Yes, our team is involved in quite a race for the American League East championship. Just as it was 34 years ago today.
|What a moment: Bucky Dent connects.|
OK, I'm a little biased about this. I think the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game for the AL East title that day -- a one-game playoff -- is the greatest game in baseball history. There you have it.
(And the second greatest, if you ask me, is a game the Yankees lost: The seventh game of the 1960 World Series, 10-9, Pirates, Bill Mazeroski's Series-winning home run. If I were a Pirates fan, that would be greatest home run of all time.)
That 1978 season, that Yankees' World Series championship team, is one of the top ones for what I like to call the premier franchise in American sports (yes, it's arrogance personified). I put that season right with 1927, 1961 and 1998.
What made it so special is that the playoff game (1) was against the biggest rival, on that team's field and (2) completed the biggest comeback in baseball history.
On July 19 that year, Boston had a 14-game lead on the Yankees.
No one gave the Yankees -- who had won the World Series the year before and two AL pennants in a row -- a chance. I sure as heck didn't think they had a chance.
The Yankees were in disarray; Billy Martin had been fired as manager (for the first of five times) after referring to Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner with the classic line: "One's a born liar; the other is convicted."
No team has ever wiped out a bigger deficit. (And as I'm writing this, the Yankees have blown a 10-game lead this summer and are battling the surprising and determined Baltimore Orioles for the AL East title. No Yankees team has ever blown a lead that big, or even close.)
Once Martin was fired, the Yankees got straightened out under a stoic new manager, Bob Lemon; the Red Sox, bothered by injuries, began losing. The lead began shrinking. When the Yankees went into Fenway on Sept. 7-10 and pulverized the Red Sox in four games, 15-3, 13-2, 7-0 and 7-4 -- forever known as baseball's "Boston Massacre" -- the race was tied.
On Sept. 14, the Yankees took the lead, and held it the rest of the way. But Boston, one game back, wouldn't lose. The Red Sox won their last seven regular-season games; when the Yankees, with a chance to clinch, were blown out in Cleveland on Sunday, Oct. 1, both were teams 99-63.
I was the sports information director at Centenary College. There was no way I was going to work on that Monday. My joke about that day, and that game, is that I was more nervous than on the day Bea gave birth to Rachel (some 6 1/2 months later). It's a joke, OK.
So much is memorable about the game. The Yankees' starting pitcher was Louisiana's own Ron "Gator" Guidry, who that year was practically unbeateable (24-3 record when he took the mound that day). The Red Sox pitcher -- and this was delicious irony -- was Mike Torrez, the winning pitcher in the World Series clincher for the Yankees the year before who had left for Boston as a free agent.
Carl Yastrzemski, who had said early in the season it was the best Red Sox team he'd played on, hit a home run in the first inning. Jim Rice, who had had a fabulous season and would be voted AL MVP, drove in a run in the sixth -- his 139th RBI of the year. For six innings, the Yankees hardly touched Torrez.
And then the top of the seventh. With one out, Chris Chambliss singled, then Roy White singled. Suddenly, we had a chance. Problem was, Bucky Dent was coming to the plate. He had hit .243 that season, and had been awful for the past month. He had little power (four home runs), but because of injuries, Lemon had no extra infielders. A pinch-hitter was out of the question.
|Coming home: Roy White (6) and Chris Chambliss (10) |
scored ahead of Bucky Dent on Oct. 2, 1978
I was watching the game at home. When that ball landed in the net behind the Green Monster, my reaction was the same as it had been after Billy Cannon's Halloween punt return for LSU in 1959 against Ole Miss. Charged out the front door, into the street, screaming with joy.
So much more happened in the game. The Yankees scored two more runs -- including a Reggie home run -- Boston kept coming back. Rich "Goose" Gossage relieved Guidry and had to pitch out of trouble three times.
It was 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth, and if Lou Piniella, playing right field and looking into the sun, saved the game when he reached out and luckily kept a single from getting past him. That kept a runner from going to third base.
With one out, Rice came to the plate. I'm thinking he's had this great year and now he can win the game with a home run. Yikes. I couldn't watch. Talk about nervous.
When I heard the announcer say, he had flied out deep to right (with the runner now going to third, instead of it being a sacrifice fly), it was a relief. But here came Yaz -- the great Yaz, the hero of the Red Sox's "Mission Impossible" 1967 AL pennant winner. If Boston was going to win, who better to be the star than Yaz? Even Yankees had to like him.
When Gossage's first pitch overpowered Yaz, and he popped out foul to Graig Nettles at third base, it touched off one of my greatest victory celebrations ever.
I have watched a tape of that game a hundred times. It's exciting every time.
The Yankees had more adventures in beating Kansas City in the ALCS and the Dodgers in the Series. But that day in Boston topped it all.
A few years ago, Bea was recovering in the hospital after surgery. A woman came to the room delivering flowers; she was a volunteer worker at the hospital. She saw I was wearing a Yankees' shirt, and she laughed.
"Are you a Yankees fan?" she asked. "My son-in-law played for them."
Of course, I asked his name.
"Bucky Dent," she answered. You know what's coming, right?
I then grabbed for my phone, and played my ringtone for her: "Deep to left. Yastrzemski will not get it. It's a home run! A three-run homer by Bucky Dent. And the Yankees now lead by a score of 3-2!"
She was impressed, I think.
I asked if she knew Bucky's nickname in Boston: Bucky "F..." Dent. Yes, she knew. We talked a while, and she said, her daughter had been an airline attendant when she met Bucky, and that they now live in Florida.
As she was leaving, I told her to tell Bucky about the ringtone and that I knew all the details of the game on Oct. 2, 1978, then added, "Tell him I will love him forever."