Now 21 years old, he still hears it.
“That’s Carl Yastrzemski’s grandson.”
“I get that all the time,” Mike Yastrzemski says with a proud grin. “That’s who I am. I love it.”
His grandfather, of course, is Carl Yastrzemski, a Hall of Famer and Boston Red Sox great. In 1967, he won the Triple Crown — the last to do it in the majors.
Mike Yastrzemski, while not as big of a household name, hopes to write his own legacy.
As Vanderbilt begins practices for the 2012 baseball season Friday, the Commodores plan to lean heavily on Mike for his leadership.
One of eight juniors on a young team that features just two seniors, the left-handed right fielder probably did not get the recognition he deserved during his sophomore season. On a squad full of big-league prospects — a Southeastern Conference record 12 players were drafted — Mike batted .292 and was second in runs scored (59) as Vanderbilt reached the College World Series for the first time in school history.
“I think certainly other teams probably geared up for certain hitters in that lineup,” hitting coach Josh Holliday said. “When he sat there kind of in between [sluggers Aaron Westlake, Curt Casali and Jason Esposito] in and around them, depending on that day’s lineup, he might have been a guy that was a little less physically imposing but he was still very productive. He just knows himself, and he plays to win. That is the best thing you can say about him — he does whatever it takes to help us win.”
Winning appears to be hereditary.
Carl succeeded the legendary Ted Williams in left field and led the Red Sox to two World Series appearances. Over a 23-year career, he won seven Gold Gloves and was named an All-Star 18 times.
Mike’s father, Mike Sr., who died in 2004 after complications following surgery, put together a superb career at Florida State. He still ranks in the top 10 in seven categories and holds the school record for most games played.
And young Mike realizes the legacy he has inherited.
“Yeah, there is pressure coming in,” the Andover, Mass., native said. “Growing up, playing baseball every day, you learn to deal with it. People will say things and people expect things, but I just let it pass by. I’ve played with [the Yastrzemski name] my whole life. I’m used to it. I just go out and play the game how I play.”
In so doing, he already has created some big moments of his own.
At the end of his freshman season, one that saw him start 35 games, he saved his best for last. Playing at and against his father’s alma mater in a Super Regional, he went 6-for-11 with a home run and two RBIs in the three-game series.
Last year, he provided clutch hitting again, earning Nashville Regional All-Tournament honors before cranking his third home run of the season and driving in four runs in a Super Regional opening rout of Oregon State. He then recorded four hits during the Commodores’ four-game stay at the College World Series.
“It really helped,” Mike said of last year’s postseason success. “Playing with such a strong lineup, it was easy to have confidence.”
The strength’s in this year’s lineup will be different from a year ago. The big bats of Westlake, Casali and Esposito are gone, which is significant, because the trio combined for 33 home runs and 167 RBIs.
That means players like Yastrzemski will be asked to generate more runs while a young lineup finds its swing.
Mike, a 6-foot, 180-pounder, is more than capable. Last year, batting mainly fifth in the lineup, he knocked in 42 runs, drew 43 walks and stole a team-high 23 bases.
His ability to excel at small ball — 54 of his 66 hits were singles — makes him “incredibly valuable,” Holliday said.
While the Commodores search for new power, Yastrzemski’s role will be the same. As has been the case for most of his life and baseball career, he won’t be asked to be someone he’s not.
“We just need Yaz to be Yaz,” Holliday said. “Every team has a new personality, and it is strong when the players on it play to the high end of their ability. And that is all we need Mike to do. You don’t try to ask guys to step outside themselves, you just ask them to keep doing things they do well at a real consistent rate.
“We just want him to keep being a better version of himself.”
ONES TO WATCH
A look at other notable area college baseball players:
Matt Hamann, Belmont, P, senior
Expected to be the team’s ace, the big right-hander came on strong last year. He helped the Bruins reach the first NCAA Regional in school history as he led the team in wins (9) and ERA (2.81).
Connor Harrell, Vanderbilt, CF, junior
Ended 2011 on a torrid pace to bounce back from an April slump and finish batting .289 with nine home runs. The righty could be the Commodores’ big bat early as they find their identity.
Justin Guidry, MTSU, OF/P, senior
The Father Ryan product is one of just three seniors. The left-hander’s versatility again is invaluable after he led the team in hitting (.349) while also going to the mound 11 times last year, mainly in relief.
Will Clinard, Vanderbilt, P, senior
Clinard’s the only drafted player from a year ago that returned, and whether he’ll fit into the starting rotation or stay in the back end of the bullpen is yet to be determined. But his leadership will be vital for a young and inexperienced pitching staff.
M.L. Williams, Lipscomb, OF, senior
The switch-hitter is essential to the Bison’s chances of reaching the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament for the first time in three years. The leadoff hitter was a sparkplug last year, batting .354 and leading the team with 48 runs scored and 24 stolen bases.