By Marty Appel
For a long period in 1978, as spring wound into summer, Yankee fans were beginning to accept the fact that ’78 was going to be a Red Sox year.
A lot of baseball writers were saying that the ’78 Bosox, under Don Zimmer, were one of the elite teams of all times, certainly of Boston history, and that the defending world champion Yankees, just weren’t their equal that year.
That, of course, was just the kind of stuff that got the fiery Yankees of that era angry with the press. For pure competitiveness, it was hard to match the Yankees of the mid ‘’70s. The attitude was crafted by the unforgiving captain, Thurman Munson, who would never take second place easily.
And so the players didn’t like the media, and frankly, the media didn’t care much for the players. The team was full of distractions – internal feuding, battles with management, the continuing saga of manager Billy Martin and superstar outfielder Reggie Jackson, two closers who wanted the ball, and much more. In fact, the writers could never zip closed their blue Olivetti typewriters when the game story had been filed. It seemed there was always some other point of drama about to develop, as the night grew long.
But if the Yankees were struggling on and off the field, and if the Red Sox were pulling away, someone forgot to tell pitchers Ron Guidry and Ed Figueroa. Figgy was on his way to becoming the first Puerto Rican-born big leaguer to win 20 games, and Guidry, well, he was the first Earth-born big leaguer to put up the numbers he was logging.
That Guidry was so dominant was, for a time, not especially noticed. Gator was not one who drew much notice in the past; he just went about his business and was the skinniest guy in the team photo. Other than that, it was hard to see what was coming. He didn’t make news off the field, he just went out every fourth day and won.
He opened the year 13-0, a club record, and on June 17 made everyone sit up and notice that he was going to dominate the year as no pitcher ever had. That night, he fanned 18 California Angels hitters, creating such excitement that deep into the game, the fans began to rise when there were two strikes on a batter, knowing they would be cheering the third one in a moment. The practice, born that night, continues to this day, but no one has matched his 18 K evening in Yankee annals.
Guidry was on his way to 248 strikeouts, nine shutouts, a 25-3 won-lost record, a 1.74 ERA, and 16 complete games, even with Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage in the bullpen if needed. They weren’t.
Still, it was a Boston summer. This was, one must understand, not really long into what we now know as the great Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. Because the Sox had been so mediocre through the ‘50s and into the mid ‘60s, and then the Yankees had hit a dark patch from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, it was not unusual to see crowds of 16,000 or so at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park in those years. But both teams were finally good at the same time, beginning in 1976. And now, the rivalry we know today, was finally ignited.
The Sox biggest lead of the summer had been 14 games, seemingly insurmountable in the days before wild card playoff opportunities. In July, things really went south in Yankeeland. Martin suspended Jackson when Reggie ignored a bunt sign from his manager – each one seemingly looking to show up the other. It was ugly. And the pressure finally got to Battlin’ Billy in Kansas City, en route home from that heated road trip, when he resigned from the only job he ever wanted, that of Yankees manager.
The comeback, as it was, actually began in those final days of Billy. He left with the team on a five game winning streak, the Boston lead having shrunk to ten. But the other part of the comeback had a lot to do with the hiring of Bob Lemon as Billy’s successor. Lem had just been sacked as manager of the White Sox; the timing was perfect.
Lemon, one of the most well-liked figures in the game, had never had a post-career to match his pitching career with the Indians. Although well respected for his leadership skills, his integrity, and his ‘let ‘em play’ attitude, he had only been a minor league manager and major league coach in some 20 years since his retirement. He had in fact, been Martin’s pitching coach in the A.L. championship season of 1976, the year of his Hall of Fame election. Now, he was seen as the man to steady the ship of state, to guide the defending champions if they were going to make a run at it.
“Seems to me you guys are world champions and know how to play the game,” he told his veteran team. “So go out and play.”
It was just what was needed. The well-crafted team began to click. Injuries healed, while in Boston, injuries, always part of the game, began to occur.
Some loved to call the Yankees the “best team money could buy,” because of their free agent signings of Jackson, Gossage, and Catfish Hunter. But the reality was, this was a team brilliantly put together in the Yankees front office. By trades, over the years, came Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent, Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers, Lou Piniella, Dick Tidrow, Lyle, and Figueroa. Home grown were Munson, Guidry, and the steady Roy White. They had one thing in common – they were pros. They would not succumb to pressure. They’d been there. All they wanted was to get close enough to have a shot.
The shot came with a four-game trip to Fenway Park beginning on September 7. They had cut the lead to four. It was officially a good old-fashioned pennant race. Of course, if the home team Sox could win three of the four they would emerge with a six game lead and make it pretty tough to catch them.
The Yankees didn’t read that script. Couldn’t have, in fact, because the New York newspapers were shut down, hit by a strike. Some felt there could have been a direct connection with the team’s improved play, and the lack of off- the-field controversy to read about in the morning’s journals.
Let the record show that the Yankees not only swept the Sox, they did it by a combined 42-9 score. “The Boston Massacre”, it was called, and the teams came away tied for first. And the Yankees continued to build on that glory, building up a 3 ½ game lead with 15 to play.
But the Red Sox would not fold. Zimmer was a skilled manager, and he kept his team on course, even with fans howling about the 14-game lead having been blown. They cut the Yankee lead to one, then both teams won six straight. On the final day of the season, the Yanks still had a one-game lead – but they lost to Cleveland, while the Red Sox won, resulting in a tie for first, and a one-game playoff in Boston (a coin toss decided that), on Monday, October 2.
Was there ever a better day of baseball? Giants’ fans will recall that October playoff day in 1951 when Bobby Thomson beat Brooklyn. Great rivalry, sensational game – but, it was the third game of a 3-game playoff. This one, on a sunny day in Fenway, was a one-game, winner take all. And on short rest, the Yankees handed the ball to their ace, Ron Guidry. If Athens was facing Sparta for the world championship in 490 B.C., are you going to hand the ball to anyone but your best, short rest or not?
For Boston, it was Mike Torrez, who just the year before had worn the Yankee uniform. And in the early going, Torrez was better. Better until the seventh at least, when Dent came up and hit a home run over the Green Monster that, to Red Sox fans, still hasn’t come down. It remains the defining moment of the rivalry, a home run for the ages, by the most unlikely of sluggers.
And the Yankees won the ballgame, and won the Eastern Division championship. And for the third straight year, they knocked off the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS to win their 32nd American League pennant. They then completed the greatest comeback of the 20th century by overcoming a 2-0 deficit at the hands of the Dodgers – another old rival, by beating them in six games. How appropriate it was that it took a comeback to win it.
It’s been a quarter century. Hunter and Munson, Martin and Lemon are gone; a lot of hair has turned to gray. But in the annals of Yankee history, few seasons could touch the day-to-day drama the 1978 team provided, when adversity turned to triumph.