Despite leading the American League Eastern division by 14 ½ games as late as mid-August, the summer of 1978 may go down in history as one of the most miserable in Boston Red Sox history.
Over the final six weeks of the regular season, the second-place Yankees would catch fire while the Red Sox watched the wheels fall off their seemingly impassable lead.
The two teams finished with identical 99-63 records, forcing a one-game playoff. On Monday, October 2 the surging Yankees and the white-knuckled Red Sox met at Fenway Park. A Red Sox win and all would be forgotten, the Boston Massacre, blowing a 14 ½ game lead, none of it would matter. A Sox lose and forever more the 1978 would be remembered as the year the Red Sox choked – again.
So, let’s cut right to the chase, get right to the drama.
The Red Sox led the Yankees 4-2 in the seventh inning. Fenway Park was buzzing with excitement. The Sox were nine outs away from knocking off the hated Yankees. With two men out, two men on base in the New York seventh, Bucky Dent stepped up. The light-hitting Yankee shortstop was batting .243.
After fouling the second pitch off his shin, Dent called time and the Yankees trainer moved in to take a closer look. The delay slowed Mike Torrez’ momentum.
“I lost some of my concentration during the delay,” he said years later in an article written by Jonathan Schwartz for the book Baseball: A Literary Anthology. “It was about four minutes, but it felt like an hour. I had thought that they’d pinch-hit for Dent with maybe Jay Johnstone or Cliff Johnson … I just wanted to get going. During the delay, I thought slider on the next pitch. But Fisk and me were working so well together, I went along with his call for a fastball.”
Dent turned on the Torrez pitch and launched a towering fly ball to left field.
“When I hit the ball, I knew that I had hit it high enough to hit the wall,” Dent said. “But there were shadows on the net behind the wall and I didn’t see the ball land there. I didn’t know I had hit a homer until I saw the umpire at first signaling home run with his hand. I couldn’t believe it.”
At first, Torrez thought Carl Yastrzemski had a beat on it. The Sox left fielder was patting his glove as he raced back to the Green Monster. Torrez began to walk off the mound. Then, the ball hit the net above the fence. Home run. The ballpark went silent, except for the Yankees dugout.
The stunned Red Sox fans were so quiet, the broadcast booth microphones had picked up the clapping, howling and laughter coming from the Yankees dugout, making it audible to television viewers watching across the country.
The Red Sox mounted a comeback in the ninth off Rich Gossage. After a walk to shortstop Rick Burleson, Jerry Remy hit a soft liner to right. Yankees right fielder Lou Piniella lost the ball in the sun, but he still got it on one bounce and kept Burleson from going to third. Jim Rice flied to right and Burleson advanced to third. Two outs, two on, tying run on third base and Yastrzemski at bat.
“I went to bed the night before thinking about coming into the game,” Gossage said in retrospect. “I thought I might be facing Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski) with the game on the line. It’s not that Yaz gave me much more trouble than any other hitter. I thought about facing him because he was such a great clutch hitter.”
Gossage said he began talking to himself on the mound. “Why are you so nervous? This is supposed to be fun. What’s the worst thing that could happen? If you lose, you’ll be back home in Colorado hunting elk.”
Gossage wasn’t the only nervous person in Fenway at that moment. One Boston writer said, prior to the game, in the Red Sox clubhouse, Yastrzemski told him he was “damned scared.”
The count went 1-0 on Yastrzemski. Then, Gossage threw the Sox veteran a fastball right down the middle. The pitch tailed in, jamming the left-handed Yastrzemski. He popped the ball up to third base for the third out.
Final score: Yankees 5, Red Sox 4.
The misery continued for Boston and their fans while the weight of the world was lifted off Gossage.
The Yankees retreated to the clubhouse to celebrate. Gossage remembers, “I went into the trainer’s loom to catch my breath for a minute, and Thurman [Munson] came in and said, “Where did you get that last pitch? It had another foot on it.” It happened because I finally relaxed on the mound.”
The Boston clubhouse was quiet, stunned. Don Zimmer, then the Red Sox manager, shook his head and mumbled to himself, “Bucky FU!&$*%! Dent.”
“Looking back at it, it was a lot of fun and I was glad to be a part of it,” said Torrez in a 2005 interview with the Boston Globe. “You wanted to beat the Yankees so bad when I was with the Red Sox and when I was with the Yankees we wanted to beat the Red Sox so bad. With all the talk and the media it builds up as a player and you want to do well against the Red Sox or the Yankees depending which team you are on.”