- Marty Dobrow, ESPNBoston.com
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Couch potatoes they weren't. Small potatoes? No way.
But the Yaz and Zo Show -- a tale of Massachusetts baseball legends (and also one of family pride, and family tragedy, and smart and talented grandsons now poised to carry the torch) -- begins as a potato story.
Yastrzemski and Ziomek: a couple of pesky Polish kids with names outsiders struggled to pronounce. They sat in the back of the classroom, one 100 miles from Boston, the other 100 miles from New York, dirt beneath their fingernails, hands calloused, pierogis in the bag lunch, baseball on the brain.
Stanley P. Ziomek was born in Amherst, Mass., in the first days of summer in 1924. His mom, Anna, came in from the farm to give birth to Stan in the house on Meadow Street and returned to the fields not long after.
There was no Little League in Amherst when Stan came of age -- no organized youth baseball at all -- but even if there had been, there was no time for it. At the age when he would first be donning a uniform, the Depression hit hard and Stan was out on the family farm, planting, weeding, harvesting the potatoes, the onions, the corn, the leaf tobacco. "Every 10 cents an hour you could scrape up was kind of survival," he remembers without a trace of bitterness. "Kids today don't know about that."
Almost all the way to the end of Long Island, in Bridgehampton, N.Y., Carl Yastrzemski got strong by hauling bags of potatoes on the family farm. Born in 1939 (the same year a rookie left fielder named Ted Williams started smashing taters at Fenway), Yaz was quietly driven from the start.
As he wrote on Page 1 of "Yaz: Baseball, The Wall, And Me" (his 1990 autobiography with Gerald Eskenazi), "My dream was to make it to the majors, yes. It was a dream launched by my father, who had been reluctant to leave the potato fields of Long Island to try baseball during the Depression. He had groomed me to get out of the potato fields, and he had taught me well …"
Growing seasons. Baseball seasons. Boys becoming men.
In 1952, Stan Ziomek launched youth baseball in Amherst, beginning a remarkable six-decade run. Perhaps no one in America raked more infields, trained more umpires, cajoled more sponsors, shelled out more uniforms or appeased more parents whose little sluggers were overlooked for the All-Star team. He saw thousands of players come and go.
In 1961, Carl Yastrzemski began his own remarkable run. On Opening Day, he stepped into the Sasquatch-sized spikes of Williams -- the Kid who had bade the Hub adieu with a home run in his final at-bat the previous September. In his first trip to the plate, Yaz banged a single to left at Fenway. No one in major league history would go on to play more games for one team.
Their personalities could not have been more different. Stan was gregarious. He was a legendary chop buster at the Rotary Club, raising money for civic causes by fining members a dollar when they couldn't answer his trivia questions. His blue eyes in perpetual twinkle mode, he held court as the superintendent of public works, turning every pothole into a story. And, of course, he was Mr. Youth Baseball, seemingly knowing every kid in town.
If Yaz had grown up in Amherst, he would have given Emily Dickinson a run for her money when it came to solitude. His back to the wall in every sense, Yaz was constitutionally more suited to being a lighthouse keeper than a ballplayer. But his talent, his competitive drive and his singular love for the challenge of the game brought him again and again to the public stage.
It also brought the two of them together in 1968. Right there in the Age of Aquarius it was a retro evening: the "Testimonial Homecoming Dinner Dance, Saturday, January 13, 1968, The Canoe Place Inn, Hampton Bays, New York." It was the kind of thing Yaz hated, but he was coming off that Impossible Dream season when he was Don Quixote with the bat held high. He won the Triple Crown, which was capped off with an otherworldly .513 average over the last two weeks as the Red Sox grabbed the pennant.
So Yaz endured the night of plaudits. Stan Ziomek has kept the program all these years. (In addition to Red Sox teammates Rico Petrocelli and Joe Foy, there was -- you can't make this up -- Mary Lee Rosko, the "Potato Queen of 1967.") Ziomek was one of the many speakers, invited because of his role as national president of Babe Ruth Baseball, one of the organizations that had shaped the man of the hour. Ziomek sat next to the grandmothers, Josephine Yastrzemski and Hattie Skoniezcny. ("I was a hit," he recalls. "I could talk Polish.")
