Friday, October 02, 2009
As you read this, I am at the dentist. I am getting my gums sliced open and my lower jawbone drilled into. The history you are about to read was only slightly less painful.
(For the opposite viewpoint - that is, if you'd like to read someone who found this hideous thing pleasurable - please go to Knucklehead.)
October 2nd, 1978, ranks right up there as one of the most heinous days in my personal pantheon of agonizing sports memories. I'm going to recall it as best I'm able. The human mind, however, has an amazing capacity to blot out the worst experiences we suffer through, so all of the details may not be crystal-clear.
The 1978 baseball season began as it should have. The Boston Red Sox, virtuous standard-bearers for all who espouse goodness and light, got off to an excellent start. By the time July 19th rolled around, they held a 14 game lead on those black-hearted despoilers of all that is noble, the New York Yankees.
(Purists will point out, and rightly so, that the Red Sox never held a 14-game lead in the division as a whole. However, the Yankees were the enemy, the Yankees are the enemy, and the Yankees will forever be the enemy. Whoever else may have been closer on July 19th is immaterial to the story.)
In August, the Yankees, under new manager, Bob Lemon (he having replaced the totally-loathsome Billy Martin) went on a decent streak, closing to within 6 games of the Sox. Then, in September, with the lead down to four games, they came into Boston for a four-game set and absolutely pummeled the crap out of my hometown team. It was a beatdown of epic proportion. The combined score for the four-game sweep? Yankees - 42, Red Sox - 9. It instantly became known as The Boston Massacre. The two teams were now tied for first place.
(I was at the first game of that mess, a 15 - 3 loss at Fenway Park. Mike Torrez was the starter, and having seen the Yanks pound him senseless colored my hopes at a later time, but we'll get to that. It remains, to this day, my least favorite time spent at that great ballpark. I had been to losses before - and I have been since, too - but, on that night, there was a great dismal energy in that sacred space which just sucked the life out of anyone rooting for the Bosox. I've never felt such a total draining of joy during the course of a sporting event.)
By September 16th, the Yankees led the division by 3-and-a-half games.
(Most Red Sox fans will lay the collapse at the feet of manager Don Zimmer. I'm one of those fans. Zimmer, with the lead in the division, managed his team as though each game was life or death. Instead of looking at the bigger picture, and perhaps resting some of his people who sorely needed rest, he played pedal-to-the-metal. Chief among those who needed a few days off was "Butch" Hobson, Red Sox third baseman, who played his position with bone chips in his elbow. He literally re-arranged the chips manually when he went to bat in an effort to find surcease from his pain. His throwing arm was so heavily wrapped, his appendage looked somewhat like it belonged to The Elephant Man.
God bless Hobson for his determination, but Zimmer should have had him out of there. Hobson committed 43 errors, a ridiculous total for a third baseman. Most of those were on throws.)
It was over.
But then, a strange thing happened. The Red Sox played magnificently down the stretch. It was as heroic as the collapse had been pitiful. They won 10 of their final 12 games, and the Yankees lost on the final day of the season, setting up a one-game sudden-death playoff for the American League East championship.
Mike Torrez would pitch for The Red Sox.
Personally, I would have rather seen just about any other member of the staff on the mound. I recalled, only too well, how Torrez had been kicked around by the Yankees back in September. Meanwhile, Ron Guidry was the pitcher for New York. He was 24 - 3 on the season, just an amazing year, and had shut out the Sox during the Massacre series.
Given the pitching match-up, I wasn't overly confident concerning the outcome. However, I wasn't down about our chances, either. The Sox had come from behind to force the playoff, and the Yanks had allowed them to do so. Anything could happen.
Half of New England probably called in sick that day, or left work early, in order to watch the game on TV. I was spectacularly unemployed at the time, so I had no such burden. I planned my entire day around the event. I had good snacks to munch on and my girlfriend would be coming over after the game. If the Sox won, there'd be partying in the streets. If they lost...
They couldn't lose. If there were justice in the world, the Sox would find a way to win. I hated those Yankees. I respected them, but I hated them. Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Mickey Rivers... hell, half the team were douchebags.
Enough. Here's what happened.
Mike Torrez walked Mickey Rivers to lead off the game. Rivers stole second base. It was exactly the start nobody in Boston wanted to see. After that, though, Torrez settled down and pitched a damn nice ballgame, allowing no runs for the first six innings.
For the Sox, Carl Yastrzemski hit a home run to lead off the second inning. 1 - 0, good guys.
Yastrzemski ("Yaz", to the faithful) was the longest-tenured of the Boston players. His career had begun in 1961, which was 17 years before this game. He was fairly much the reason why the Red Sox won the pennant in 1967, winning the triple crown in batting and getting a clutch hit every time one was needed. A magnificent fielder as well, Yaz was now 38 years old, just slightly slower, and he had to know this might be his last best shot at being on a team that could win the World Series. As usual, he was coming through when it mattered most.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Sox added another run. Shortstop Rick Burleson doubled, was sacrificed to third by Jerry Remy, and driven home on a single by Jim Rice. 2 - 0, Sox.
