Baseball In The Blood For Vandy's Yastrzemski

OMAHA, Neb. – On a typical Father's Day afternoon for a typical family, a father and a grandfather sitting together and watching their next generation play a game so woven into the fabric of American families would seem so right.

Like anything passed from one generation to the next, baseball is a shared memory among granddads, dads and sons, one they often cherish.

A typical life is something Vanderbilt outfielder Mike Yastrzemski has learned to live with, especially the last seven years. But like so many kids, baseball has been there as a backdrop, despite some unexpected hardship.

The Commodores' sophomore outfielder's father, Mike Yastrzemski Sr., died suddenly in 2004 at age 44 from a heart attack after complications from a hip operation. Enduring that kind of life-changing jolt isn't easy for any kid at any age, but Mike Jr.'s relationship with his grandfather has made this rocky stretch of life's journey much more navigable that it could've been.

Built-in legacy at birth

Go back and read the last name again.

Mike's grandfather was a legendary Red Sox outfielder.
If you're a baseball fan of the last several eras or one who grew up anywhere near Boston or in New England, that names rolls off your tongue with reverence and accompanied by a wave of happy baseball memories.

The patriarch of the Yastrzemski clan is longtime Red Sox star and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, titles he doesn't throw around when grandpa and grandson are together.

Instead, when the two are together, it's all about their time together and not a past that played out before Mike Jr. was ever born.

So most of what Mike Jr. has learned about the legend of Yaz's 23-year career with the Red Sox has been pieced together from stories he's heard from fans – friends and strangers alike – as he was growing up in Andover, Mass, in the Boston suburbs.

"I get a lot of stories wherever I go," Mike Jr. said. "A lot of stuff he hasn't told me. He doesn't like to talk about his playing career much. Once he retired, he moved on and has focused on his family and what his grandkids are doing."

So, yes, young Yaz knows about his grandpa being the player who stepped in to replace MLB legend Ted Williams in left field in front of the Green Monster in Fenway Park.

He's learned all about his grandpa winning the rare Triple Crown in 1967. He might not have been filled in about every one of Yaz's 3,308 hits or 452 home runs, but the grandson is well-versed in just how good his baseball lineage is.

More importantly, though, Mike Jr. is acutely aware of how Carl Yastrzemski has impacted his life in every other way since the middle generation of a famous baseball clan died suddenly in 2004.

"He's contributed a lot," Mike Jr. said. "When I go back home, we work every Sunday. No one who knows my swing as well as he does and he knows how to push me to be as good as I can be."

Life throws a painful detour

When Mike Jr. was just beginning high school, his life changed forever when Mike Sr. was gone in an instant.

Born right before Carl Yastrzemski broke into the big leagues in 1961, Mike Sr. was a solid player in his own right, a key cog on Florida State teams in the early 1980s that helped create the foundation for 3½ decades of success under coach Mike Martin.

Mike Sr. batted .294 in a four-year career with 62 doubles, 40 home runs and 223 RBIs and still holds the Seminoles' record for games played. He spent several years in the minor leagues, rising as high as Triple-A in the Chicago White Sox organization.

The sudden death of his father left a baseball void in Mike Jr.'s life, but more importantly, took away a touchstone at a time when every teen-age kid needs guidance.

In stepped Carl Yastrzemski – the grandfather, not the baseball legend.

"We went out golfing and fishing, all that fun stuff," Mike Jr. said. "It wasn't just him teaching me how to play baseball. He was just there for me.

"That was really meaningful because when you lose your father, it's tough. You go through a lot of hard times, so when you have somebody who steps up and fills in like he did, it makes it easier for you."

Easy, not without some obstacles, though.

Growing up Yastrzemski

When you grow up as close to Boston as Mike Jr. did and your last name is Yastrzemski, there are plenty expectations to live with and sometimes live down.

From the time he picked up a bat and took his familiar-looking first hacks from the left side, Mike Jr. was expected to be the second coming of the original Yaz. Just as smooth with his swing, just as powerful, just as unflappable.

Sometimes there were growing pains. Always there was talk of who his grandfather was and how good Mike Jr. should be.

"You learn to embrace it as you go along," Mike Jr. said. "You get a lot of criticism because of your name, but I've learned to love that because it makes you better."

Having the name Yastrzemski certainly didn't hurt when Mike Jr. emerged as a college recruit.

Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin is a native of Wolfeboro, N.H., a tiny hamlet just over 100 miles north of Fenway Park. He's a New England kid, which means he's a Red Sox diehard and at age 49, Corbin knows all about the legend of the original Yaz.

"You're fascinated at first because you look at him and say ‘I'm really anxious to see what a Yaz looks like,' " Corbin said of recruiting Mike Jr.

"When I saw him play I liked the way he looked and started thinking to myself ‘what if his name was Mike Smith – would you still be interested in him?' And I walked away and said yes. I saw a kid who could play every facet of the game and was very well-schooled."

Corbin said watching Mike Jr. reminds him of his dad when he played at FSU. But like anybody who has talked to or seen the youngest generation of the Yastrzemskis, the resemblance in facial features and voice to grandpa Yaz are unmistakable.

Even the way Mike Jr. plays the game conjures up memories.

"I've got pictures in my house of Carl Yastrzemski as a 25- or 26-year-old kid and the facial resemblance is the same," Corbin said.

"The way (Mike Jr.) plays, the accuracy of the arm, the way he plays the outfield, the way he swings, there are a lot of similarities if you match them up."

Lessons in baseball and life

That uncanny resemblance on the diamond isn't by accident.

Besides both passing on genes and teaching his grandson the fundamentals of baseball, the original Yaz taught his youngest protégé how he needed to approach the game.

"Always stay aggressive – that's always been his main focus for me," Mike Jr. said. "He played the game hard and aggressively and that's what he instilled in me. He always says the average person will say you get three or four at-bats a game but I should think of every pitch as an at-bat and try to make something happen with it – make every one count."

"I work as hard as I can every day to try to get to his level and learn and understand how he thought when he played the game."

More than anything else, though, Mike Jr. strives to take the lessons on life his grandpa, the big-league legend and Red Sox and New England icon, has passed on to him.

Coming out of St. John's Prep in Danvers, Mass., in 2009, the youngest Yaz was chosen in the 36th round of the Major League Baseball Draft.

By the Red Sox.

Instead of persistently prodding his grandson toward pro baseball and the franchise that he starred for, Carl Yastrzemski sat down with Mike Jr. and helped him weigh the pros and cons.

Like always, grandpa Yaz was there for Mike Jr., helping him decide what made the most sense, with baseball as a minor undertone.

"He's a big reason I'm here because he pointed out all the positives I'd get from coming to a school like Vanderbilt and taking time to develop and get better," Mike Jr. said.

"I'd still be a baseball player if he wasn't in my life, but I wouldn't the same person I am. He's played a pretty big role in my life."

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