Monday night in Fenway Park, Carl Yastrzemski hit five home runs and made a marvelous catch in the ninth inning to save a no-hitter.
Yastrzemski's first home run of the night was a 420-foot line drive over the Baltimore Orioles bullpen off Jim Palmer, a gentleman who will someday join Yaz in the Hall of Fame.
As the 44-year-old jogged the bases, the fans cheered and the sky cried. The instant the ball left Yaz's bat, the rain began, as though even the New England weather wanted some tangible way to pay its respects to the leaving legend.
Yastrzemski's other home runs that night, and his great running catch in defense of Billy Rohr, were all bubbles rising from the past, figments flashed on the vast center field screen as the Red Sox appeased their crowd during a long rain delay with an old movie about the 1967 Impossible Dream Season.
There was the 28-year-old Yaz in his Triple Crown glory slugging one pitch after another into that same distant bullpen in a long ago September, cramming the pennant down the throats of Jose Tartabull and Dalton Jones whether they wanted it or not.
As the 12-foot-tall mythic Yaz on the screen made his tumbling catches, played caroms off the Monster, threw out runners at all available bases and catapulted those home runs with his chiropractor's dream of a swing, the clouds were not the only source of tears in Fenway Park.
It's tough enough to lose a dignified man who's become a worthy institution when you make it easy on yourself and turn your eyes away, allowing him to slide into retirement only half-noticed. But it's genuinely hard to watch the gimpy, creaky old man fighting to go out with style while the image of his own youth flickers on the screen in double size, taunting him and us with our mortality, reminding us of what we are about to lose.
That night, the rains washed out what would have been Yastrzemski's 453rd home run (17th on the all-time list), his 3,413th hit (seventh) and his 1,834th RBI (ninth).
The next evening, in the makeup, Yastrzemski pinch-hit in the ninth inning with the winning run on second base. A mere single was needed. His grounder was stabbed at the last second before it could escape into center field and the old man was thrown out at first base by a step. As an obligatory but taken-for-granted postscript, the Red Sox lost in the 12th.
That's the hard world of fact in which even legends must live.
These days, Yaz is trying to bring it to the wire with panache. Perhaps as early as Saturday, he will break Hank Aaron's all-time record for games played (3,298). It's fitting that Yastrzemski--the man of Polish farming stock--should hold the record for endurance. It suits him better than any other mark. Except for '67, he was never a great player, just a very good one who squeezed every drop of production from his talent.
His Red Sox are back where he found them 23 seasons ago--players fighting, after their fashion, to stay out of last place, while management fights, in its fashion, to keep them there.
When the season began, Yastrzemski's goal was "not to be a detriment" to a team he thought might win a pennant. Now, that team should worry about being a detriment to Yastrzemski. He is batting .281--just five points below his career average--and he's also got 10 homers, 24 doubles and 55 RBI in just 342 at bats. In other words, when he plays, Yastrzemski's production at 44 is almost identical to his career figures.
"This is the way I wanted to go out. But there's still a ways to go," says Yastrzemski.
Yastrzemski must help now with all the last-minute preparations, like a man arranging his own funeral. A front-office man asks him how many seats the family will need for the season-closing Farewell Yaz game on Oct. 2. "Better make it 60, with all the in-laws," says Yastrzemski. "My dad says we'll have 21 Yastrzemskis in the same place at the same time."
Asked if he dreams about a final at-bat home run, like Ted Williams, he says, "I tried to get a home run for my 3,000th hit and it took me 12 at bats just to get a single. I've learned that lesson."
Yastrzemski knows that his baseball legacy is safe. He's one of those figures who transcended his stats. Yaz batted under .280 twice as often as he hit .300 (12 to 6) and he drove in less than 75 runs twice as often as he drove in a 100 (11 to 5). He only hit more than 23 homers four times in 23 years.
Yet, like Pete Rose, Yastrzemski has managed to leave a personal image of himself that surpasses his professional abilities. Yastrzemski can even put his place in the game into words.
"I'd like to be remembered as a winner," he said this week, sitting by his locker. "Someone who made things happen that helped the team win. But I hope I did it with class. Stan Musial was an idol of mine as a boy. I tried to model myself after him, to a degree.
"Given some ability, and I'm not what you'd call a big specimen, I've gotten the most I possibly could out of it.
"I always see ballplayers come back and say 'if.' Retirement won't be hard for me, because that will never be there for me. 'If' I'd worked harder, 'if' I hadn't retired too soon . . .
"When we have those reunions of the '67 team, most of those guys who've been retired for years are younger than me. Almost all of 'em. Their biggest thing is always 'if.' You can see that they haven't accepted it (retirement). They always pull for me and tell me, 'Keep going.'
"That applies to everything. You want to live so you don't have to say, 'If I'd just given myself a fair chance to succeed.' "
If anything galls Yastrzemski it's the team's collapse this year.
"We've had 16 straight winning seasons here and I'm very proud of that," says Yastrzemski, whose clubs have been 257 games over .500 since '67.
"This year feels miserable. I can't imagine how bad it must have felt my first six seasons."
Only Yastrzemski knows how deeply he is gnawed by the Sox failure to win a World Series. He is all ballplayer and sees his world in terms of hanging curve balls, not literary metaphors. "I don't think about all that stuff . . . I'm a quiet farm boy. I guess it just wasn't meant to be. In '67 (in the Series), Bob Gibson in the seventh game was too much. The guy was just great. I accept that.
"But in '75, everything went against us." Yastrzemski gives a recitation of umpires' calls and unlucky hits. Then, he pauses and the real old wound rises to the surface. "I'll never forget that slop curve to (Tony) Perez." It's nice to know Yastrzemski will never forgive Bill Lee, either.
One last question always hangs around Yastrzemski. What if New England's eternal delusion were to come true and, a year from now, the Red Sox were in a pennant race and their obvious need was for another left-handed bat? Would Yastrzemski listen to the sirens?
A small smile plays around Yastrzemski's mouth. How can such a legend resist such a tease?
"Right at this day," said Yastrzemski, picking his words carefully, "I have no plans to come back."