I wasn't jumping up and down, proclaiming victory, but I was feeling pretty good about things as they stood. Having a 2-run lead on Guidry, going into the seventh, was about as much as any Boston fan could have hoped for. The fact that Torrez was pitching a two-hit shutout? Icing on the cake.
Then came the seventh.
It started innocently enough. Graig Nettles flied to right. One out. Chris Chambliss singled. So did Roy White. The Yanks sent Jim Spencer up to bat for Brian Doyle. This represented real danger, as Spencer could easily pole one over the left field wall. He flied harmlessly to Yaz in left, though, and that brought Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent to the plate.
Dent was batting about .240 on the year. He was not considered a home run threat, by any means, having hit four on the season. In his previous two at-bats, he flied to right and popped to short. No batter is totally harmless, but the worst you might expect from Dent, considering his past history for the season and during the game, was a single, if that. More likely was an out.
Dent fouled a pitch off of his shin and went down in pain. While he was down, teammate Mickey Rivers, on-deck, saw that Dent's bat was cracked. He had a batboy bring Dent a new bat.
(Some uncharitable and bitter souls claim that Rivers gave Dent a corked bat. I refuse to buy into such nonsense. As much as I hate The Yankees, they deserve their respect. The Red Sox were not cheated.)
Dent hit a high fly ball to left. Yaz drifted back and looked up. He seemed to be preparing to catch it, but it kept going, aided by a strong wind, and landed in the net above the wall. As it did so, Yaz's knees perceptibly buckled. It was as though someone had told him of a loved one's death. Home run, Yankees. 3 to 2, Yankees.
Following that most improbable hit, Torrez walked Rivers again. Don Zimmer came out to get Torrez, replacing him with Bob Stanley. Rivers stole second, and Stanley gave up a double to Thurman Munson. 4 to 2.
Sox threatened slightly in their half of the inning, but Rich Gossage came on in relief for the Yanks. He finished them off in that inning.
Top of the 8th inning, Reggie Jackson leads off with a home run against Stanley. 5 to 2.
In the bottom of the eighth, the Sox came back with two runs. Remy doubled. With one out, Carl Yastrzemski came through in the clutch again! He singled Remy home. Fisk and Lynn followed with singles to make the score 5 - 4. However, Gossage got Butch Hobson and George Scott to end the inning.
In the top of the 9th, the Yankees didn't threaten. Dent struck out in the at-bat following his home run.
Bottom of the 9th. Season now on the line.
The game had mirrored the season as a whole. The Sox got out to the lead and held it until late. The Yankees shocked the Sox and took the lead. The Sox fought back almost as miraculously as the Yankees had.
With one out, and hopes fading, Rick Burleson drew a walk. Then, Jerry Remy (he had a great game, a fact almost nobody remembers now) singled to right. Lou Piniella, the Yankee rightfielder, totally lost sight of the ball. He deked Burleson, though, pretending he was able to make a catch. Burleson froze on the basepaths. Piniella stuck out his glove instinctively, where he knew the ball should be, and he grabbed the ball on the hop. Burleson only made it to second on Remy's single. Had Piniella not made that blind play, Burleson is at least on third base. He would have then scored on Rice's subsequent fly to right. As it was, though, Burleson was only able to tag and go to third.
The tying run was on third, the winning run on first, two out, bottom of the ninth. Now coming to the plate, the man every Red Sox fan in New England would have wanted to see in that situation - Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz. The Captain.
Gossage threw heat, Yaz hit heat. It would be power against power.
Yaz, the man who throughout his stellar career came through constantly in the clutch, swung at a Gossage heater and...
... hit a high pop-up in foul ground by third base. It took forever to come down into the glove of Graig Nettles. When it did, the Yankees had won, 5 - 4.
I sat on the couch, drained. The snacks had lost their taste. I wished now that my girlfriend wasn't coming over. I had desire to do nothing. I sighed, got up, and shut off the TV. I didn't need to see the Yankees celebrating. Even more, I didn't need to see Carl Yastrzemski with his head down, his bat held in his hand and dragging on the ground, knowing that he'd likely never get another shot at the big prize.
These were the two best teams in baseball that year. Fans from both cities knew that whichever team won this game likely would be the World Champion when all was said and done. And the Yankees did beat the Dodgers, 4 games to 2, in the World Series. It could just as easily have been the Red Sox beating the Dodgers, but, after 163 games of the regular season, the Yankees had been one run better than the Red Sox.
[Again, for a New York perspective, please visit Knucklehead. Come October 20th, Knucklehead and I will talk about a much more jolly time in Red Sox - Yankees history, the playoffs of 2004. Please come back then.]