Friday, February 25, 2011

Making Peace with Yaz

When you are a fan and passionate about the sport you love, rationality has little to do with the process. We fall in love with teams and with players because for some reason they resonate with us in whatever mental or emotional state we happen to be in at the time. There is no rhyme or reason in being a fan. As such, favorite players over the years have been numerous. But the lack of rationality goes both ways. Just as we fall in love with certain teams and players, we fall in hate with others. As the years go by, the tenacity to which we hold onto those feelings knows no bounds. We may only be shaken from our resolve with some dramatic event. The O. J. Simpson thing comes to mind. As we get older, we develop some measure of insight and question our choices. Such is the case with Carl Yastrzemski. It's time to figure out why this particular Fan hates Yaz.

Yastrzemski (a name that is highly irritating to have to type) wasn't alone in the hated column. but he was darn close to the top of the list. Others on the list include(d): Bob Gibson, Maury Wills, Cal Ripkin Jr., Barry Bonds, Albert Bell, Eddie Murray, Chipper Jones, Tommy Lasorda, Tony LaRussa, Pete Rose, any player named Hairston, Jeff Kent and Reggie Jackson. There have been others, but that's a pretty representative list. In some cases, the competitive arrogance of the person turned into hate. Gibson, Chipper, Kent and Rose fall into those categories. Those same traits were loved in other players, so of course it makes little sense. Some are seen as selfish and self-serving like Lasorda, Bonds, Jackson,  Murray and Bell. But all players are like them to a degree, so again, it makes no sense. Others were hated because they were beloved by others but judged overrated by this Fan. Those include Wills, Ripkin, and yes, Carl Yastrzemski.

But with Yaz, it was more than the overrated thing. He just seemed like a jerk. Lord knows, that is an unfair conclusion. He just seemed in interviews to be condescending. He carried himself with an air of dignity and like he was a blue-blood. But it was the overrated thing that seemed to resonate most.

While Derek Jeter is beloved in this writer's heart, there is an understanding of how many would hate him. His fame is blown up by the media and the frenzy with which that media enshrines him is irking even for those that love the player. In his day, Yaz got the same kind of treatment. Curt Gowdy, the iconic play-by-play announcer for the Saturday game of the week for years was also the Red Sox guy on then Channel 38 in Boston. He always heaped lavishing praise on Yaz. But it wasn't just him. It was others.

Looking back, this Fan's perception of Yaz wasn't helped by the timing of the Fan's move to New England. That occurred in 1975 and that was the year that the Red Sox went to the World Series under Dick Williams. And they almost pulled it off. There was no cable television back then and if you moved to a different part of the country, the only option you had was to watch the ball games of the team the local stations covered. During the Fan's initial years in New Hampshire, the Red Sox were the only team on the tube.

The timing of that move made all the difference. 1974 was Yastrzemski's last great season. The Fan's first year in New England was the following year when he fell to a .776 OPS and batted .269. All that year, the Fan watched him on television while the broadcasters heaped praise in copious amounts and the guy was just a notch above average at that point. He would rally for a very good year in 1977, but the rest of those years were just a notch above middling. Plus, there were vivid reminders of his fallibility. Yaz made the last out in the 1975 World Series on a fly out. He popped out to end the infamous Bucky Dent game. It was a weak foul pop to third base with two men on against Goose Gossage. Everyone remembers that Dent hit that homer off of Torres, but Yaz could have won the game and he failed.

The move in 1975 was after all the great Yaz years. He won the Triple Crown in 1967. He led the league in batting average three times and OPS four times. He won an MVP and several Gold Gloves. He hit .410 in the 1967 World Series, the only guy who made any kind of dent in that series against Bob Gibson and crew. He had great years in an era when pitching was king. But the Fan didn't watch him in any of those years except the All Star Game and the World Series.

What the Fan got to see was an old guy hanging around for years and years after his best years. It's not that Yaz was ineffective from 1975 on. He wasn't. Only 1981 saw his OPS+ dip below 106. But he was no longer a superstar and yet he still acted like one and was treated like one. And that grated on the Fan month after month after month.

There are two kinds of superstars. There are those like Sandy Koufax and Kirby Puckett who shine brightly for only a little while. They are so good in their peak years that we can't help marvel at them. But there are others whose body of work amassed over two decades end up putting up massive rubbles of numbers. Dave Winfield is one of those. And so is Carl Yastrzemski. He had his great years during his peak. But he put up massive career numbers. He drove in and scored over 1800 runs. He hit 452 homers and 1,157 extra base hits. He had 3,419 hits. He played 23 FULL seasons for the same team. He walked 1845 times, almost 350 more times than he struck out. He compiled 195 assists as an outfielder and when he got old, he played first base. But he wasn't a liability at first base like most in that situation. He had positive fielding metrics at first base.

His statistics are massive. His career WAR was 88.7. He was maddeningly inconsistent. Two years after his Triple Crown season, he hit .255. The year after that, he hit .329. The year after that, he hit .254. But reflection insists that this Fan didn't see Yaz at his best. And at his best, he was quite a complete ball player. And as such, it's time to put away the old hatred and disdain for the man. It's time to understand and realize that Carl Yastrzemski was one of the best players of his era and as such, one of the best players this Fan has had a chance to watch.

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