How Yaz 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 Yasztremski 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 US and I had the language down pretty well while much of my new country’s customs and preoccupations still remained foreign. My family had emigrated from the Soviet Union 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. Figuring this game out seemed much more vital to assimilating and one day possibly even fitting in to our new home to me though.

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 and learning a new language; 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 bare-handed 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 chainlink fence for a homerun.

Baseball came easy to Dan. A few years into playing he even 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, keeping track of everything from wins, losses, and homeruns, 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 which I could sit and wonder about. At my parents’ kitchen table it often seemed like we were still in grim Moscow but looking past a smiling George Brett or Marty Barrett, at the sunny ballfield on a ’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 them 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 age now. 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. 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. Paunchy old Yaz belonged on that field in a way I’ve never belonged anywhere but 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. I’ve checked the box scores almost every game of every season since just to have that feeling.


*This was originally published on ChicagoSide. Since that site has evaporated without even leaving an archive I’ve decided to post it here.

How Yaz Taught Me about America