By David Willis
LOWELL — The “Yaz” chants started slowly in one corner of the stadium. Then, after a few pitches, it began to grow.
By the time the seventh inning rolled around, it seemed nearly everyone in the LeLacheur Park crowd had erupted into the cheer that had once been a tradition at Fenway Park.
The name is iconic, but the player that stepped to the plate was young and fresh, at the start of his baseball career.
Andover’s Mike Yastrzemski made his return to the Merrimack Valley last night, for the first time a professional baseball player, as the starting center fielder and No. 2 hitter for the Aberdeen IronBirds, the single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, as they took on the Lowell Spinners at LeLacheur Park.
“It’s really exciting to be back,” said Yastrzemski. “I love this area. There is nothing like it. It’s been an amazing summer, but there is something really special about being close to home and playing in front of my family and friends.”
The former St. John’s Prep and Andover Legion star was 1 for 4 with an RBI single, a walk, a run scored and a sweet over-the-shoulder catch in front of a massive contingent of family and friends that had made the quick 11-mile drive from his home town. That helped the IronBirds beat Lowell 8-3.
“Today is a very, very proud moment,” said his mother, Anne-Marie Yastrzemski. “We have so many people here and we are trying to be as loud as possible. Nothing is better than to see your son happy. From the moment he could speak, he always said he was going to be a professional baseball player.”
It has been a special summer for Yastrzemski, his first after a professional baseball player.
A 14th round selection out of baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt this spring, Yastrzemski entered last night hitting an impressive .272 with three home runs and 18 RBIs for the summer.
He was named the Orioles’ minor league hitter of the month for July, and was named a New York-Penn League All-Star.
“He’s had an outstanding summer,” said IronBirds manager Matt Merullo. “He has a very good lefty swing, plays a very good center field and is just very steady. He may not be flashy, but I think he is the best all-around player on the team.”
But Yastrzemski had to wait until this late August series for the IronBirds to swing into Lowell to play in front of his Andover fan base, and the Red Sox fans thrilled to cheer on the grandson of Red Sox icon Carl Yastrzemski, whose number is retired down the right field line at LeLacheur.
“I hope they aren’t going to be too loud and embarrass me,” he said before the game in vain, as his fans took over two sections and were plenty boisterous. “I had the chance to get home and I am seeing family. It’s great.
“This is something very few people have the chance to do. Only a lucky few get to play professional baseball and I am happy and humbled to be here. I’ve been away for so long, I got used to being away from Massachusetts and the Red Sox. So it’s cool to be back.”
No one was more thrilled than his mother, who was a celebrity in her own right last night in the stands, receiving hugs and congratulations from family, friends and others from Andover and the area.
“Mike just never ceases to amaze me,” said Anne-Marie. “He just gets better and better. You wish you could be at every game, but you can’t. So to have him close, and see so many of his friends, is amazing.”
But while his name made him an immediate favorite last night, it showed the added attention the 23-year-old outfielder receives thanks to his famous moniker.
“People show up to games just to watch him play because of his name,” said Merullo. “He may be a couple generations removed from Carl, but it has to be a lot of pressure.”
But his mother said he takes the attention — including a large group of fans screaming for his autograph before the game — in stride.
“Mike always says that the Yastrzemski name isn’t really extra pressure,” said Anne-Marie, “because he’s never known another name. That’s Mike.”
Yaz agreed that he does not sweat the attention.
“The guys like to razz me about all the questions and attention I get because of my name,” said Mike. “But I just brush it off. The hardest part about professional baseball is just finding that routine that works for you.”
The most exciting moment of his professional career so far? His first home run of course.
“Now that was pretty cool,” said Yaz.While the crowd had begun to thin out as the game entered the 10th and 11th inning, much of Yastrzemski’s cheering section continued to cheer on.
“This is so cool!” said family friend Jen Grebe. “I used to baby sit him and change his diapers. Now he’s a professional baseball player.”
SEE THE ACTION For a video interview with Andover's Mike Yastrzeski, along with his highlights from the game, visit eagletribune.com/sports