Yaz connects for old times' sake

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- "I feel great,'' said Carl Yastrzemski, tanned and looking healthy. "I've played golf just about every day since Dec. 1. I'm down in Delray Beach. Not long ago I shot three rounds under my age -- 70, 71, 73. Fourth day, I shot a 74, matching my age.''

This was Sunday morning, and Yastrzemski was standing behind the home team dugout in Jet Blue Park, underneath the stands. Normally, Yastrzemski never ventures into the park -- he usually comes to camp with no fanfare and spends all his time on the back fields, watching the minor leaguers. But he made an exception Sunday morning.

He'd been given a heads-up that he might want to be here to see the Baltimore Orioles, Boston's opponent in Sunday's exhibition. Orioles manager Buck Showalter had added an outfielder from minor league camp to the traveling squad he'd brought from Sarasota to play the Red Sox. The outfielder wore No. 85, and there was no name on his back, but Yaz would have no trouble recognizing him.

It was Mike Yastrzemski, his grandson, and son of Anne-Marie and Carl Michael Yastrzemski Jr., who also went by the name of Mike.

Yaz had seen his grandson play a couple of times at Vanderbilt, where he was named All-SEC in his senior year and voted Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA regional in Nashville, Tenn. But this would be the first time Yastrzemski would see his grandson play since he was drafted as a senior last June in the 14th round by the Orioles.

Mike Yastrzemski, 23, made his pro debut last summer for Class A Aberdeen in the short-season New York-Penn League, where he held his own, posting a slash line of .273/.362/.420/.782. He was already two years older than his grandfather had been when he made his big league debut in 1961, the first of his 23 big league seasons.

But it avails no one to compare Hall of Famers to their progeny, even if there are shared bloodlines, and there was pride in Yaz's voice -- and a hint of deeper emotion -- when he talked about what it was like to see his grandson make it this far.

"Well, it means a lot,'' Yastrzemski said. "It just proves a lot of hard work can take you a long way. He's worked hard all his life. He wanted to be a good player, and he put the effort and time into it.''

Mike Yastrzemski, an only child, was 6 when his parents were divorced. He moved with his mother to Massachusetts, and was in the eighth grade when he learned that his father, a switch-hitting outfielder at Florida State who played five seasons in the minors and topped out in Triple-A, had died of a heart attack after hip surgery. His father was 43 years old.

Carl Yastrzemski was among the circle of family members who closed ranks around Mike Yastrzemski after his father's death. He said Mike was maybe a freshman or sophomore in high school when he began working with him on his hitting.

"Every Sunday we'd go down to Dave Betancourt's place,'' said Mike Yastrzemski, referring to a baseball and softball academy in North Andover, Mass. "They'd give us keys and say if no one's there, head on in. We had a great time. "It was a normal grandfather-grandson relationship. We'd talk about a lot of stuff -- fishing, baseball, golf. All good.''

Yaz mentioned that he also brought Mike to work with Walt Hriniak, the longtime hitting coach who counted among his most famous pupils Wade Boggs.

"Sometimes I was a little too intense,'' he said with a laugh. "I've learned to mellow out.''

Mike Yastrzemski was a good enough player at St. John's Prep in Danvers, Mass., to be drafted in the 36th round by the Red Sox. He chose to go to Vanderbilt instead, and said Sunday that at the time, the thought of playing for the same team whose fans had lionized his grandfather was a bit daunting. He was drafted again after his junior season at Vanderbilt, in the 30th round by Seattle, but elected to finish his degree.

Last spring, he graduated with a B.S. degree in crime and society, another point of pride for his grandfather. "He said St. John's was harder than Vanderbilt,'' Yaz said with a smile.

On Sunday, Yaz leaned on the batting cage, watching the Red Sox take batting practice. Manager John Farrell and several players came over to say hello, and David Ortiz wrapped Yaz in an embrace.

"I told [Dustin] Pedroia he's grown taller,'' Yastrzemski said. "He was jacking 'em out of here.''

When the Orioles arrived, Mike came over to greet his grandfather, spoke with a small group of reporters, then returned to chat a bit longer. He and his grandfather are almost the same size. Yaz was listed as 5-foot-11, 175 pounds; Mike is listed at 5-11, 185.

Yaz mentioned how Mike had learned the Hriniak style of letting go of the bat with one hand. "I told him make sure you hold on,'' Yaz said. "Don't let go too early.''

Mike Yastrzemski was asked what kind of advice he got from his grandfather.

"Just be myself,'' he said. "Go out there, have fun, go out and do what I can to play at my best level.''

Sunday afternoon, Mike Yastrzemski entered the game as a pinch runner in the fifth inning, and went in to play right field in the bottom of the inning. Unlike his grandfather, Mike throws left-handed. He also doesn't cock his bat as high as Yaz did.

"A lot of people thought I was way up here when I played,'' Yaz said. "So many hitters held their bat low, that's why I stood out. My top hand, I always gauged it being at the top of my ear.''

In the seventh inning, Mike Yastrzemski topped a ball and grounded out to short. In the ninth, he drew a walk and went first to third on a single, sliding headfirst into third. If Yaz was watching, he was doing so from a vantage point out of public sight. No surprise there.

But before retreating out of view, he was asked to assess his grandson's chances of one day playing in a big league game that counts.

"I think he has a shot because he has the desire and determination,'' Yaz said. "That can take you a long way. Like I said, he always worked hard so you can't rule that out.''