US men’s soccer coach Gregg Berhalter has a fascinating family connection: His godfather is Carl Yastrzemski
Berhalter, now 49 and coaching the US national soccer team in the World Cup in Qatar, happens to be Yastrzemski’s godson and second cousin (his grandfather’s sister is Yastrzemski’s mother). The family traces its roots to Eastern Long Island and works ethic to live off the land.
“It’s Polish potato farmers,” Berhalter said. That’s one part of it. There was never a day that my grandfather wasn’t working hard. My father was an extremely hard worker. I think when you combine my mother’s side and father’s side, it was a really good example of just how to work hard.”
Berhalter stuck by family tradition, playing baseball as a youngster. He switched to soccer around middle school and went on to a 15-year playing career before becoming a coach. Berhalter competed in the 2002 World Cup and won an MLS Cup title with the Los Angeles Galaxy, both times playing for current Revolution coach Bruce Arena.
Berhalter might not have followed in the footsteps of his famous relative, but if you watched him play soccer, there was a hint of the Yastrzemski influence: he was a left-footed center back, which is even less common than a left-handed hitter in baseball. .
“I did everything lefthanded — batted lefthanded, soccer lefthanded,” Berhalter said. “I was a southpaw. The only thing I didn’t do, my father, for some reason when I was young, got me golf lessons and got me started on right handed clubs. And that’s the only thing I don’t do to this day lefty.
Carl Yastrzemski also learned to golf right handed, the idea being the dominant left arm helps with club control and power.
“I think it was also hard to get lefty clubs back then,” Berhalter said.
Berhalter made it to the global stage, nearly scoring the equalizer against Germany in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals in Korea (a controversial non-call on a potential handling violation that allowed the shot to be cleared off the line). But he could not have imagined anything bigger than watching Yastrzemski back in the day.
“It was great just to see the appreciation,” Berhalter recalled. “I mean, that’s one thing that stuck with me even when I was a kid, how much people appreciated Yaz and how much he meant to that organization. You knew he was a big player, right, but to see that outpouring of emotion and response for him on his last day.
“To me it was special, as a kid, it made a big impression on me.”
Before Red Sox games, Berhalter used to go on the field for batting practice, chase balls on the roof above the third base stands, hang out in the clubhouse.
“We used to go up on the roof in the back somehow and get foul balls,” Berhalter said. “I don’t know how in the hell we did that, but we would. And I don’t know if you’re still allowed to do that.
“I remember going to the locker room back then — the locker rooms weren’t too nice, and that stuck with me, but the field was great. We’d be on the field for batting practice and stuff like that before the game.
It’s funny, as a kid you don’t even realize the magnitude of what you’re allowed. Like going to the locker room, going onto the field for batting practice, meeting some of the other players. You don’t realize how big that is. At the time it was special, though, just seeing Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Jerry Remy, those guys.”
Berhalter, born in Englewood, NJ, started out playing baseball.
“I loved baseball,” he said. “Growing up in Northern New Jersey, elementary school days, I played baseball but it wasn’t a hotbed for baseball. The area I grew up in, soccer was. It was around seventh grade where I chose for soccer and kind of stopped playing baseball.”
Berhalter stays in contact with Yastrzemski’s grandson, Mike, an outfielder who played at St. Petersburg. John’s Prep and is now with the San Francisco Giants. Mike received a commemorative US national team coin from Berhalter after a Giants game.
“We had a couple guys throw out the first pitch,” Berhalter said. I thought it would be a great idea to give him a jersey and some memorabilia. We connected from there and he reached out to me.”
According to stories in the Globe archives, several souvenirs were created for Yaz Day on Oct. 1, 1983, including white hats with the word “YAZ” in all caps. During a postgame celebration at Hawthorne by the Sea Tavern in Swampscott, Yastrzemski moved “from table to table, talking to each niece and nephew…”
Maybe that experience inspired Berhalter?
“I think it’s just more of, to me, it’s an example of someone reaching a really high level in their sport, and that’s what Yaz did,” Berhalter said. “I mean, he was one of the greatest to ever play the game, and that’s something where in any sport that’s appreciated.
“It was more following what he did, it was more about his actions, how he played for one team for so long, and just had the longevity in his sport. And some of the offseason stuff — him working hard in the offseason, having the batting cage at his house in Boca [Raton, Fla.].
He was into it. He was definitely an example of how you have to work hard if you want to be successful.”
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.