"Say It Ain't So"
It’s when we’re young and impressionable that we choose our heroes. Often times, those choices remain with us for our entire lives. We’re loyal to our chosen heroes, despite evidence to the contrary.
In Classic Mythology a hero was viewed as “a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity”. Later, during the Homeric period, a hero was “a warrior-chieftain of special strength, courage, or ability” and in later antiquity “an immortal being; demigod”.
By the late 14th century the word hero was used to describe a “man of superhuman strength or courage”. In modern times we tend to categorize our heroes as those “who are idealized for possessing superior qualities in any field”, but still reserve the ultimate hero-worship for our athletes, who similar to beliefs in early mythology, we fantasize that they are “beings of extraordinary strength and courage, who must be the offspring of a mortal and a god.” My first such hero was Carl Yastrzemski.
I began watching baseball in 1961, the year “Yaz” replaced the immortal Ted Williams as the Red Sox left fielder. Originally it was his strange-to-me last name that captured my attention. Add the names Conigliaro and Petrocelli and there were several fantastical names on the roster. Fortunately, Yaz lived up to all expectations, winning the triple crown in 1967 while in the starring role of “The Impossible Dream”.
Marketing people are quick to sniff out the development of heroes, and Arnold (the brick oven bakers) quickly came out with “Big Yaz - Special Fitness White Bread” which lined the shelves of local grocery stores throughout Red Sox–friendly New England. Yaz did other ad spots, but none as impressive as his gig with the American Cancer Society. The full page spot proclaimed “I don’t smoke cigarettes”.
My “Say It Ain’t So” moment came in 1978, when “in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career”, in a one-game playoff for the division title against the Yankees, with two outs and the tying run on third, Yaz hit a harmless pop-up to Yankee third baseman Gregg Nettles to end Boston's season. After the game, TV cameras caught a dejected Carl Yastrzemski slumping in front of his locker, smoking a butt and sipping from a can of beer. To this day, I do all I can to avoid that haunting black and white memory. (He was human after all)
Although I was living in New Jersey and working in Gotham in 1983, and doing my best to dodge Yankee caps while disguising my accent, I was still able to secure tickets to Yaz’s last game. A four hour ride later and we were sitting in the first row in the right field bleachers at Fenway, behind the visitor’s bullpen, holding large cardboard signs that had a bull’s eye painted on one and the number 453 on another, hoping Yaz could end his career in Williams-like fashion. He managed a base hit and that was good enough for me.
Yastrzemski’s legend continued when at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony he boldly stated “The race doesn’t always belong to the swift nor the battle to the strong. It belongs rather to those who run the race, who stay the course, and who fight the good fight.”
Fitting words for a mortal hero…