Giants rookie Mike Yastrzemski returns to Boston, making his own way in the baseball world

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JULY 24: San Francisco Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski (5) warms up during a game against the Chicago Cubs on July 24, 2019, at Oracle Park in San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
San Francisco Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski warms up during a game against the Chicago Cubs on July 24, 2019, at Oracle Park in San Francisco. (Getty Images)

Sitting in the visiting team dugout in St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy says that Mike Yastrzemski is a troublemaker in the clubhouse.

Very quickly, however, he reneges on that statement. There’s a national reporter with a tape recorder and national reporters might not be around the team enough to know right away that he is self-evidently kidding. The joke is: the 29-year-old rookie with the famous last name is actually a “very nice young man” who is serious, humble and perfectly professional. By all accounts, he has always been like this.

In high school, he must’ve had friends on the team. Pat Yanchus, the former St. John’s Prep baseball coach, is sure of it. But Yanchus can’t remember any examples of Yastrzemski joking around back then.

“I think he preferred to be in the batting cages.”

Throughout six years in the Orioles’ minor league system, as he moved up and then down again, as his peers moved past him and enjoyed their call to the show, he never let on that he was getting discouraged. And whenever Brian Graham, then the Orioles farm director, had to deliver bad news, Yastrzemski unfailingly “handled it like a pro and went and did a great job wherever he was.”

This probably makes him a fantastic teammate, pupil, son, new husband and representative of the family name now that Hall of Famer and hometown hero Carl has largely receded from the public sphere. It would not make for the most interesting profile subject. Except, of course, for that last name and the fact that it will be taking the field at Fenway Park on Tuesday.

When I talk to Yastrzemski, I’m preemptively self-conscious of this context. This is not a useful trait for a reporter, but I worry that it seems craven or at least tiresomely obvious to have come all the way here to ask him not about how a 14th-rounder drafted out of college who couldn’t break into the bigs with the Orioles is now 17 percent better than the league average hitter by OPS+, but instead whether he ever got starstruck by own grandfather. (He did not.)

For his part, though, the younger Yastrzemski seems completely at ease with having his own success inevitably be compared to that of one of baseball’s best, and with a lifetime of media coverage that refuses to separate the two.

And when did you start getting tired of people asking you about Carl? I say, hoping it will make the interview feel looser, and maybe even conspiratorial.

“Still haven’t,” he replies.

It’s the polite and even savvy answer. But for whatever it’s worth, it seems true. And why wouldn’t it be? He’s had his whole life to get used to being a Yastrzemski.

‘This is supposed to be fun’

Only once has Anne Marie Yastrzemski seen her son sag a little under the weight of that long last name and what it means in the world of baseball. She was driving him back from Connecticut, where they had been at one of the few showcases he attended as a high schooler. Maybe there was something genetic about his predisposition to love the sport but Anne Marie had been careful to keep it all fun and games — no travel ball, few showcases like this one, no pressure to secure a scholarship — ever since he started hitting pingpong balls out of the crib with his toothbrush at 18 months old. He really did that, and you should have seen it. She would have taken a video, but she had her hands full making sure the baby didn’t swallow one of the pingpong balls. So anyway, there they are driving home to Andover, Massachusetts, and Mike, now a teenager, won’t stop crying.

But first, the backstory:

Anne Marie Wesson and Carl Michael Yastrzemski Jr., the Hall Of Famer’s son who went by Michael, met before she was old enough to remember. The Red Sox star and his then-wife, Carol, befriended Wesson’s parents through her uncle, a priest at Merrimack College, where Carl ended up getting his degree. The couples would play bridge together and, as Anne Marie tells it, the kids were probably just thrown in the crib together.

“There was one girl in my family for every kid that they had. They could match these kids up and get them out of their hair, basically,” she says now.

For Anne Marie and Michael, at least, that worked. They married while he was pursuing a baseball career of his own, but by the time their son was born he had given up the dream, topping out at Triple-A.

When the youngest Yastrzemski was 6, his parents divorced. Anne Marie took Mike and moved back to the Boston area near her family, and near people who knew the last name from the newspapers but also from their neighbors. If anyone treated him differently, Mike didn’t notice and Anne Marie didn’t either. He grew up playing Little League, begging his mom for a puppy, skipping school to go get BBQ chicken sandwiches with his maternal grandfather, golfing and goofing around with his dad who had returned to the area as well. And, OK, fine, celebrating his birthday at Fenway Park.