Introvert or extrovert, family mattered. Away from the Fenway fray, Yaz had four children, three girls and a single son. Stan the Man sired Stan the Men -- six boys, raised in large part on baseball fields in Amherst. In time, Yaz would field a perfect baseball team of nine grandchildren. Stan added a DH for 10.
Gripped by pennant fever
Kevin Ziomek is Stan's eldest grandchild. A 6-foot-3-inch left-handed pitcher, he learned the game largely from his dad, Peter, a lawyer in Amherst, but also from the man he calls "Grandpa" to his face and "Stanley P." when he's around friends.
Around town, Kevin says, it "seemed like he was a celebrity." Everybody came up to Stan, greeting him as "El Presidente," "Mr. Commissioner," or -- if they wanted to rattle his chain -- "The Czar." Kevin reaped the benefits. Stan brought him to Red Sox games on many a summer Sunday, seats behind the dugout, glove ready for any foul ball Brian Daubach couldn't reach.
In 2004, at age 12, having just completed his final Little League season, Kevin and a couple of friends got a chance to go to the ALCS games at Fenway against the Yankees. Everything about the experience was supercharged. From the moment they arrived in Kenmore Square, the kids from Amherst were transfixed.
"We're like, 'What the heck is this madness?'" Kevin recalls. "We were just in awe about everything."
And then, of course, there was the stolen base from Dave Roberts, the walk-off from Big Papi, the sense in that moment that nothing on the planet was bigger or brighter than this.
"It's hard not to want to taste it as a player," Kevin says. "It's just an amazing experience, an amazing atmosphere."
Unbeknownst to him at the time, there was another youngster taking in the action courtesy of his family connections. Having just turned 14, Mike Yastrzemski rode with every pitch of the Fenway drama. Truth be told, for young Yaz, these games were a double-edged sword.
On one hand, there were few people at Fenway who understood as well as he did -- deep in their heart understood -- just how much this meant to this team and this city. It was in his bones.
"Papa Yaz," as he called his grandfather, was Red Sox royalty. The great No. 8 had dealt with the anguish of almost in seven-game World Series losses in 1967 and 1975, then grimaced as he fouled out to Graig Nettles to end the pulverizing playoff of '78. Even as a young teenager, Mike got it, feeling the same impulse as Kevin Ziomek did in his bleacher seat: Wouldn't it be cool to someday, in some way, play here?
But Mike also was grappling with searing loss. His father had passed away just a month before in mid-September, a hard life cut short at 43 after a heart attack that followed hip surgery.
The middle Yaz had been a complicated character. In contrast to his famously laconic father, he was a free spirit. "He was just always a guy who wanted to have fun -- always laughing, pulling pranks on everyone, a jokester," Mike Yastrzemski said in a recent New York Times story.
But if Carl had a hard act to follow in Ted Williams, Carl Michael Yastrzemski, Jr. had even bigger shoes to fill. A mirror image of his father (dad: 5-foot-11, 175 pounds on Baseball-reference.com; son: 5-foot-11, 180 pounds), Michael -- he always went by his middle name -- would struggle to find his own niche.
There was a love of baseball but a heaviness surrounding it. In the Yaz autobiography, there is a hard-to-look-at photo of Carl with his dad (the potato farmer) and his son at Fenway on the occasion of his 3,000th hit in 1979. Michael, a strapping 18 with a mop of late-'70s hair, wears a Red Sox jacket as he shakes his father's hand, looking down at the ground. In the photo, at least, the world seems too much with him.
Michael went to Florida State, lived the life for four years and emerged as a third-round draft pick, leaving just shy of a degree he would never complete. He played minor league ball until 1988, reaching as far as Triple-A. Two years later, he and his then-wife Anne-Marie, had their only child, Michael Andrew Yastrzemski.
