SAN FRANCISCO – On any of the hundreds of mornings she woke up early to make her boyfriend breakfast, to set his coffee on the table so he could roll out of bed at just the right time to catch another episode of Wheel of Fortune, Paige Cahill could have given up.
Friends and family members would ask, "When is he going to be done with this?"
This was Mike Yastrzemski's sputtering baseball career.
Paige worked four jobs and when she wasn't trying to make ends meet, she was traveling to Bowie, Maryland and Norfolk, Virginia to spend her free time watching The Price Is Right with Mike. She would play card games with Mike, see him off to the baseball field and inevitably give him pep talks when he came home.
"Those late night calls after a 13-hour bus ride and they got a flat tire and they have to wake up at six in the morning and I can't do this and I don't want ramen noodles, I would sit there and be like, 'Nope you love this, you can do this.'" Paige told her future husband. "I had to gather some material by watching some classic sports movies. But you're just constantly there to reassure him and get him right back on track."
Paige knew she couldn't let her mind wander. She didn't just keep the dream alive for Mike, she was keeping his dream alive for his mother, Anne Marie Yastrzemski, too.
"I knew he had it in him always and it was frustrating for me as a parent because you can only be supportive," Anne Marie said. "You can't show your own frustration because Mike was probably frustrated enough, he didn't need me to throw that in the mix. To always be that positive person in his life and to continue to encourage him and then wonder, is anybody ever going to give him the break that he deserves? There's so many players that are rock stars but they never get that break."
Mike Yastrzemski turns 30 years old Sunday. He'll celebrate by playing a Major League Baseball game for the San Francisco Giants because he finally got that break.
In March 2019, Yastrzemski received a call that changed his life. After spending six seasons in the Baltimore Orioles farm system, mostly shuffling between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, Yastrzemski was traded to the San Francisco Giants for right-handed pitcher Tyler Herb, a starter who had a 5.35 ERA at Triple-A Sacramento the previous season.
"What attracted us to him," Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said of Yastrzemski, "was having a really good all-around game, being a solid hitter with a good approach, being a really good baserunner, being a good defensive outfielder and just being a winning baseball player who could help your team win in a number of ways."
Zaidi added: "We did not see the top middle-of-the-order offensive production."
On his last day as a 29-year-old, Yastrzemski woke up at his hotel across the street from Oracle Park as one of the most valuable players in the major leagues this season. His 2.1 fWAR is the best in baseball. He's the only player with 20-plus runs, RBIs and walks and his 19 extra-base hits are tops in the National League.
Batting with two strikes, Yastrzemski only gets better. His 1.105 two-strike OPS is higher than his 1.086 mark for the season and more than twice the major league average of .523.
As the grandson of Hall of Fame outfielder and 18-time All-Star Carl Yastrzemski, it's easy to see the last name and think Mike was destined for stardom. His first Little League coach remembers when the game didn't come so easily.
"We started out in Boca Raton, Florida and I was his coach," Anne Marie said. "I just remember this little kid whose hat didn't fit him because his head was so small and the big, baggy t-shirt and the bat was five times the size of him and dear god it was the funniest thing to see. Even when he was really young, first thing after a nap, he would be in his diaper outside the front lawn and swinging a Wiffle ball bat at a Tee Ball thing. People would ask, 'Does he do anything else?' or 'Do you pitch to him every single day?' and I was like, 'Yes, I do."
Mike credits his grandfather and his late father, Carl Michael, Jr., for teaching him swing mechanics and how to play the game. It was Anne Marie who began tossing her son ping pong balls to hit with a toothbrush when he was still in his crib.
"I know I annoyed the crap out of her when I was a kid because I was super hyper and always wanted to be playing baseball and be outside," Mike admits. "To have the patience for me to go out there and at that age, she was working on my love of the game and that was super important for me. I don't think I get to where I am without her."
Mike's father died of a heart attack at 43 after undergoing hip surgery when Mike was 14 years old. Unlike his superstar father, Carl Michael, Jr. never reached the big leagues. He spent five seasons in the minors and topped out at Triple-A in 1988, but retired to focus on his produce business.
Instead of feeling robbed of the chance to play in front of his dad, Mike has chosen to be grateful for the time they did spend together.
"Those were the most important years anyways," Yastrzemski said. "To develop your thoughts and opinions of the game, how it's supposed to be played, he taught me the right way and I continue to carry that with me to this day and it's one of those things that may have been a small lesson when I was 12 or 13, but it ended up being a lifelong lesson. I hold those memories so close to my heart."
In search of male role models for Mike, Anne Marie found them at St. John's Prep, an all-boys school in Danvers, Massachusetts. She created a showcase so colleges could recruit baseball players in the northeast and drove Mike all over Massachusetts and across state lines so he could gain exposure to college coaches.
Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin eventually found Mike, but not before he was old enough to feel the pressure of carrying on the family legacy.
"There were a couple of times where he was going through showcases where he didn't do well and he would say, 'I'm an embarrassment to the name,'" Anne Marie said with a laugh. "I said, 'Don't you dare ever say that to me again. This is a game and it's supposed to be fun and when the fun is gone, I am not driving you all over the state and into other states to be miserable. So you either have fun and enjoy this or we're not doing it.'"
