A Future Hall-of-Famer Contemplates His First Spring Without Baseball in 23 Years
Inevitably, even the most brilliant Boys of Summer fade and wither. Skills erode, nerves fail, muscles get sore and stay sore. This spring, the years finally caught up with Carl Yastrzemski, 44. For more than two decades, Yaz had patrolled left field for the Boston Red Sox. During his 3,308-game career, he amassed 3,419 hits and 452 home runs—Hall-of-Fame numbers.
But there will be no hits or homers for Yaz in 1984. Instead, he is a part-time sportscaster for WNEV-TV in Boston, a marketing director for Kahn 's meats, and, this spring, was a minor-league hitting instructor for the Sox. What is life like without Fenway? To find out, assistant editor Jack Friedman spent a day with Yaz at his Florida beach home.
I'm enjoying my retirement, but I'll admit there have been a couple of shaky moments. Like earlier this spring when I was working with Mike, my 21-year-old son who's an outfielder in the Braves' organization. I wanted to show him a couple of things he was doing wrong at the plate. So I grabbed a bat, walked into the batting cage. I took five swings—and hit the ball great. Scared the hell out of me. I dropped the bat and walked right out of the cage. I don't need that kind of temptation.
The other time I felt it was when the Red Sox broke training camp. After 23 springs, I wasn't breaking with the club and going north. I guess I miss being around the guys.
And I guess I knew I would, too. Maybe it sounds corny, but that's the great drama in baseball: seeing 25 guys go through 162 games together, seeing their personality changes. Like how they're sky-high when they're going good or how they sit staring into their lockers when they're going bad. If you've been around as long as me, the day you break camp you just sit there and say to yourself, "It's all going to happen to me, to us, all over again."
Being involved in a pennant race is, of course, what you live for. Even if there's only one winner and it's not you, it's still great. Everything becomes charged and all the individuals on the team start pulling together, pulling for each other. When you're out of the race, the game is no fun. It's just not the same.
And when you come down to it, that's really why I retired. I still have the hand speed, the eye, the reflexes. Physically, there's no doubt I can still hit. In fact, up till Aug. 1 of last year, I'd planned to come back. But three weeks later, we dropped out of the race for good. And when we did, it seemed like something dropped out of me. When I got a base hit, it didn't excite me anymore. When I made an out, it just wasn't the same feeling.
Ultimately, retirement was really a mental thing with me. On the one hand, I fell out of the love of the game because we were so far out of contention. On the other, all those years of work finally caught up with me.
I've said before that I wasn't blessed with great physical tools. Well, the problem is that as you get older those tools become duller, so by the end I was working out 11½ months a year. Two, three weeks after the season, the grind would begin all over again: 10 miles of cycling a day; weightlifting and Nautilus; hours swinging the lead bat. During the off-season, if I wanted to go fishing, I'd have to stop myself. I love fishing. But I felt that if I let down just once, that was it.
I suppose I also put pressure on myself. For me to help us win, I had to knock in runs. At 5'11", I don't have great physical strength. So for me to do that I had to be perfect—and I knew it. I couldn't make the mistakes a big guy could get away with.
I was always thinking of hitting and I guess I just got sick of it. I would be sitting and talking to someone and, in the back of my mind, I was thinking about hitting. I loved the game, but it ate me up inside. It dominated me. I could never leave it at the park like some other guys. Last year this reporter wrote a column about how he was amazed that I kept a note pinned up in my locker reminding me to wait on the ball. Little did he know that all my life I've left myself notes, and I did so up till the very last day of the season.
As a hitting instructor, my first couple of days in camp definitely felt strange. When I was a player I focused on just one thing: what I had to do to get ready for the season. But as a coach, I was worried about 25 minor leaguers. I found it just as tough to prepare them as it was to prepare myself. Or maybe tougher, because you get so involved with the kids. You root for them, pull for them, and even wish you could step in and hit for them.
All I could do was teach, and what I tried to teach were simple things like being aggressive and hitting the ball out in front. You can't give kids too much too early. I remember when I came up, Ted Williams would talk to me and I'd nod my head. But I just didn't understand him. It was like another language. Me talking baseball to a 21-year-old is a lot different than me talking to Jim Rice or Dwight Evans.
Speaking of which, my old teammates still call me captain and still needle me—even though I'm a member of the press now. I figured it would be easy to interview them—Christ, I played with Evans and Rice for 10 years—but then maybe nothing is easy for me. I found myself preparing my questions the night before or, to be honest, a couple of nights before.
Right now, my top priority is Kahn's meats. I'm the marketing director for New England and Florida and I treat it the same way I did baseball—all out. I told them when I joined seven years ago that one day we would be No. 1. That means watch out Oscar Mayer.
Kahn's versus Oscar Mayer. It's not the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees. But it'll do.
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