The father-son relationship, much of it focused on baseball, was a rich one, even after the parents split when Mike was 6. ("His father did a great job with him," Carl said in a recent phone interview, a sentiment he has always expressed.)
But, in other ways, Michael's life would spiral. He lived in Holyoke, Mass., and worked for years as a produce manager at the Northampton Stop and Shop, just a few miles across the Connecticut River from Ziomek Farm. Some painful stories emerged after his death about debt run up in Carl's name, but the family, as a code of honor, chooses to remember what was best in him: his buoyant spirit, his love for his son.
In the stands at Fenway, as the Red Sox made their improbable charge, Mike Yastrzemski found some salve. "I was able to enjoy it," he said. "I went to every game with my cousins and was able to get away from everything. It was something to keep me level-headed and make me realize that life is going to go on, and everything is going to be OK."
"I kind of remember Mike saying to me, 'Daddy's smiling in heaven,'" Anne-Marie Yastrzemski recalls.
Anne-Marie, who has maintained a close relationship with Carl, says that the loss of Michael Yastrzemski bonded grandfather and grandson much more closely. "I think being together, the two of them felt like a part of him," she says. "He feels a part of [Mike's] life. He's so proud of him. Nobody could be more proud."
Through his high school years, Mike would often meet for Sunday morning batting tutorials from his famous grandfather. Then, according to Mike, there would often be fishing expeditions, golf outings and family cookouts with Wiffle Ball games at Papa Yaz's.
Carl typically tended the steaks on the grill and stayed away from the yellow plastic bat: "If I swung a Wiffle Ball bat, I'd have hurt my back."
A left-handed hitting outfielder (5-foot-11, 180 pounds according to Baseball-reference.com), Mike was picked in the 36th round of the 2009 draft by the Red Sox. He politely turned down the offer and went to Vanderbilt University, a baseball and academic powerhouse at which he was determined to make his mark.
In the farm house in Amherst where Stan and Bev Ziomek have lived for almost 60 years, you can get a folksy rendition on the best youth baseball players ever to play in town.
"You had Tommy White," Stan says. "You had Tommy Osborne. You had Nate Murphy. You had the Looze kid -- Chris Looze. Chuckie Royce. See that clock behind you? Chuckie Royce made that. John Stosz, who got homesick with the Cardinals and quit after a week or two, but that's baseball. He's working at UMass now. He lived on Market Hill Road up there."
Some of those guys reached the high minors, though none made it to the promised land.
As Stan kept going and going with Amherst baseball into his mid-80s and beyond, his eldest grandson became, perhaps, the best of the bunch.
Stan watched with wonder at a high school playoff game in 2009 against Northampton. The strapping lefty from Amherst retired all 21 batters, striking out 18. Of all the thousands of contests he'd seen over the years, never before had he witnessed a perfect game.
The next year, the scouts came out in force with their radar guns behind the backstop at Community Field, which, that year was rechristened Stan Ziomek Diamond. Stan watched every game from his familiar post at the top of the hill, sitting in a lawn chair beneath a beech tree.
Kevin was picked in the 13th round by the Diamondbacks but opted instead to go to college. He was on his way to Nashville, Tenn., to join Mike Yastrzemski at Vanderbilt.
'Old souls' on diamond
The school would prove an oasis. Both "Yaz" and "Zo", as they were known at Vandy, would shine in the classroom, piling up dean's list and SEC academic honor roll certificates. They became good friends, heading a crew of six Massachusetts expatriates on the baseball diamond.
There they would shine under the tutelage of legendary coach Tim Corbin.
This season, Ziomek earned the coveted No. 1 starter role and went 11-3. His 2.12 ERA was the lowest at Vandy since 1973. Yastrzemski batted third in the lineup and hit .312 on the season, stole 20 bases and played some dazzling outfield defense.
