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What Carl Yastrzemski Taught Me About America

“YAAAAAAAAAZ!” rang out from all corners of Fenway Park on the early summer afternoon that Mrs. Hartsfield’s 4th-grade class visited for an end-of-the-year field trip. I didn’t know who Yaz was. I wasn’t too clear on the rules of the national pastime either, but it was a sunny afternoon and thousands of people all around me were cheering a paunchy middle-aged man in what looked like children’s pajamas on the bright green, manicured field below. He acknowledged the applause by waving his cap back at us. I didn’t know what this celebration was about but I knew it had something to do with America.

In 1981, Carl Yastrzemski was nearing the tail end of a storied career while I was finishing a fairly unremarkable year of grade school. It was my third year in the United States and I had the language down pretty well while much of my new country’s customs and preoccupations remained foreign. My family had emigrated from the Soviet Union to Brookline, Massachusetts in 1978 and baseball wasn’t high up on my parents’ list of things to learn here even three years later—I doubt they could explain the rules or make head or tail of it to this day. To me, though, figuring this game out seemed much more vital to assimilating and one day possibly even fitting in to our new home.

They didn’t know to sign me up for Little League or to even buy a cheap mitt at Woolworth’s. They concerned themselves with dull tasks like finding jobs to put food on the table. My father was a mathematician but had hoped to change careers to something more connected to his true passions which were (and continue to be) literature and linguistics; my mother was a gynecologist but wasn’t able to get an MD here with two young children to take care of and only rudimentary English. My father quickly got a position with a computer firm but wasn’t able to pursue his own interests aside from reading in his spare time. My mother did social work and a variety of other jobs before finding some satisfaction—if not much money—in alternative medicine. The incomprehensible game played on the diamond involving all the standing around was the least of their worries. I had to content myself with sitting in the bleachers and watching my classmates pretend to be Red Sox, Brewers, and Indians in their often ill-fitting uniforms in the neighborhood park. I played catch barehanded with a hardball a few times until twisted and bruised fingers disabused me of the notion. My friend Dan and I played stickball against the back wall of Devotion School but we used a tennis ball or one of the cheap pink rubber balls we’d swipe from Irving’s Candies down the street. I worked on a bending sidearm pitch that hurt my elbow almost as much as my pride when Dan would deposit it regularly over the chain-link fence for a homerun.

Baseball came easy to Dan. A few years into playing he received a scout’s letter from the Sox. My biggest successes came in stealing countless Topps cards from the aforementioned Irving’s and, occasionally, on the worn, greying cardboard Strat-O-Matic diamond.

We played season upon season of Strat-O-Matic, keeping track of everything from wins, losses, and home runs, to obscure streaks and anomalies. Dan committed all this data to unlined typewriter paper in his meandering scrawl. Piles and piles of these stats sheets took up entire corners of his disheveled bedroom. The teams we played with were often classics like the ’27 Yankees or the ’53 Dodgers or unholy All-Star amalgams of our own design. We had pitchers winning forty games in a season, striking out twenty-three batters in a game, and batters hitting fifty or sixty homers a year regularly.

The backs of those Topps cards I stole documented long careers and histories that I could sit and wonder about. At my parents’ kitchen table it often seemed like we were still in grim Moscow, the talk was of the horrors going on in the Old Country and the waxing and waning fortunes of friends and relations unfortunate enough to have washed up on these shores, whereas looking past a smiling George Brett or Marty Barrett, at the sunny ball field on an ’82 or ’83 card would take me to happier, more optimistic places. The country they’d brought me to depended on this sunniness unlike the dark and dour land we’d fled. I used to fault my parents for not trying harder to integrate into their cheerful, new surroundings but can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been to have everything they knew upended and reshuffled at their ages. My identity wasn’t fully formed when we moved and it caused its own problems, but they were just starting their adult lives when their whole context was ripped away and they had to start all over. They’d sit with their friends and complain about the silly Americantsy and I’d loathe them for it because I was trying so hard to become exactly what they were making fun of.

As it turned out, they needn’t have worried. I never quite made it. I stopped trying to be “one of the guys” early in high school and resigned myself to taking in the world at a remove. Immigration has left me with a permanent sense of being from elsewhere (whether in the company of Americans or Russians.)Just as I never got to truly play a baseball game, I never became a real American. Not the kind I saw at Fenway Park back in 1981 anyway. There’s a kind of pride in one’s accomplishments and comfort in one’s place in the world that baseball embodies and that I’ve rarely felt. Paunchy old Yaz belonged on that field in a way I’ve never belonged anywhere. I’ve never stopped loving the game he played so well for all the years since I saw him that day waving to the crowd. Since then, I’ve checked the box scores for almost every game of every season, just to recapture some of that feeling.

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