FORT MYERS, Fla. — Carl Yastrzemski is the greatest living Red Sox player. He’s rarely seen in Boston, isn’t sure he’ll ever return to Cooperstown, but feels the love every time he returns to Fenway Park to throw a ceremonial first pitch before yet another World Series victory.
“I’m undefeated!’’ Yaz says with a big smile as he recalls his ceremonial tosses.
Still worshipped in the church of Boston baseball, Yaz turns 80 in August. He just became a great-grandfather (“They don’t send the pictures to me because I don’t know how to get them off the telephone”), but he’s still working with young hitters in the Red Sox minor league complex at spring training.
Yastrzemski is our Koufax. Out of sight, never out of mind.
There’s a gigantic inspirational quote from Yaz stenciled onto the wall of the big league clubhouse at JetBlue Park, but you will never see Captain Carl in that room. Yaz prefers the less plush digs of the minor league clubhouse, where he can dress and work quietly with nameless, faceless pro ballplayers who might never get a plate appearance in the bigs.
Each morning at a designated time, a clubhouse attendant wheels a golf cart out to the JetBlue players’ parking lot to meet Yaz, then drives the Sox legend to the minor league clubhouse. Then Yaz works with the young hitters.
“I just kind of watch to see what’s going on,’’ Yaz says with a shrug. “I like this third baseman from Portland [Bobby Dalbec]. He’s got a great mental approach, hitting ball after ball up the middle. He’s strong. Hits the ball to left-center, right-center. They say he’s a hell of a third baseman, too.’’
Yastrzemski is tanned, rested, and fit from a new exercise routine.
“I’m doing great,’’ he says. “Feel great. I do a lot of stretching, Play golf four or five times a week to get my walking in. But the stretching has really been great for me. I never stretched before in my life.
“Last year when I came down here, I had sciatic nerve issues on both sides, but the trainer and doctor here gave me stretching exercises to do. A half-hour a day. And I’m back playing golf again.’’
He got to watch his grandson Mike bat against the Red Sox in a big league spring training game last weekend. A graduate of St. John’s Prep and a star outfielder at Vanderbilt, Mike has been in the Orioles farm system since 2013 and is in big league camp this spring. At 28, playing for a rebuilding team, this might be Mike’s best chance to make it to the majors. He is a grinder. Like his Hall of Fame grandfather.
When he arrived to succeed Ted Williams 60 years ago, Yaz got a lot of heavy-handed hitting lessons from Teddy Ballgame. Grandpa Yaz takes a softer approach with Mike.
“I just watch,’’ said the Sox legend. “I talk to him a little. I talked to his hitting coach for about 15 minutes when they were here last week. I talk to Mike about being mentally aggressive. His hitting coach says the same thing.
“I watch him when he’s taking batting practice. He swung at a couple of bad pitches in batting practice. You don’t want to swing at every pitch you see. You can’t swing at them in a game. You take them.
“We talked about borderline strikes. You don’t want to hit borderline strikes unless you’ve got two strikes on you. You can’t follow through on borderline pitches.’’
How does Yaz think he’d fare against Chris Sale?
“I don’t know,’’ he says, laughing. “I know he’s tough on lefthanders. He wheels and deals. I feel sorry when I see a lefthander go up against him. I’m just glad it’s not me.’’
In an age of oversized, 100-mile-per-hour relievers, is hitting more difficult today?
“The athletes in every sport are much better,’’ Yaz says. “I think pitching is different a little because of the lower mound. Before they lowered the mound, everybody was hard-throwing. When [Luis] Tiant came up with Cleveland, he threw close to 100 miles an hour. He could bring it.’’
He thinks the Red Sox have the best defensive outfield in the majors. He likes the way Jackie Bradley Jr. is swinging the bat in spring training. Ask him if the Red Sox can repeat in 2019 and Yaz says, “They’ve got one hell of a chance. It all comes down to pitching over 162 games. If the pitching is what it was last year, they are going to be in great shape. They are going to score runs. No doubt about that.
“They really put it all together last year. [Alex] Cora did a tremendous job. They won on the road in the playoffs and the World Series. Swept everything on the road. Played as well on the road as they did at home.’’
He watched the Super Bowl and has a lot of admiration for anybody who can play quarterback in the NFL at 41. Yaz was 44 when he played his last game in 1983. Does he think Tom Brady can play that long?
“The way he keeps himself in great shape, why not?’’
Yaz is not one to live in the past. Fans often remember more about the 1967 season than he does. But he knows Boston old-timers who meet him are always going to gush about his Triple Crown season and the Impossible Dream team.
“It was just a fantastic year and everybody contributed,’’ Yaz says. “[Jose] Tartabull throws the guy out at home in Chicago. He couldn’t throw the ball 100 feet. And then he throws a perfect strike and Elston Howard makes the play at the plate. It was a total team effort.
“I remember we were playing a twi-night doubleheader in Cleveland that year. Tartabull hadn’t played for a while. But we started him against Sam McDowell in a twi-night doubleheader that started at, like, 5 o’clock.
“McDowell threw 100 miles an hour. The first pitch he threw went all the way to the backstop on the fly. Jose didn’t even see it. He didn’t hit the ground until after it hit the backstop.’’
It is a small, sweet story that gets a laugh out of Yaz. But he acknowledges he is not one for public appearances or storytelling.
When I show him a worn jacket for the chart-topping “Impossible Dream” record album that was on every New England turntable in 1968 (the same year we all had Big Yaz Bread in the kitchen), Yaz points to the illustration of the generic (and headless) lefthanded Sox batter on the cover and says, “They cut my head off so they didn’t have to pay me any royalties.’’
The line gets a laugh.
Seriously, he is asked?
“Yeah, it’s true,’’ he says.
His reclusiveness is well-known. Unlike almost every other Hall of Famer, Yastrzemski routinely skips the annual trip to Cooperstown for induction ceremonies in July. When the Red Sox need him to sign baseballs for charity, they send a box of balls to a North Shore butcher shop, wait a few days, then send someone back to the meat shop to pick up the signed balls.
Will Yaz ever return to Cooperstown?
“I don’t know,’’ he says softly.
Then he sighs.
“I don’t know what people want,’’ he says. “I’m not out in the public here. I play golf. I have a lot of friends. When I’m up North, I just do a lot of work. I’m not really going out here and there. I go fishing, and I like to fish by myself. It’s relaxing.’’
He gave us his game for 23 seasons. That’s enough.