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Dan Shaughnessy

Yaz's first pitch was impossible to top

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 25, 2007

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He can still bring a Fenway sellout crowd to its feet. No one who was around here in 1967 will ever forget.

Appropriately enough, Carl Yastrzemski threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the opening game of the 103d World Series at Fenway Park last night. Yaz, now 68, made the toss as the club again honored the most important Red Sox team of all time (yes, kids, the '67 gang did more to rescue this franchise than the champs of '04).

After a couple of curious postseason first-ball chuckers - a kid who came close to committing fan interference in the American League Division Series and a first baseman from the Baltimore Orioles - the team chose the ultimate showcase to honor its greatest living player: the man we call Yaz.

Yaz is not seen much around here these days. He's forever on the ball club's masthead as a "player development consultant," and puts in early-morning hours with the Sox hitters every year in Fort Myers, Fla., but his role with the team is entirely ceremonial. He lives in a small town north of Boston with his wife, tries to take a walk every day, and goes fishing as often as possible.

Yaz has never been comfortable with his fame. He appreciates his place in New England sports history, but Baby Boomer fans who bombard him with questions and recollections of 1967 often come to realize that they know more about his career than he does. Yaz played 23 years with the Red Sox, and when he was done, he was done. He is not one to sit around talking about the glory days. I once asked him to recall highlights from his 18 All-Star selections, and while he did his best to remember the moments, he said, "1975. County Stadium. I hit a home run in that one. Not sure who I hit it off. Might have been Seaver."

Might have been Seaver?

It was, in fact, a home run off Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. But who among us could hit a homer in an All-Star Game against one of the greatest pitchers of all time and not be quite sure of the identity of the pitcher? You can be pretty sure that Ted Williams could remember the count on all 521 of his home runs.

The Red Sox this summer have gone to great lengths to honor the men who forever changed baseball here 40 years ago. A good number of them returned with Yastrzemski last night and stood behind him on the infield grass when Captain Carl bounced a one-hopper to Doug Mirabelli.

"It was great," said Yaz. "It's been great all year. This is my second time back this year, second, third. A lot of them have been back five, six times. We were together Opening Day."

It would be impossible to explain what Yaz did here in 1967, but one can't go wrong by simply saying that he carried the team to its first pennant in 21 years. He did it at the plate and in left field. He did it with clutch hitting that is now associated with David Ortiz. He won the Triple Crown, scalded the ball down the stretch, then went 7 for 8 at Fenway on the final two days of the regular season - both must-win games. In his second World Series game, Yaz hit two home runs at Fenway. There was simply nothing he couldn't do. He was MVP, Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, inspired a classic song by Jess Cain, and got a loaf of bread named after him.

"Not only did that year bring the franchise back to life, but I think it changed the whole attitude of the Red Sox organization," he said. "I think the organization became winners."

There was more to Yaz than 1967, of course. He went on to become the first American Leaguer with 3,000 hits and 400 homers. He continued his clutch hitting every time the Sox got into October. In 1978, when he was 39 years old, he was still quick enough to pull a homer down the right-field line against Cy Young winner Ron Guidry (25-3) in the one-game playoff. He retired in 1983, and except for his Hall of Fame induction, we really haven't seen him much. He comes to Fenway for an occasional first pitch.

He likes what he's seen of the 2007 Sox.

"I went to spring training with the big club this year," he said. "I worked with the big club in the morning and then the minor leaguers in the afternoon. The more I saw the hitters with the big club, you knew they were going to go a long way."

All the way back to the World Series. Just like '67.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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