Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 19, 2019

Field Of Memories, And Of Dreams Come True

Almost all the old places are gone now. Some of the most famous disappeared decades ago, lost to franchise relocations and the shimmery lure of commercial development. Ebbetts Field and the Polo Grounds in Gotham and Griffith Stadium in D.C. are little more than hazy memories for a dwindling few fans. Other ballfields have given way to the wrecking ball more recently, in favor of modern facilities. Some on that list, like Tiger Stadium in Detroit or Comiskey Park in Chicago or the South Bronx edifice that was the first place New Yorkers referred to simply as “the Stadium,” are remembered with entire chapters in the history of the Great Game. Others, like Shea or the Kingdome, are scarcely missed.

Of the thirty ballparks that major league teams currently call home, only six are more than three decades old. The oldest of all, of course, is the little bandbox squeezed into the Boston neighborhood named for the marshlands, or fens, that were filled in long, long ago to create buildable land for a growing city. Fenway Park has been home to the Red Sox since 1912, and if the old place were capable of human speech it would have many stories to tell. It might choose to recount more recent events, and that would be understandable. Beginning in 2004, Fenway’s decades of disappointment and doubt gave way to a recent period in which the Sox have won four world championships and taken part in the playoffs at the end of five other seasons.

That sustained success has come under the ownership of John Henry, the billionaire investor who essentially traded his majority interest in the Marlins for a similar stake in the Boston franchise in 2002. Henry was an early acolyte of Bill James and other pioneers of the advanced metrics that now dominate front office decision-making. But he has also been willing to open his very large checkbook. When the 2018 edition of the Red Sox won 108 regular season games and then rolled through the playoffs, the team did so with the Great Game’s largest payroll.

As local fans know all too well, while such largesse on the part of ownership was not unknown in the decades before Henry arrived, it rarely translated into winning on the field. Longtime owner Tom Yawkey was more than willing to sign off on fat contracts, but he and the rest of the team’s management often did so without a coherent plan for how the Red Sox would contend. For years Boston’s hopes were stymied by Yawkey’s egregious determination to field a lily white team. But even after the Red Sox became the last team in the majors to sign a black player, the fans who often had plenty of room to spread out in Fenway’s stands rarely watched a contending ballclub.

If those fans seldom had reason to celebrate the team, over the years they had plenty of worthy local heroes to cheer, from Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky to Carlton Fisk and Jim Rice. Among that list of notables, no one other than Williams came to symbolize Boston’s team as much as Carl Yastrzemski. For twenty-three seasons, nearly a quarter of a century, Yaz roamed Fenway Park’s left field in front of that imposing green wall, while at the plate slugging his way into Red Sox lore. When he retired at the end of the 1983 season, Yastrzemski had played 3,308 games in the only major league uniform he ever wore, a record that stands to this day. Not a Red Sox record, but the mark for most games played for a single franchise in the entire history of the Great Game.

But Yaz’s career was about more than longevity. He won the American League batting title three times, including 1967, when he also led the AL in home runs and RBIs to win the Triple Crown, a feat that went unrepeated for more than four decades until Miguel Cabrera accomplished it in 2012. As the employees in John Henry’s analytics department surely know, long before it was a recognized statistic Yastrzemski was also the league leader in OPS in four different seasons. With those stats plus more than 3,400 hits, over 1,800 runs batted in, and 452 homers, he was easily elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

Since his retirement Yastrzemski, who turned 80 last month, has seldom returned to Fenway, limiting his appearances to the occasional ceremonial duty. But he was there Tuesday afternoon, strolling across the outfield grass with a 29-year-old outfielder who plays for the visiting San Francisco Giants. The player walking with the Red Sox legend made his big league debut earlier this year, after more than six seasons in the minors. In 96 games since being called up, Mike Yastrzemski, Yaz’s grandson, has shown that he belongs in the bigs, slugging 19 home runs and posting a very respectable .833 OPS.

Both the Red Sox and the Giants remain mathematically alive for a Wild Card berth, though even the most passionate fans of both franchises realize that neither is going to the postseason. The midweek three game set at Fenway was an interleague series between two teams wrapping up disappointing seasons. Yet just shy of 36,000 filled most of the seats at the old ballyard, some no doubt drawn by the prospect of once again seeing a Yastrzemski in uniform, even if it was the road grays of a visiting club.

The Red Sox recognized the symbolism, inviting the elder Yaz to throw out the first pitch to his grandson. Had that been the evening’s Yastrzemski moment, all in attendance would have remembered it as a sweet reminder of the Great Game’s magical pull across generations. But then in the top of the 4th inning, with the Giants already leading 4-1, young Yastrzemski came to the plate to face Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi. Standing in the same left-handed batter’s box that his grandfather occupied more times than any other player, he looked at four straight pitches from the Red Sox hurler. The umpire called the first one a strike. The next three he called balls. Then Eovaldi offered up a 96-mile-per-hour four-seam fastball, and young Yaz swung.

There are home runs that hug the foul line, taking the shortest possible route to the stands. There are some that just sneak over the fence, barely eluding a fielder’s outstretched glove. The swing that Mike Yastrzemski put on Eovaldi’s fastball did not produce one of those. The ball left the bat on a high arc, headed for dead center field. It soared into the sky, into the night, landing several rows back in the Fenway bleachers.

Perhaps it was the quality of light, or the glare from the big modern scoreboard that looms over center field, or some trick of perspective. Perhaps it was a spell cast by the ghosts of old heroes, for such spirits surely lurk in the dark recesses of the ancient stadium. As fans came to their feet even though the blast had put the home team further behind, cheering a new generation’s Yaz, there were many who saw another player with the same last name rounding the bases, a hero from a different age of this ageless game. With one swing of the bat, they were transported back across the decades, seeing again what they hadn’t witnessed in 36 seasons – one more Yastrzemski home run at the old ballyard.

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