Yankees look to break Red Sox hearts again 40 years after historic 1978 comeback
It seems quite fitting that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will square off in the American League Division Series yet again in the 40th-anniversary season of one the greatest pennant races in Major League Baseball history – the 1978 nail-biter known as “The Boston Massacre.”
That year, the Yankees were 14 games out and in fourth place in the AL Eastern Division in mid-July before they began an epic comeback that produced the 22nd of the franchise’s 27 world titles.
On Aug. 6, 1978, the Red Sox held a comfortable 7-game lead in the division and, one week later, had stretched that to 9 games. But because both teams finished with 99-63 marks after 162 games, the 1978 season ended with a dramatic one-game playoff highlighted by a famous – or infamous depending on your point of view – three-run homer by light-hitting Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent off Red Sox starter Mike Torrez.
This year, on Aug. 6, the day after the Red Sox had swept the Yankees four straight in a key weekend series in Fenway Park, their lead stood at 9 ½ games. The similarities in seasons at that point in early August might have been enough to produce some nightmarish 40-year-old flashbacks for Boston fans. For a while, at least for few fleeting moments in the dog days of summer, it looked like 2018 season could shape up to be 1978 all over again. But the Red Sox eventually cruised to this year’s division title in record-setting fashion. They won a franchise record 108 games, surpassed 100 wins in a season for the first time since 1946 and finished 8 games ahead of the Yankees.
As the Yankees Turn
The 1978 season was a soap opera for the Yankees, who went on to beat the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series (ALCS) and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
Perhaps the most amazing storyline was ongoing turmoil between owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin and outfielder Reggie Jackson. The trio bickered throughout the early part of the year, and in Martin and Jackson’s case actually came to blows. That unrest resulted in Martin trying to suspend Jackson for the season in mid-July after an incident against Kansas City.
The front office, aka Steinbrenner, reduced the suspension to five games, which led to Martin saying of his superstar and his boss, “one’s a born liar and the other is convicted.” One week later, despite riding a five-game winning streak and standing at 52-42 on the season, Martin resigned, and Bob Lemon took over as Yankee manager.
Nothing was more made-for-television than Dent’s three-run shot that barely cleared Fenway Park’s “Green Monster” in the seventh inning of the playoff game on Oct. 2, 1978, a blast that came with a bat borrowed from teammate Mickey Rivers. “So, before the game, Mickey and I were standing by the batting cage, and I said, ‘Let me use your bat in batting practice,’” Dent recalled in a 2016 Yankees Magazine story. “I took his bat and started hitting, and I thought I had a pretty good batting practice. When the game started, I asked Mickey if I could use his bat during the game because it felt pretty good.”
Dent, who had only 40 homers in a 12-year MLB career and only five total in 1978, had come into the game struggling, with only eight hits in his previous 51 at bats. Not surprisingly, Lemon batted him ninth that day. He popped up in his first two at-bats then when he came up in the seventh fouled the second pitch off his foot, which swelled immediately and required trainer Gene Monahan to spray it to numb it up. That’s when fate –and a helpful teammate –intervened.
“As I was walking back to the batter’s box, Mickey noticed that the bat that I had been using was cracked,” Dent said in the Yankee Magazine story. “So, he yelled, ‘Hey, Homie, you’ve got the wrong bat.’ But I was in so much pain that I didn’t even hear him. The next thing I know, the bat boy comes up to me, takes one bat out of my hand and gives me a new bat. Apparently, he also delivered a message from Mickey, who told him to tell me that I was going to hit a home run with the new bat, but I wasn’t paying attention to anything he was saying. The last thing I was thinking about was hitting a home run. I was just trying to get ready for the next pitch.”
Torrez tried to run that pitch in on Dent, but it leaked out over the plate and the rest, as they say, is history.
“”You know you dream about things like that when you’re a kid,” Dent said, according to the next day’s New York Times. “Well, my dream came true.”
It was a dream season for Yankee left-hander Ron Guidry, who won the AL Cy Young by unanimous vote after posting a 25-3 record, 243 strikeouts in 273 2/3 innings, a 1.74 earned run average, nine shutouts and an amazing 16 complete games. Closer Rich “Goose” Gossage was honored as the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year after posting a 10-11 record, 27 saves and 122 strikeouts in 134 innings pitch. And through all the turmoil, Jackson produced 27 homers, 97 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 139 games.
The Red Sox had plenty of stars as well, with Jim Rice winning AL Most Valuable Player honors after leading the league in hits (213), homers (46) and RBIs (139) and four starters – Dennis Eckersley, Torrez, Luis Tiant and Bill Lee – posted double-digit win totals.
Red Sox/Yankees 2018 ALDS
The statistical similarities are much the same in 2018 on both sides.
For the Red Sox, designated hitter J.D. Martinez made a serious run at the Triple Crown with 43 homers, 130 RBIs and a .330 batting average yet may not win the AL Most Valuable Player because his teammate Mookie Betts posted 32 homers, 80 RBIs, batted an MLB-best .346, scored 129 runs and stole 30 bases.
On the mound, Chris Sale was 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA, an .88 WHIP and 237 strikeouts in 158 innings pitched. And for good measure, closer Craig Kimbrel was his usual lights-out self on the back end with a 5-1 record, an AL-leading 42 saves and 96 Ks in 62.1 innings pitched.
For the Yankees, outfielders Giancarlo Stanton struggled at times in his first season in The Bronx yet still posted 38 homers, 100 RBIs and scored 102 runs. Superstar Aaron Judge missed 50 games after suffering a broken wrist when hit by a pitch, yet still put up 27 homers, scored 77 runs and had an on-base percentage of .392. And despite bouts of inconsistency at times, right-hander Luis Severino was the Yanks’ ace, winning 19 games – second-most in the Majors – and striking out 220 batters in 191.1 innings pitched.
Aside from the 1978 playoff game, the two teams have met three times previously in the playoffs (the 1999, 2003 and 2004 AL Championship Series) and all could be considered classics in different ways. The Yankees won the 1999 ALCS 4-1 and the 2003 ALCS 4-3 while Boston took the 2004 matchup 4-3. New York defeated the Atlanta Braves in the 1999 World Series but lost to the Florida Marlins in 2003. Boston defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2004 World Series.
From all appearances the fourth playoff series between these two storied franchises shapes up as another classic, and for Red Sox fans at least, the potential for a classic collapse even more disappointing than “The Boston Massacre” certainly exists as well. H&A
Cover photo: “Reggie Powering One” by Jim Accordino
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