It undoubtedly bodes well for Carl Yastrzemski that in his 12 years with the Boston Red Sox he has never entirely agreed with either his fans or his critics—one may be mistaken for the other in the Hub—but has walked his own way.
In the glory year that was 1967, when Yaz led the Red Sox to the American League pennant as Most Valuable Player, he laughed off the idolatrous praise that he was Ted Williams incarnate, despite his 44-homer season, one better than Teddy Ballgame's best. Today, going through a mood switch inching toward truculence, Yastrzemski has yet to concede that he is all washed up as a long-ball hitter, even if that opinion is the consensus at Fenway Park, where belief can run to fanaticism. Moreover, if the prospect worries Yaz at all, it has not been apparent on the field. The Pentagon should be so relaxed over a reduction in force.
While it remains to be seen if Yastrzemski's power is gone for good at the age of 32, the critics' case has merit. It was on September 3rd of last season, his poorest ever as a major-leaguer, that Yastrzemski hit a home run against the Cleveland Indians. Neither Fenway Park, where that one was launched, nor any other ball yard has seen him hit one since. By last week his homerless streak included 62 games and 221 trips to the plate.
But Yastrzemski is still very much a hitter. Now in Comeback No. 2 of a season interrupted by the players' strike and a one-month layoff due to a knee injury, he has gotten 28 hits in 69 at bats since his return to the Red Sox lineup on June 9. That .406 pace raised his batting average from .159 to .294. He also scored 17 runs and drove in 13 others.
But the power that Yastrzemski once unleashed from an exceedingly hard, complex swing demanding perfect coordination and concentration has now diminished to Texas league distances. Where once was the towering homer, now is the line drive. Among his 37 hits for the year, Yaz could count only nine for extra bases.
If, indeed, Yastrzemski is finished as a home-run hitter, the hand injury he suffered last season trying to steal a base is probably more to blame than the knee he hurt sliding into home plate against the Angels on May 9 this year.
For his own part, Yaz says he simply hasn't been swinging for the fences. "I don't think the injuries have anything to do with it. It's just a matter of whether I'm trying for home runs or not. It's easier for me to hit this way. I can wait longer on the ball without making a commitment. To hit home runs, I have to guess. What kind of pitch—in or out, up or down? It's a feeling-out process. I have to have everything going for me as far as timing and confidence are concerned. I was hitting pretty well four or five days before the end of spring training, then came the strike. Now I'm coming back again after a layoff. I'm not a big strong guy [5'11", 182 pounds] getting home runs by accident. My power comes from perfect timing. Ideally, you'd like to hit both ways, but to do that you have to be in a perfect groove, physically and mentally.
"So I'm not swinging as hard as I used to. I've been getting a lot of breaking balls and slop. I've been hitting to the opposite field more than usual and I haven't been challenged with fastballs and hard sliders so that I can swing the bat hard. With good timing I'll still hit home runs by accident—not many, but some."
Manager Eddie Kasko agrees. "One little thing will throw him off," Kasko says. "But he's an intense player. He'll work hard to correct something. Once he gets it all, the long ball will come."
Last week in Boston Yastrzemski got two hits in a 5-3 victory over the Tigers, including a twisting line drive that bounced away from Mickey Stanley for Carl's first triple of the season. It would rate as a long hit only in the statistics, but that seemed of small import to Yaz, who believes the Red Sox still have a shot at the pennant.
"When you get older," he said after the game, "the big thing is the mental drive. That's the toughest part of baseball, concentrating hard enough to get two hits, then three hits, then four. I think you can help a club more hitting .320 with 20 home runs than you can at .250 with 40 home runs. I don't think I've struck out since I've come back, and if I'm driving in runs with singles and doubles now, why should I change?"
As for home runs, Yaz is with Kasko. "When they come," the three-time batting champion said, "they'll come."
For the fans, if not the critics, that may be enough.