Growing up in Rhode Island in the 1970s and 1980s, I followed the Boston Red Sox and one player in particular. He batted left handed, so I adopted my swing in Kindergarten to him. My gym teacher, Mr. Gardiner, tried to move into the right handed batter’s box, but I insisted that the “right” place for me was in the left handed batter’s box. Like my idol, Carl Yastrzemski. It was years before I could write his name without checking the spelling, maybe because I just referred to him as “Yaz,” like most New England sports fan did and have done since 1961. Yaz was a great hitter, a fierce competitor, and a solid defensive player for 23 seasons with the Boston Red Sox. He played for one team, The Boston Red Sox, so all the hundreds of cards, jerseys, posters, and other sports memorabilia I collected as a Yaz fan during my childhood and now in my adulthood as a baseball parent have my favorite player playing for my favorite team.
Yaz played during the free agent era, which started in the mid 1970s. Yaz was most likely a highly touted player on many, many MLB rosters during his career, yet he never left the Red Sox to sign with another team. Nor was he traded to another team for a player to be named later, cash considerations, or a crop of prospects during a losing season. Yaz played left field, then first base, as well as third base and Designated Hitter in his 23 year career. He amassed over 3000 hits and over 450 home runs, yet was never traded or allowed to test free agency. The Boston Red Sox kept Yaz on their team and to this day, Yaz continues to show up at major sporting events at Fenway park like retirement ceremonies, World Series trophy presentations, and other Red Sox reunion events.
The fact that my favorite player, Carl Yastrzemski, was never traded nor left during free agency is significant because I got to follow his career close up and without interruption. I was born in 1972 and “technically” starting following him in 1977 when I went to Kindergarten. From age 5 until his retirement in 1983, which would have made me 11, I patterned my swing, my defensive recklessness, my jersey selection every spring (Number 8), and my grit after Yaz’s game. I listened to the games on the radio and watched, with some difficulty on windy days, games on Channel 38 or somewhere close to that on my parent’s TV. I would stand up in front of the TV and wave an imaginary bat with my right arm – six, seven, eight times – just like Yaz did every at bat. Hold the bat up high and swing with all my pre-teen might in my parent’s living room. Yaz swung hard every at bat and when he connected, it went a long way. My swing was exactly like Yaz’s up until about age 14, when I entered North Kingstown High School.
Free agency has become a fabric in the game of baseball, more so than teams trading players. As a team and a player eye the end of a baseball contract, the team must decide how the future looks for that player in their organization and the player must decide whether to re-sign or go elsewhere for more money. Modern baseball giants like Mike Trout and Stephen Strausberg re-signed massive contracts to stay with the team and organization who drafted them. Other big time stars like Bryce Harper and Gerritt Cole tested free agency and have cashed in BIG-TIME with gigantic contracts. Others, like our more recent Boston Red Sox star player, Mookie Betts, are traded in the final year of their contracts to avoid the player leaving for free agency and not receiving anything in return. Whether a player leaves via free agency or is traded, young fans lose out on a player whom they have followed who is now playing for another team. In some cases, the player goes from your team to a rival team. Jacoby Ellsbury left the Boston Red Sox to sign a free agent contract with the New York Yankees years ago. Players have left the Dodgers to go play for the Giants, or the Chicago Cubs to go to the Chicago White Sox. Kids don’t really understand the business of baseball and it is hard for them to grasp that their favorite player on their favorite local team is now an enemy playing against your favorite team.
What do you do with the Boston Red Sox Mookie Betts jersey you received for your birthday last year? He was your favorite player and rightfully so. You patterned your swing to his while playing youth baseball in Westerly or Woonsocket or Little Compton the past few seasons. You saw him play at McCoy Stadium as he was coming up through the minors. You have been to a bunch of games at Fenway and even saw him make a diving play in right field. You want to be just like Mookie Betts when you get older!!! Except that now he plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers some 3000 miles away on another MLB network other than NESN, which your parents don’t get. So, is he still your favorite player now that he is on another team? Or will you move on from Betts and start to follow another Red Sox player this season? What will you do with all your stuff, your memories, your game tickets, your BoSox Betts jersey, his trading cards, his bobble head that is on your bureau?
I was lucky, very lucky to have my idol play for the same team and never leave Boston. I was able to watch him throw and hit and catch and play baseball with a fierce intensity. I hit just like him, elbow cocked up and hands held high, in the left handed batter’s box for a long, long time. If Yaz had left for free agency or was traded, I would have been shocked and saddened and very disappointed. I was lucky that Yaz never left and I was able to watch my favorite player every season until he retired.