It could be said that Senior Writer Bill Nack started work on his story about the contrasting swan songs of Hall-of-Famers-to-be Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski, beginning on page 46, back in 1975. On one of his early assignments as a sports columnist for the Long Island, N.Y. paper Newsday—Nack had covered horse racing for three years and local politics before that—he was sent to the Cincinnati games of the '75 Reds-Red Sox Series. It was there that he met Bench and Yastrzemski for the first time.
As a reporter whose office was close to Yaz's hometown of Bridgehampton, N.Y., Nack zeroed in on Yaz even back then. "He was one of the few guys in that Series I had a sense of when I got there," says Nack. "I had a feeling for where he was from."
Yaz and Bench had three fairly uneventful games, each going 3 for 11 before the Series returned to Boston for its climax—without Nack, whose next close encounter with Yaz would come as a result of the epic Red Sox-Yankees playoff game of 1978. Yastrzemski came to the plate to face Goose Gossage in the ninth inning with two out, the tying run at third and the winning run at first. Nack was standing behind the Boston dugout, ready to head to the clubhouses for postgame interviews. When Yaz popped the ball up, Nack watched the Yankees' third baseman, Graig Nettles, look up, and saw Yaz look up, "but for some reason I turned and looked around. Behind me were thousands of faces. It was as if they were caught in some kind of watercolor, all looking up, mouths open. And they were silent. Then Nettles caught it, and there was nothing. Absolute cathedral-like silence in the place—for an instant it was a church."
Three years later, having joined SI in 1979, Nack was writing a story about Gossage (Goose!, Sept. 28, 1981), and he asked Yaz about the playoff fastball that had got him. Yastrzemski's answer was that a Gossage heater can do one of several things—sink, curve inside to a lefthanded batter or dart up and away. Yaz guessed it would sink; it didn't, and he got under it. That, he told Nack recently, was the at bat of his 23-year career that he would most like to have over again.
This August Nack set out to follow Yaz and Bench in their final weeks of baseball. His first stop was Cincinnati, where he watched Bench play 18 holes of golf at the Hyde Park Country Club—his first drive off the tee went 330 yards, straight down the middle—and attended Johnny Bench Day at Riverfront Stadium. The ceremony was like This Is Your Life (on which Bench had in fact been a guest at 23) complete with taped messages and telegrams from family, old friends and VIPs. Bench enjoyed every minute of it.
Nack found that Yaz, on the other hand, was trying to minimize the hoopla; he was still working in batting practice as if he were going to face Gossage again with the division title in the balance. "Though he says over and over he doesn't like the nostalgia and doesn't look back," says Nack, "there was much in his words that said he did. In Bench there's a sense of completion that Yaz doesn't have. In Yaz there lingers a real commitment to what he's been doing all these years."