Within weeks of setting foot on Vanderbilt's campus as a freshman, he joined a statistics study group with friend and roommate Regan Flaherty. It was Flaherty who helped introduce Mike to a high-energy lacrosse player named Paige.
"One day we were all hanging out and he was talking about his family and that was the first time I stopped in my place," Paige said. "I'll never forget, I looked at him and was like, 'Wow, a guy who can talk like that about his family.' It shifted things. Then it was like good ole' elementary school, I had a crush on him. I brought him to lacrosse prom and it's been history ever since."
The history Mike and Paige have shared hasn't always looked as glamorous as it did at Fenway Park last September when Mike homered in the same ballpark his grandfather called home for all 23 seasons of his career.
In the years before the Yastrzemski family gathered on the field to watch Carl, the Red Sox royalty, throw a first pitch out to Mike, the relentless rookie, there were years spent driving up and down the eastern seaboard wondering if the grueling minor league experience would ever pay off.
Mike leaned on Paige and Paige leaned on Anne Marie, who had lived through the same experience 30 years earlier as the wife of a struggling ballplayer.
"She'd say, "Hey, how are you doing?' and that's not a question I get a lot," Paige said. "She really just got it. She had that 360 view. She understood the toll it took on me and she was there to support me. She understood the toll it took on Mike, she was there to support him. Especially the name Mike Yastrzemski, her job even more so is a thankless job."
Together, Paige and Mike hoped, prayed and wished for his fortunes to change. The March 2019 trade brought Mike to the Giants organization, but he was sent to minor league camp instead of major league spring training. He opened the season in Sacramento in San Francisco.
A torrid hot streak and a home run binge for Sacramento led to a May 24 phone call that made one of Paige's superstitious wishes worth it.
"I'll wish on anything – a four-leaf clover, a star, a birthday cake, whatever," Paige said. "I finally got to tell him for the past seven years I was wishing and praying that he would be given the chance to show what he could do and he would make it to the big leagues."
During a debut season that read like a best-picture screenplay, Yastrzemski led the Giants in home runs and posted the highest slugging percentage (.518) of any Giants rookie since Willie McCovey, the 1959 Rookie of the Year, slugged .659.
Yastrzemski's first season coincided with the Giants' rare visit to Fenway Park –only the second in a 12-year span– giving him a rare opportunity to play in front of family, friends and his grandfather Carl, who won the 1967 Triple Crown as a member of the Red Sox. Paige wanted to stick by Mike's side for every minute the family was allowed on the field pregame, but her parents, Doug and Terre, pulled her aside.
"I think back to the Boston series, my dad was so wise. He said Paige, "You've been Mike's biggest cheerleader and there every step of the way for the last 10 years. But his family has been dreaming of this for his entire life. You need to remember that on this day.' It was such a good perspective going into that series," Paige said.
For the women who never let Mike give up, taking a step back during the 2020 season has proven difficult. Paige watches her husband's games on television at the hotel across from Oracle Park and Anne Marie is back home in Massachusetts, staying up well past 1 a.m. most nights to see her son in the spotlight.
"I can go like three nights of watching the games and then the fourth night, I crash early and I get so mad at myself because inevitably, I miss something great," Anne Marie said. "Thank god for replay."
As Mike turns 30, the women who believed in him as a ballplayer are more proud of him as a man. His mother cites his "tenacity, resolve and amazing moral compass."
His wife says Mike has become more empathetic and more loving in their 11 years together. She points to his decision to take a knee for the national anthem – it is a show of support for Black friends he knows have been victims of racism – as an example of the careful consideration he puts into every decision.
"That he understands the magnitude of the gift, of the platform he now has and he takes it so seriously with such reflection and intention, I can't wait to see what he does with all of these opportunities," Paige said.
With 136 career games under his belt, Yastrzemski's early career numbers rank among the most impressive of any current major leaguer. His ability to hit for average and power against righties and lefties has turned him into an everyday starter and a consistent force atop the Giants' lineup.
Zaidi and first-year manager Gabe Kapler point to his leadership qualities and desire to help the Giants' new coaching staff establish a strong clubhouse culture as a major reason why the organization believes Yastrzemski can be a foundational player for the franchise's next core.
At 30 years old, however, Yastrzemski isn't an exciting young prospect. He's almost a full year older than eight-time All-Star Mike Trout, has two-plus years on Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts and has more than eight years on some of the game's bright young talents, Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Juan Soto.
Yastrzemski's numbers from the 2020 season suggest he belongs in the same conversation with all of those players, but because of the years he spent grinding away in Bowie and Norfolk, he's the only player in the discussion who won't make hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The only thing I really wanted in terms of money was to be able to pay bills and to make sure that Paige didn't have to work four jobs," Yastrzemski said. "In terms of generational wealth, if I were playing for that, I feel like I would be doing it for the wrong reasons."
Thirty is viewed across the baseball industry as an age when Father Time steps in and starts throwing jabs at a player's productivity. For some, it's the beginning of the end as they back into the ropes. For others, it's a reminder their best days could be behind them.
"Everyone is like, 'Oh gosh, baseball and 30.'" Paige said. "I mean, no. Come on. If anybody can see just the jump between 28 and 29 in Mike, are they really worried about 30? Like come on. That's where Mike gets fueled even more. There's no coincidence about his numbers with two strikes. You tell him he can't and he will. So tell him that he's too old at 30 and see what happens. I'm laughing because I can't wait to see it."
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