The greatest living Red Sox player, New England icon Carl Yastrzemski, underwent emergency triple-bypass surgery yesterday at Massachusetts General Hospital after being diagnosed with coronary artery disease.
Yastrzemski, the folk hero of the 1967 Impossible Dream season that forever changed the franchise's fortunes, emerged from the operating room at 8 p.m. after a six-hour procedure to reroute the flow of blood around blockages in three arteries to his heart.
"The surgery was a complete success, and he's resting comfortably," said Yastrzemski's spokesman, Dick Gordon.
Yastrzemski's daughter-in-law, Ann Marie, said the Hall of Famer went to his doctor Monday complaining of indigestion and chest discomfort. The doctor referred him to Mass. General, and he was transported there by his wife, Nancy, and admitted for tests.
Yastrzemski has a long history as a smoker and has endured painful emotional losses with the deaths in recent years of his son and father, but friends said he recently appeared to be in good health. He followed his daily routine of fishing for striped bass in the Merrimack River as recently as Monday, Gordon said.
Yastrzemski, who turns 69 Friday, lives on the North Shore in the summer and spends winters in Florida.
Friends said Yastrzemski's health appeared to have improved after he stopped drinking beer - a habit that dated to his playing days - and overcame the trauma of his loved ones' deaths. They credited Nancy, whom he married in 2002, with helping him resolve the emotional pain.
Yastrzemski's son Michael died in 2004 at age 44 from complications following hip surgery. A year later, Yastrzemski lost his father, Carl Sr., who helped raise him on a Long Island potato farm before he moved to Massachusetts and retired as a Massport maintenance worker. The elder Yastrzemski died at 89.
"Carl had gotten through the emotional turmoil of the deaths and he also had lost about 20 pounds," said his friend, Dr. Murray Feingold, who saw him at "Yaz Day" last month at Fenway Park. "He said he never felt better."
The last player to capture the Triple Crown - Yastrzemski led the American League in batting (.326), home runs (44), and RBIs (121) in 1967 - he won three batting titles, seven Gold Gloves, and was an 18-time All-Star before he retired in 1983 as the all-time leader in games played (3,308), a record later eclipsed by Pete Rose (3,562).
Yastrzemski is best remembered in New England for his remarkable '67 season in which he won the Most Valuable Player Award and led the Sox to the World Series for the first time in 21 years.
What Yastrzemski lacked in natural ability he compensated for with a peerless work ethic. He was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1989.
"I don't think he was the most talented of all Hall of Famers, but nobody outworked him," Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy, Yastrzemski's former teammate, told reporters at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Despite his personal achievements after he replaced the legendary Ted Williams in 1961, Yastrzemski's dream of winning a World Series went unrequited. He helped the Sox reach the World Series again in 1975, but they lost to the Reds in seven games.
Yastrzemski suffered one of his most painful defeats in 1978, after the Sox blew a 14-game lead and lost a playoff game for the AL East title to the Yankees, with Yaz popping to third base for the final out.
"He was crying like a little baby after that game," said Remy, who lockered next to Yastrzemski. "He knew he was getting close to the end of his career."
Intensely private, Yastrzemski rarely returned to Fenway after his retirement, although he threw out the first pitch before Game 1 of the 2004 World Series and helped raise the team's first championship banner in 86 years the next spring. He also made occasional visits to the Legends Suite as part of the team's marketing program, and for the past several years, he held a "Yaz Day" at the park to raise money for the Genesis Fund, which supports research into birth defects and mental retardation.
Yastrzemski's charitable works also extended to the Jimmy Fund. Even before his mother died of cancer in 1978 at age 60, he helped Mike Andrews and Jim Lonborg set an example for future generations of Sox players by convincing their '67 teammates to donate a full share of their World Series winnings to the Jimmy Fund.
Yastrzemski has spent most of his retirement fishing and golfing. He also serves the Sox as a roving instructor, mainly by helping young hitters every year at spring training.
Since his son died, Yastrzemski has played an active role in raising his grandson, Michael Jr., a baseball star at St. John's Prep who is close to deciding which of many college scholarship offers to accept.
"He has become like a second father to my son since Mike died," Ann Marie said. "He plays a pivotal role in his decision-making."
Now Yastrzemski faces a lengthy recovery from surgery, which friends and family expect him to confront with his trademark tenacity. Many of his relatives were by his side at the hospital.
"His family is most grateful for all the prayers and support they have received," Gordon said.
Yastrzemski, at his Hall of Fame speech in 1989, delivered a message that reflected his indomitable spirit.
"The race doesn't always belong to the swift nor the battle to the strong," he said. "It belongs rather to those who run the race, who stay the course, and who fight the good fight."
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org