Mike was 14 when his dad died of a heart attack that occurred as a complication following hip surgery. They had always had a chaotic chemistry together, a crazy amount of silly energy, according to Anne Marie.

“They packed a lot into early on in life cause maybe they both knew they had to get it all in,” she says.

Baseball had brought them even closer together in the final few years. “He helped me really understand the nuances of the game and how to be a hard worker and how to actually work at my craft,” Yastrzemski says.

Anne Marie’s father went to find Mike when they got the news. The eighth-grader had gone downtown with some friends after school and his mom worried he would learn of his father’s passing from someone on TV or the radio talking about how Carl Michael Yastrzemski Jr. was dead at 43. That was right around the time that Mike started to realize his grandfather meant something special to people in Massachusetts.

Mike Yastrzemski sits with his Hall of Fame grandfather, Carl, as a child.
Mike Yastrzemski sits with his Hall of Fame grandfather, Carl, as a child. (Photo courtesy Anne Marie Yastrzemski)

“People would ask me about it, and I never really put it together,” Yastrzemski says of growing up with a famous grandfather. “When I got enough older to understand personalities and how people acted differently around him, then I started to notice the way their eyes lit up, the way they couldn’t even talk to him normally the way they would talk to anyone else. I would see people’s jaws quivering when they tried to talk to him. It was crazy.”

To his grandson, though, Carl was a sometimes coach who reminded him to keep his head down through his whole swing. “Relax, relax, relax, attack,” the 18-time All Star would advise.

It didn’t pay off right away. As a freshman at the baseball powerhouse St. John’s Prep, Mike tried out for the varsity team but didn’t make it.

“I’ve had more talented players at that age,” his coach Yanchus remembers.

But Mike worked hard, loved the game, had a no-nonsense intensity despite his small frame. Sophomore summer, Anne Marie took him to the showcase in Connecticut.

“And he had to wear his name on the back of his shirt so people were kind of recognizing him,” she says. “And he didn’t do as well as he wanted to, and he was upset the whole way home.”

Finally, she pulled the car over and turned to him. “If you don’t stop crying, I’m never taking you to another baseball game, ever again, because this is supposed to be fun and this is not fun. You are way too hard on yourself.”

That’s it: That’s the whole story of the one time that Mike Yastrzemski let Carl Yastrzemski’s legacy loom large over his own path in baseball.

‘Bloodlines mean a lot’

Which is not to say that everything that has happened to the younger Yastrzemski since then did so irrespective of his name. And I wouldn’t believe it if he tried to tell me otherwise. But still it strikes me as surprising pragmatism the way he is able to simultaneously appreciate and disregard Boston drafting him in the 36th round out of high school.

“I knew it was a cool gesture, essentially, by the Red Sox. I never took it seriously. I was like, that’s really cool of them to do, great story; but I’m going to college regardless.”

He doesn’t sound bitter when he says that. And he certainly isn’t starstruck — not by Carl, of course, but not by the Red Sox either. He’s worn the uniform, played on Fenway’s field as part of local tournaments and the Cape Cod Baseball League.

Mike Yastrzemski warms up at Fenway Park.
Mike Yastrzemski warms up at Fenway Park. (Photo courtesy Anne Marie Yastrzemski)

So he went to Vanderbilt University. Got a good education and a great baseball experience. Got good at it, too. His senior year, the team set an SEC record by going 26-3, with Yastrzemski as captain. He was still quiet in college, still serious too, more likely to lead by example than give a rousing speech.

“He obviously had this certain aura about him with his name, but he never had a big ego,” says Tyler Beede, who played alongside and lived with Yastrzemski in college and who is his teammate again this year with the Giants.

In college, Beede struggled with the pressure of having been a first-round pick out of high school. He hadn’t had his whole life to get used to being the object of other people’s expectations. In Yastrzemski’s predisposition toward dispassionate self-awareness — or maybe it was just a practiced ability to not internalize arbitrary trappings — Beede found a mentor of sorts.

“Being around Yaz allowed me to keep my mindset focused on, hey this is about winning here at Vanderbilt and being the best that you can be for this team and not for anybody else. I credit Yaz for a lot of that centeredness.”

