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Robert Pinsky on Carl Yastrzemski

The former poet laureate on the former Triple Crown winner

Adam Chandler
October 04, 2012
Nixon and Yaz(National Archives)

Nixon and Yaz(National Archives)

Readers of Robert Pinsky’s poetry would probably not be surprised to hear that his prose also bears many of his great qualities. The fluid, incisive economy that has made his elegant work shine through decades is on display not only in his excellent Nextbook project, The Life of David, but also today in the Times.

As baseball’s Triple Crown comes back into focus with Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera having just accomplished the elusive feat–being the best in the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (RBI) for the first time since 1967–Pinsky took the opportunity to write about the last person to achieve the feat: Carl Yastrzemski.

When I was a child, the qualities of boldness, daring and speed were embodied for me by Jackie Robinson on the basepaths. (Jackie Robinson in life, embodying greater qualities, was mostly beyond me.) In my late 20s, Yastrzemski embodied qualities that were now more important to me: work, resolve and concentration. Against bitter, powerful opposition, Robinson demanded and won respect. Against his own weaknesses, Yastrzemski attained an inward respect for his own gifts, overcoming his early tendency to coast with them — a lesser but considerable achievement. It wouldn’t be quite right to say that I looked up to him: but I looked to him, as an example of focus. In that way, he was a useful hero.

In the context of Boston’s academic snobbery, I and many others enjoyed Yastrzemski’s distinctly non-Harvard style: here was a local sports hero who came from a Long Island potato farm and Notre Dame, which he attended as a business major on a basketball scholarship. In a tense way, Yaz actually smoked cigarettes in the dugout, and to relieve the tension he would rush to after-game beers in the clubhouse. The elegance of that oversize, sweeping swing and of his fielding, the smooth precision of his arm, made an agreeable contrast with the homey inelegance of his speaking style. In his farewell speech at Fenway Park, in front of 30,000 people, he thanked God for giving him a great body.

Of course, it’s never just about baseball.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

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