In the 1990s, when Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio made rare public appearances together, DiMaggio would insist on being introduced as “the greatest living ballplayer.”
The gracious Teddy Ballgame never objected and Willie Mays was not asked for his opinion.
I thought of that this week when Carl Yastrzemski returned a call and agreed to spend a few moments talking about David Ortiz, who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. Like Ted and Yaz, Big Papi was elected in his first year of eligibility.
So, Yaz, what is Ortiz’s place in Red Sox history?
“He was one hell of a hitter, you know?” says Yastrzemski, who turns 83 next month. “One of the best hitters the Red Sox ever had. Probably the only guy that was a better hitter was Ted.”
Generous. And probably true. But, Yaz, are you telling us Ortiz was better than you?
“Yes,” acknowledges Yaz. “He was a better hitter.”
So, there you go. Yaz is secure in telling us that Big Papi is the second greatest hitter in Red Sox history.
I didn’t push him on “greatest living Red Sox player.” Everybody knows Ortiz was a career designated hitter, while Yastrzemski was a seven-time Gold Glove outfielder, contributing with his glove and arm for most of his 23 Red Sox seasons. We can save the “greatest living Red Sox player” debate for another time and maybe ask Pedro Martinez what he thinks.
Meanwhile, Yaz and Red Sox Nation are preparing for a long-weekend Papi-palooza, which will extend into Tuesday when the Red Sox honor Ortiz in a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park.
Yastrzemski isn’t making the trek to Cooperstown but plans to be at Fenway to celebrate Ortiz.
“I didn’t go to spring training this year and I’m not going to the induction,” says Yaz. “I’m kind of cooling things with the COVID situation and all. With all the people around and stuff, I can’t take a chance, especially after having bypass [surgery in 2008]. It’s been a while since then and I’m very lucky.
“This is a great honor for David. I remember when we first got him [in 2003], you kind of had doubts those first couple of months, but he turned that around quick and became one hell of a hitter. I think Ted would be very happy for him because he’s done so much for the Red Sox. I know I am.
“Going into the Hall of Fame is a great, great thrill,” adds Yaz, who was inducted along with Johnny Bench in 1989. “It’s great he gets to have his family there. My dad was there when I got in and he was very proud. Very few players make it and this means you are one of the few. David will always have that plaque. It’s just one hell of an honor.”
‘I think Ted would be very happy for him because he’s done so much for the Red Sox. I know I am.’
Carl Yastrzemski on David Ortiz
Yaz-in-retirement is our Lion In Winter, rarely heard from or seen, but he’s working out with a trainer regularly and gets enormous joy staying up late to watch his grandson, Mike, hit homers for the San Francisco Giants. Mike Yaz hit a walkoff grand slam last Friday and humble grandpa says, “The big thing is that it won a game for the Giants.”
In September 2019, the Yastrzemski clan gathered at Fenway to see Mike play for the Giants and they got their reward when Mike hit a 401-foot homer to center off Nate Eovaldi.
“That was a great thrill for me, seeing him in Fenway and especially him hitting a home run,” says Yaz. “I talk to Mike once every couple of weeks. I don’t bother him too much with the time difference and everything. He likes it out there. He likes the players, his manager, the hitting coach, so he’s happy. I didn’t think he’d be this much of a power hitter. He can hit the ball a long way when he hits it.”
Yaz still plays golf but doesn’t fish as much as he used to.
“A lot of guys I fish with aren’t fishing anymore,” he explains. “The places I’d go … we used to stay in touch so everybody knew where you were and if something happened they’d come and get you, you know? Going out by yourself is a little scary for me now.”
Workouts with a personal trainer are a particular passion.
“I work out three days a week with a private trainer at the Y in Andover,” Yaz says. “I work out for an hour and do a lot of squats. Today I did eight sets of 10 squats and that keeps the legs in pretty good shape. I’ve got a great trainer and one-on-one is great and he pushes me.’’
Yastrzemski was never around the Red Sox clubhouse during Ortiz’s championship run and didn’t develop a relationship with the 21st century slugger.
“This is his time,” Yaz says, softly. “I don’t even talk to my grandson about hitting.”
Like the rest of us, Yaz is impressed with Ortiz’s post-career role as a goodwill ambassador for the Red Sox.
“Ortiz is young and he likes doing it,” says Yastrzemski. “I never did much of that. Once I retired, that was it. Everything went out of me.”