In the autumn of 1967, while visiting friends in Boston, I fell in love with the son of a potato farmer from Long Island.
Every time Carl Yastrzemski came to bat for the Red Sox in that feverish pennant race, with the game and the season on the line, he delivered – double, home run, whatever was required.
By the time I got home to New York I was hooked – and had a rooting interest in baseball for the first time since the Dodgers left Brooklyn and Koufax retired in Los Angeles.
Years after Boston’s Impossible Dream season, as a writer, I caught up with Yaz to chronicle the final act of his quixotic quest.
So, as I do every year on August 22, I raise a glass to my last baseball hero – now 76, with snow-white hair – Happy Birthday, Yaz.
In January 1977, I joined the Toronto Sun as a city desk reporter. Before the year was out, I was recruited by the sports department to cover the Blue Jays.
“Welcome to the sandbox,” said columnist Trent Frayne, the best sportswriter in Canada.
My first assignment was the baseball winter meetings in Hawaii. I wrote my stories at a poolside patio, where a waitress kept my glass full.
When I returned home, the Sun’s sports editor, George Gross, was pissed.
“I expected you to write a lot more when you were in Hawaii,” he told me.
“Did I miss any stories?”
“That’s not the point. When we’re paying to send you 5,000 miles away, I expect you to write 5,000 words a day.”
After I left his office and stopped laughing, I considered the Gross Mile-a-Word Story Calculator and how it would be applied to the road trips I’d take during the season:
- Detroit = 200 words
- New York = 400
- Kansas City = 800
- Arlington = 1,200
- Anaheim = 2,000
It would not be the first time I ignored the boss.
The Jays spring training base in Dunedin was 1,100 words away.
It wasn’t long before I was bored watching the no-name expansion team and hit the road for Winter Haven, the Florida home of the Red Sox.
Before the morning fog lifted, Yaz, 38 years old and in his 18th season in the big leagues, was working up a sweat in a batting cage under the watchful eye of Ted Williams.
“This is probably the best hitting team I’ve ever seen,” Teddy Ballgame told me.
The Sox were damn good that spring and early summer of 1978, before a 14-game lead over the Yanks evaporated in the heat of August and early September.
The New York baseball writers huddled in the press dining room before a game. What were they up to?
Reading their stuff that season I figured it out – they mostly took the same angle on every story.
At the time, this was known as “pack journalism,” thanks to Tim Crouse’s branding of political reporters. Nowadays, determining the lead before the action starts is labeled a storyline.
One thing I understood writing about the hometown team for a hometown paper is to approach every story in the same way: How/why did they win or lose.
The 1978 Jays lost 102 games. I quickly ran out of ways to say they stunk.
Some players were equally inept off the field.
Pitcher Balor Moore, twice afflicted as a lefty and a Texan, arrived one night at Canada Customs and flunked the exam.
“How long have you been out of the country?” the inspector asked.
“Where have you been?”
“What flight did you arrive on?”
I abandoned the Jays in September to cover the surging Yankees and struggling Sox.
It was painful to watch Yaz in the clubhouse after each loss, bathed in anguish and sweat, chain-smoking cigarettes.
The Sox did rally to tie the Yanks in the final standings, but lost the one-game playoff at Fenway Park. I let Yaz have the last words in my last story as a baseball beat writer:
“The last three weeks, with our backs to the wall, we played like champions. But now, there’s just tremendous disappointment. When pennants are on the line like this, maybe it should be more than one game. I’d sure like to be playing them tomorrow.”
He’d never compete in another pennant race.
I flew home from Boston, quit the Sun, bought a dog and named him Yaz.
On April Fools’ Day 1980, my wife Linda and I – and Yaz – headed west in a small motorhome we called Fenway.
On a stop in Seattle, Linda and Yaz waited outside the Kingdome while I went to pick up tickets for that night’s Sox-Mariners game.
A couple of young Sox arriving at the ballpark paused to hit on my wife.
“What’s your dog’s name?” one asked.
The boys went wild. “Can’t wait to tell the old man.”
Yaz was 13 when he died in 1991.
Carl Michael Yastrzemski had just turned 44 when I saw him play his last game in Toronto at the end of August 1983.
He hit me a foul ball. I caught it cleanly.