Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Boston Massacre (1978)

This is part 5 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: The Tear-Stained Quarter (1978)

On July 19, 1978, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 14 games for the AL East lead. It wasn't so much that the Yanks were having a horrible year—they were 48-42 (.533)—but the Sox were 62-28 (.689). Over the next month and a half, New York went 34-14 (.708), while Boston played .500 ball (24-24), setting up a September 7-10 four-game showdown at Fenway.

What happened next is what's commonly referred to as "The Boston Massacre." The Yankees beat the Red Sox 15-3, 13-2, 7-0 and 7-4 to pull into a tie for first place. What I've always found interesting is, when shows like ESPN Classic have used images to recount this series, they've commonly shown the manual scoreboard operator at Fenway posting the Yankees' 17th hit in the final game of the series. Despite the fact that they outhit the Red Sox 18-5 in that game, the final score didn't do justice to the Boston Massacre moniker.

The following weekend, the Yanks won the first two games of a three-game set to take a 3 1/2 game lead over the Sox. So, what a lot of people don't remember is it was the Red Sox who went 12-2 to overcome that deficit over the last two weeks of the season. The Yankees didn't exactly roll over and play dead, but 9-6 wasn't quite good enough.

I recall the final day of that season, playing Strat-O-Matic Football with my next door neighbor Brian and watching the Yankees lose 9-2 to Cleveland, while Luis Tiant was pitching a two-hit shutout over Toronto to force the most famous one-game playoff in baseball history.

The October 2, 1978 game began at 2:30 in the afternoon, and the Yankees trailed 1-0 when this particular 6th-grader returned home and immediately tuned in to the game. The Sox added another run in the 6th, and it wasn't looking good as my team trailed 2-0 going into the final three innings.

What happened next, of course, is history. In the top of the 7th, Chris Chambliss and Roy White added the Yanks' third and fourth hits of the game. But, their at bats were sandwiched between flyouts by Graig Nettles and Jim Spencer, the latter pinch-hitting for Brian Doyle, who was playing in place of the injured Willie Randolph.

Having used up their best longball threat off the bench, and not in a position to pinch hit for both of their middle infielders, Yankees manager Bob Lemon was forced to allow ninth-place hitter Bucky Dent to bat. Dent batted .243 with an anemic .603 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) that season. I'm not sure where the latter statistic ranked him league-wide, but in recent years, that number would have placed at or near the bottom of all regular position players.

I probably wasn't the only fan watching who wanted Lemon to figure out some way to give us a little more firepower at the plate than Dent. Then, when Bucky meekly fouled a pitch off his left instep, optimism wasn't riding high. According to legend, on-deck batter Mickey Rivers had the bat boy take Dent one of his bats after the one he was using was broken in the process.

One pitch later, I can still replay in my mind the understated call of Yankees broadcaster and future National League President Bill White: "Deep to left! Yastrzemski...will not get it, it's a home run!" It was as if even he didn't believe it until the ball had barely cleared the Green Monster. I know my reaction wasn't understated, as this is my earliest memory of the type of overly exuberant reaction that only a real sports fan can understand.

The Yankees added another run that inning, and one more in the 8th, to lead 5-2. Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage was already on for a 2+ inning save. He gave up two runs in the process, but was able to get Carl Yastrzemski to pop out to Nettles at third to seal the victory, and complete the greatest regular season comeback in American League history.

Next: Ode to Ron Guidry (1978)

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