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Here’s part one of My Five Most Memorable New York Sports Minutes. Like it’s evil stepsister, my cherished moments came when I was younger, and for me, winning the title has always been anti-climatic to actually getting there. This is number one.
1978 Yankees and What the Wildcard Deprives
For all of you who know nothing, but wildcards and three rounds of baseball playoffs, you have no idea. MLB’s version of everyone gets a trophy has deprived us of real live pennant races.
Back then, there was no consolation prize, and a second place team’s chances of getting back were quite removed from today’s near miss. So the stakes as seasons dwindled down were elevated in the extreme and really made every day a playoff game.
Throw in a 163rd game and you have the 1978 Yankees. Coming off the 1977 championship season, we expected nothing less.
Red Sox Take Command
Of course, the Red Sox had a pretty strong claim, too. Thrilling the country in the 1975 World Series, these Red Sox picked up where game six left off, and jumping out to a 14 game lead, the ghosts of 1918 seemed ready abdicate.
On July 17, Yankee's loss to the Royals should have signaled an official surrender and a matching head stone to go with it. Leading 5-3 in the ninth with two outs, Mickey Rivers and Thurman Munson collided in the outfield, and an inside the park home run led to an 11 inning defeat.
A telling statement of a season gone wrong, the damage would have been much worse without Ron Guidry. Gator’s 18 strike out performance in June, among the mastery of a 25-3 season, demanded hope, and had many of us refusing to give up.
The Way Back Begins
As it were, a little Yankee drama provided the spark. Reggie laid down a bunt against orders, and soon enough, “one’s a born liar and the other is convicted.”
The drunken outburst directed against Jackson and Steinbrenner meant that Billy Martin’s days were numbered. A huge deal, because the most popular player on the 78 Yankees was their manager. So for five games, the Yankee Stadium crowd sat in trepidation, and when number one delivered the lineup card, each crowd erupted into standing ovations.
The Yankees rode the inspiration to five straight wins, but four games knocked off the lead was not enough to save Martin. The ghosts, on the other hand, were once again getting their dues in Boston. The lead shrunk to six and a half games, and a two game August 2 series in New York had Beantown starring down midnight.
Conversely, this was old hat for us and jumping out to a five run lead in game one, the collapse seemed on. But these socks could shed blood, too without succumbing. They battled back, won in 17 and cruised to an 8-1 win the next night.
An imminent 4.5 game lead was suddenly 8.5, and on the next night, our sure thing lost for only the second time . Things look bad and the curse seemed to be working in reverse on August 13.
Down 3-0 in the bottom of the sixth to Baltimore, the Yankees scored five in the top of the seventh, but nature applied the hex this time. The rains came and didn’t stop until the Yankee's top half was washed away.
The retroactive 3-0 loss left the Yankees nine games out, and the miracles seemed to belong to our forefathers. The 78 Yankees would have no part of it, though, and 11 out of 13 wins followed.
Back on Track and the Boston Massacre
Still, six in the loss column was a pretty good chunk of currency, but the Yankees did have one advantage. The newspaper strike gave the 78 team a little extra cover. Had they faced an angry press on a daily basis, this would not have ended well.
Of course, the Red Sox did not enjoy the same amenity and when the Yankees rolled into Fenway Park for a four game series, the mathematics aligned with the stars. Four games out, the stage for the Boston Massacre was set.
The Yankees didn’t wait around to fire the first volley either. In game one, both Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph were three for three before ninth place hitter Butch Hobson got an at bat.
If there were seats above the Green Monster then, Rawlings might not have been the only thing landing on the Boston pavement. The Yankees rode the 42-9 onslaught to a 3.5 game lead and another horrific chapter seemed written in Red Sox lore.
Red Sox on the Comeback Trail
But this was as worthy an opponent as the ’49 Red Sox that our fathers told us about. Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Dennis Eckersley—and the patron saint of Rex Sox pain—Carl Yastrzemski.
An eight game winning streak left the powerhouses in a dead heat, and Ron Guidry on the mound for game 163 was far from a given. On two days rest, our infallible ace was all too human, and a second inning solo shot by Yaz said as much.
Adding a run in the sixth, the Sox were nine outs away. But, beware a Bucky Dent fouling the ball off his foot. Roy White and Chris Chambliss on with none out, a middle name starting with “F” was soon to be had.
One Game Glory and Greatest Preserved
“Hit deep to right,” Bill White’s excited pitch still sings like a dream and silenced Fenway in familiar disbelief. Adding to the misery, Reggie Jackson seemed to put the final touch on the nightmare with a solo shot in the eight. But once again, these Red Sox stood tall, and the ending mirrored the season.
After falling behind, the Yankees storm back, and like the Red Sox heroics that force a tie, destiny awaited. Unfortunately, for the home team, Lou Pinella’s miracle play in left put the prescience exactly where Red Sox fans always knew it to be.
Losing Rick Burleson’s single to right in the sun, Sweet Lou made a last second stab in the dark and held the runners. So instead of Jim Rice’s fly ball tying the score, the only showdown possible was left at hand.
Two out, two on, Gossage on the mound and Yaz at the plate—a single wins the pennant. Could history ask for anything more?
I’m sorry, but this is the greatest game ever played, and when the loser is relegated back to the abyss of trying to win a seven team division, the drama played out in spades.
So not only did Yaz’s popup crush all of Boston, but the loss provided a parade of pallbearers, which dispersed this great team to the wind. Lynn, Fisk, Tiant, Burleson and Hobson were all victims of Thomas Yawkey’s miserly ways.
As for Yankee fans, how lucky are we that today’s expanded playoff system didn’t dilute the greatness of this team and the moment.
1976 and 1977 victories over KC are next.
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