As one’s time in retirement extends, more and more friends retire; how one best approaches retirement is a topic that comes up from time to time. This seems a suitable time for this note, since for the vast majority of my life, mid-summer meant … baseball.
In the fall of 1967, three teams were locked in a tight race for the American League pennant: the Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers, and the Boston Red Sox. Boston wasn’t intimidating across the board, but where it was stong, its quality was superior: Starting Pitcher Jim Lonborg, and most importantly, unquestionably the world’s best baseball player that year: Leftfielder Carl Yastrzemski, then 28 (hereinafter, not “Mr. Yastrzemski,” but merely, “Yaz”). After finishing ninth in a 10-team circuit the preceding season, the Red Sox bested the Twins and the Tigers to win the pennant by a single game (before the current playoff era) primarily because Yaz seemingly hit a home run to win a game in the late innings every day down the stretch. I have the warmest memories of the Brewers’ Robin Yount’s 1982 MVP season, and concede that my knowledge of baseball deeds is dated, but I can’t name any player who so single-handedly brought his team a pennant as Yaz did in 1967. He was the season’s American League Most Valuable Player and posted the last Triple Crown (combining the League’s highest Batting Average, Home Run and Runs Batted In totals) Major League Baseball would see … for 45 years.
A left-handed hitter, Yaz had a distinctive batting stance (for those more attuned to the current era, a stance somewhat similar to the Brewers’ recently-retired Ryan Braun): he would stand in the batter’s box grasping the bat with hands held high – helmet-or-higher high – and from that position, without the assistance of steroids, would bring the bat through the strike zone with unnerving velocity to spray hits across the field and over the fence. Think about the reflexes required to bring a bat through the strike zone from that high against a 90+-mile-an-hour fastball. And even in those days, baseball had great fireballers – the best pitcher I’ve ever seen, Sandy Koufax, had just retired, and Bob Gibson, he of the mean heater, was in his prime. [In those days, no statisticians were documenting pitch speed with radar guns ;)].
The Red Sox lost the World Series in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals, although Yaz hit .400 with 3 home runs and 5 RBI.
Although he never again had – nor for decades, did anyone else have – as mighty a single season as he did in 1967, Yaz remained a force for pitchers to reckon with until he retired in 1983. Even so, as the seasons passed, his batting stance changed; he kept lowering his hands. When asked about it, he was candid: his reflexes were slowing. He kept lowering the bat to a position from which he could still react and get the bat through the hitting zone against baseball’s best. He had become more selective about the pitches he went after. Had he continued with his 1967 approach, he would not have been around to contribute to another decade and a half’s worth of Red Sox teams.
We seniors are overwhelmed by a blizzard of data and opinion about how to “age gracefully.” Some of the commentary is helpful, some not. I would submit that one could do worse than to follow Yaz’s example: be selective about where you devote your energy; and from time to time assess when, and by how much, you need to lower your hands to stay in the game.