Yaz and Zo were two of the stalwarts who pushed Vanderbilt to a late-season No. 1 ranking, although the Commodores bowed out just shy of the College World Series in a super regional loss to Louisville.
Corbin says that Yaz and Zo are both "old souls." He talks about the sky-high "care level" of Ziomek, and the fact that he is a "very good investor." He says Yastrzemski's leadership skills are "off the charts. I just think he's unique. It may be because he grew up in a professional environment. It may be because he lost his dad. It may be because he had to do a lot of things on his own. But whatever it is, he has it."
The grandfathers reveled from a distance. Carl Yastrzemski doesn't travel quite as much after his triple bypass in 2008. He made it down to Nashville to see Mike play just once in person but ascribes that more to superstition -- stemming from a weekend visit years ago to see his son play Double-A ball in Orlando -- than anything else. ("The first game he was 0-for-4. Then the second game he was 0-for-4. I could see he was pressing. And then they had a doubleheader on Sunday. I went out to dinner with him on Saturday and I told him, 'I've got to leave.' I made up an excuse. Then he went 7-for-8 on Sunday. I've stayed away ever since.")
Still, Carl watched a slew of Vanderbilt games on television, and he liked what he saw from Mike: "He's a good hitter. He's a hell of a baserunner. He's got great instincts on the bases. He'll learn to hit with power." But Carl is prouder still of the degree his grandson earned and the man he has become. "He's his own person," Carl says, "which is great."
Indeed, Mike embraced the nickname "Yaz," but politely turned down Corbin's offer of the uniform No. 8 this season, which had become available after senior Riley Reynolds graduated. "I'd been 18 for three years," Mike says matter-of-factly, "and I didn't think there was a need to change it."
Stan Ziomek only got down to Nashville a couple of times. He moves tentatively these days on a badly arthritic knee, but he mostly ascribes the lack of travel to his Depression-era thriftiness: "It's not cheap to go."
This was something of a silent spring for the Czar. He finally retired last December, and has been grudgingly staying away from the Amherst diamonds this year, not wanting the new regime to think he is second guessing. From his perch in the farm house, though, he followed Kevin's baseball season with a laser-like interest. In the kitchen, a big Vanderbilt magnet graces the refrigerator, one wall displays the Vanderbilt schedule, and another is decorated by a poster of a certain southpaw with a wicked slider. "I'm not bragging," Stan insists, "but he seems to have common sense in his head. He realizes where he is and what he could be."
Late on a recent Thursday night, Stan got a call from Kevin down in Nashville on the first night of the baseball draft. "Grandpa," Kevin said. "Second round: Detroit Tigers."
Stan refers to it as "a miracle in the family."
Not long after, Carl got word from Mike: 14th round, Baltimore Orioles.
Minor miracles -- or just the start?
Both young men hope one day to write their grandfathers' names on an envelope of complimentary tickets at a major league game.
"Oh man, that would be unbelievable," Young Yaz says. "It would be crazy to be able to do that. That's obviously my dream."
"That would be awesome," Kevin Ziomek says. "I would love to be able to do that."
For now, though, it is time to begin the long slog of the minor leagues, filled with ruthless competition and kitschy Americana. Nothing perhaps describes the latter better than the famed "Potato Day" in Williamsport, Pa. Back in 1987, catcher Dave Bresnahan tucked a shaved potato inside the lining of his glove, then whipped it into left field in a deliberately errant pickoff throw. He then tagged the runner out at the plate with the baseball.
When the umpire realized the ruse, he changed the call. Bresnahan was given his release by the Williamsport Bills, but after an outcry from fans, the team held a "Potato Night" that allowed spectators to get in for a dollar by presenting a spud.
Perhaps it is time to reprise that promotion. Yaz and Zo, who both made their professional debuts this past weekend, are scheduled to play against each other on Friday night, Aug. 16, when the Aberdeen Firebirds travel north to take on the Connecticut Tigers in Norwich. That is not all that far to travel for Papa Yaz and Stanley P.
Now, if only they could get Mary Lee Rosko to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
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