Mike Yastrzemski, July 30, 2019. Photo by Ian D'Andrea.
Toward the end of a post about two old-time ballplayers last year, I mentioned in passing that rookie Mike Yastrzemski – grandson of Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski – had recently collected his first two big-league hits.
There was more to the Mike Yastrzemski story even then; there is much more to it now. Improbably, Carl Yastrzemski’s grandson is emerging as a bona fide big-league star, not long after it seemed likely he would never see the big leagues at all.
Mike Yastrzemski turned 30 last Sunday. His pro baseball career launched (I use the term loosely) in 2013 when the Baltimore Orioles took him in the 14th round of that year’s draft. He spent six seasons buried in the Orioles’ minor league organization and appeared destined to repeat the experience of his dad, Carl Michael Yastrzemski, Jr., who never made it past AAA minor-league ball.
The Orioles traded Mike Yastrzemski to the San Francisco Giants after the 2018 season. He began the 2019 campaign that spring – remember when professional baseball was played in the spring? – with the Giants’ AAA affiliate in Sacramento. But then, last May, Yastrzemski finally got called up to the Show.
I wrote last spring how the superannuated rookie reminded me of his grandfather with his smooth outfield play. I observed that he did not hit like his grandfather, who spent 23 seasons with Boston, made the American League All-Star team 18 times, and was the league’s MVP and Triple Crown winner in 1967. That was the year I discovered baseball, and Carl Yastrzemski was a big part of the reason I’ve followed the game ever since.
It has turned out that Mike Yastrzemski is more like his grandfather than I, or a lot of other people, realized. He hit a respectable .272 and showed more than occasional power with 21 home runs in 107 games with the big-league team last season. And he has improved in almost every category in this year’s pandemic-disrupted campaign. He was hitting over .300 this week, with seven home runs in his team’s first 30 games.
The Giants are still a mediocre team scrambling to make it into an expanded 2020 postseason playoff. But Mike Yastrzemski has helped them improve from dismal to at least hopeful. He would have surely been an All-Star this year, if the 2020 season had included an All-Star game. His name is being bandied about as a legitimate candidate for this season’s Most Valuable Player award.
Yet there is much more to Mike Yastrzemski’s story than his baseball statistics can tell. He is attracting as much attention for his perseverance, maturity, decency and work ethic as for his on-field performance, although his personal and professional characteristics are intertwined. Observers are amazed at his discipline at the plate. He is almost incomprehensibly dangerous there even in two-strike counts that cripple other batters. Profiles also note the family support Mike Yastrzemski drew from his wife, a college lacrosse player, and his mother, who had her own experience with her husband’s long journey in the minor league wilderness. His mother carried a double parental load after her husband, Carl Yastrzemski, Jr., died from complications following hip surgery. Mike Yastrzemski was 14 at the time.
All this brings to mind a life lesson I drew from Mike Yastrzemski’s grandfather when I was 9 years old. The St. Louis Cardinals had won the first game of the 1967 World Series, 2-1. In that opener, Carl Yastrzemski had gone hitless in four at bats against the Cardinals’ future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson.
Yastrzemski had just won the American League batting title as part of his Triple Crown season, but he felt his futility against Gibson showed he needed improvement. I recall reading in the New York Daily News about how Yastrzemski took extra batting practice after his Game 1 performance.
The Red Sox ended up losing that series in seven games. But Yastrzemski collected 10 hits after the first game and ended up batting .400 for the series overall. He went on to repeat as the American League batting champion in 1968, the only player in the league to hit over .300 in a season still known as the “Year of the Pitcher.”
I always remembered Carl Yastrzemski’s example of putting in extra work to improve after a setback, rather than shrugging it off and resting on his laurels. Mike Yastrzemski seems to have absorbed a similar work ethic.
We can’t enjoy a regular baseball season in person this year, but fans will take what we can get. In the Yastrzemski tradition, Carl’s grandson is giving it his best.