was always thinking about tomorrow.
“I remember all those years sitting at my locker, beating my head up against the wall when I did badly. Then, when I did well, I’d stop and start thinking about tomorrow, and never did cherish the great moments I had. But maybe that’s why I had the ceremonies two weeks ago and today. I just never dwelled upon the success.”
Yaz is home at Fenway Park. Where he got most of his 3,308 hits. Where he hit most of his 452 home runs. Where for 23 years, his name was synonymous with excellence.
“You could see it coming,” said his father, admittedly the least objective man at Fenway Park. “He had that great year in 1967 and that alone should have put him in the Hall of Fame. He played 23 years for the same team. The Boston Red Sox. That made it great.”