Carl Yastrzemski, 1975October 24, 2007
My earliest memory is of chasing after my brother, a toy machine gun in my hands. I wanted to be part of the war game he was playing with his friend Jimmy, but he and Jimmy were too big for me, their legs too long. I couldn’t keep up. Some time around then, my brother began serving as my interpreter. I could make sounds, but no one could understand them as words except my brother, who passed along my wishes to the grown-ups. This arrangement didn’t last that long, but in a way his role as my conduit to the world lasted for many years, stretching into adulthood. We drifted through our twenties together, sharing one small Brooklyn apartment after another, trying to salve the various disappointments of our lives by using the language we’d shared since before I’d even fully known how to speak. The gaps between us grew, our lives inevitably continuing to diverge even as we remained under the same roof, the clutter of our directionless lives entangled. But we always had at least one way to connect, a shared language that had been there for most of our lives, the center of that language the prayer-word Yaz.
The card above is from 1975, the year the shared language got its center. I was seven and my brother was nine. It was our first full year living in Vermont, away from our father, away from the sidewalks and toy machine guns of New Jersey. I’d never paid any attention to baseball before, but suddenly my brother was playing little league and collecting baseball cards, and what he did, I did. This imitative way of being was something that would in many ways define my life, my imitations often going beyond mimicry to become a kind of inward orthodoxy that seized on one or another of the various pursuits of my brother as if they were the exploits of a visionary, each detail worthy of the impassioned scrutiny of a solitary monk. I understand my connection to baseball in this way. My brother liked baseball a lot. In fact, he was a better player than me, bigger and stronger, even able by age 13 to throw a curveball. But I don’t think he grabbed hold of its details as fiercely as I did, something I noticed early on, when we were both still in little league and he tried to argue that Rogers Hornsby, and not Ty Cobb, held the record for highest lifetime batting average. It may have been the first time in my life that I knew more than my brother about something, ironic given that I studied the baseball encyclopedia so assiduously because I subconsciously believed it would bring me closer to my brother.
I had trouble when he went away to boarding school for his junior and senior years. Who was I supposed to be now? When he came back for visits we would stay up late talking, lying on our beds in the dark. He did most of the talking, telling me about the kids in his dorm. True to form, I built these friends of his into the larger than life figures of myth. When I visited him for a weekend at the school and met some of the friends he’d spoken of all I could do was laugh uncontrollably, hysterically, even the most mundane utterance from their mouths seeming to me to be the funniest thing I’d ever heard. Even at the time I realized that I was laughing in large part out of terror. Who was I to be in the presence of these impossibly sophisticated, hilarious gods?
After my brother graduated from the boarding school I followed him there, per the mimicking script of my life. The terror of my earlier visit persisted throughout most of my truncated stay at the school, but it was certainly at its worst in my earliest days there. One bright and sunny Sunday a few weeks in I slipped into the TV room on the first floor of my dorm. The TV room was not a cool place to be, especially on a bright and sunny Sunday when you could be out talking and laughing in your Izod shirt with a gaggle of beautiful girls in front of a leaf-pile, your lacrosse stick perched on your shoulder. My other stints in the TV room thus far had been sad, shame-filled congregations with other dateless and misshapen fellows to watch Michael Jackson and Prince prance around on Friday Night Videos while all the regular kids groped one another through L.L. Bean garments under the soft, English Literature-enhanced boarding school stars. But on this particular Sunday I had no company at all. It was just me and the television, and as I kept my eyes locked on the screen I could occasionally hear people on their way out to join the laughing sounds of autumn, the passers-by probably wondering why the weird kid who looked exactly like his more normal brother was subjecting himself to the unprecedented indignity of watching television during the daytime.
But I guess to my credit, at least in this one instance, I didn’t really care what anyone thought. I had to watch television on this particular Sunday, for it was October 2, 1983. It was Carl Yastrzemski’s last game.
Come on Yaz, I said whenever he came up to bat. I probably meant to say it to myself but I’m sure as the game went on and he kept failing to homer and thus match the renowned adieu of the man who had always cast a shadow over his career, Ted Williams, my little prayer began to sneak out of my mouth, no doubt prompting the more well-adjusted kids ambling by to note that now the weird kid was talking to himself.
By his last at-bat I was pleading out loud to the television, my cracking voice slapping off the concrete TV room walls. It seemed like something I had been doing all my life: pleading for Yaz. He settled into his familiar stance, twirling his bat forward and leaning toward the pitcher slightly, as if trying to hear the pitcher’s internal monologue. The TV thinned the crowd noise to a hollow buzz, but I could still tell that they were all shouting the same syllable as I, everyone wasting the last of their voices on that yawing, fizzling, incantatory sound.
“Come on, Yaz!” I hollered. “Come on, Yaz!”
(to be continued)