It was that hard-nose, right way, gamer attitude, the sound fundamentals, tough at-bats, and ability to play all three positions in the outfield that stood out to the Orioles, who drafted Yastrzemski after his senior year in the 14th round in 2013. Plus, of course, the last name.

“Obviously bloodlines mean a lot in a baseball player,” former Orioles farm director Graham says. “I think that the draft pick itself was [former Orioles GM] Dan Duquette’s idea because Dan was in Boston and friends with his grandfather. And I think that’s part of the decision-making process in drafting Mike.”

Here’s the thing: Yastrzemski knows this, or at least suspects some version of it. He speculates that at the very least, at some point, he’s been given a second chance, that there was a conversation behind the scenes in which the elephant in the room advocated for him without his knowledge. It doesn’t make him smug to understand what is surely reality, but it hasn’t given him a chip on his shoulder, either.

“That would be a scenario where I would obviously be grateful,” he says. “As long as you take advantage of any opportunity that you’re given, you don’t take it for granted, you don’t act like a jerk about it, or you don’t act like you really deserve anything different than anyone else, then it’s just circumstantial.”

Getting his break

Riding the bus between Triple-A games in Norfolk, Virginia, and Gwinnett, Georgia, after six years of similarly bleak bus rides, while your 20s and your teammates pass you by, is enough to make anyone think about quitting baseball.

“Once I started bouncing back and forth between Double-A and Triple-A, feeling like I was getting kind of jerked around a little bit, I felt like, this is not where I envisioned my career going. This is not how I thought it would happen. This isn’t what I signed up for, this isn’t what I wanted to do,” Yastrzemski says.

He’d call his now-wife Paige and she would echo the same sentiment that Anne Marie stopped the car for back in high school: If your heart’s not in it, don’t do it. Don’t force yourself to be miserable.

“And that’s when I realized how much I did love baseball because as hard as it gets, as hard as the road may have been, it still wasn’t worth giving it up because I love playing that much.”

One trade to the Giants organization later and Yastrzemski got his break.

(His mom had already boarded a flight to Florida to visit him in the Grapefruit League when he called her to say he was off to spring training in Arizona; she was asleep when he called to tell her he’d made it to the majors.)

ST. LOUIS, MO. - SEPTEMBER 04: San Francisco Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski (5) doubles in the seventh inning during a Major League Baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals on September 04, 2019, at Busch Stadium, St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
San Francisco Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski doubles in the seventh inning during a Major League Baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 4, 2019, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Getty Images)

Which is how Yastrzemski found himself joking around with his big-league teammates in the dugout before an early September game in St. Louis. Yastrzemski claims that the famously cavernous Oracle Park in San Francisco is his favorite place to play.

“I just look where the wind is blowing and aim there,” he says. “And if it’s blowing in, I foul it back 100 times.”

That night Yastrzemski hits his 19th home run of the incomplete season, more than he’s ever had any level. It wasn’t the wind that carried it out, but the state of the baseball probably gave it a few extra feet. He’s a disciplined batter with versatile defense and a veteran’s presence in the clubhouse, but until this year, Mike Yastrzemski never really had the power. This doesn’t diminish what he’s done in his rookie campaign — it’s just circumstantial.

The thing that surprised Yastrzemski the most about making it to the majors was how normal everyone here is. “You look up to big leaguers, especially remembering my thoughts of watching guys play in the big leagues and thinking that they’re legitimately superhuman,” he says.

It’s pretty ironic if you think about it: Carl Yastrzemski’s grandson marveling that big leaguers are just people, too. Sometimes, you have to see it for yourself.

Fenway prestige

At least 150 friends and family have purchased tickets to see the younger Yastrzemski play at Fenway this week. He’s read that his grandfather expects to be emotional, and hasn’t ever really seen that before. “So that’ll be interesting.”

He’ll miss his dad, like he does every day because you don’t get used to losing someone so close to you. But not as much as he did on his wedding day this offseason.

I don’t know if it feels more or less special to run out on to your hometown field for the first time at 29 having already exceeded expectations than it does to play there for 23 years as a perennial All-Star. But neither does Mike Yastrzemski. That’s not how lives and experiences work.

The fanfare and the media circus surrounding a mid-September series between two teams that will both miss the playoffs is because of the last name, because of Carl Yastrzemski. But there are no empty gestures here like burning a draft pick on a kid who’s going to college anyway. Getting his name in a major-league lineup on a daily basis? That’s all Mike.

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