And depending on who you rooted for that day, the name “Bucky Dent” will either bring a smile to your face or a grimace. It was Dent’s improbable three-run homer that erased a 2-0 Boston lead in the seventh inning, and the Yankees would hold on to win 5-4 to capture the American League East title and clinch a spot against Kansas City in the ALCS.
“It was a ball that everyone thought was going to be caught, a nothing kind of hit,” Leigh Montville told fellow author Harvey Frommer.
“Give this to Bucky,” Rivers said, quoted in a New York Times story about the game. “Tell him there are lots of hits in it.
“He’ll get a home run.”
That sounds almost unbelievable. But then again, the 1978 season had some unbelievable twists.
The 1978 Red Sox got off to a great start and at one point held a 10-game lead in the A.L. East over Milwaukee. New York was as far back as 14 games in July. The Yankees had stumbled under the mercurial Billy Martin, who was fired in mid-July and was replaced by Bob Lemon.
Both teams had placed five players on the All-Star team— Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn and Rick Burleson were the Red Sox representatives; the Yankees sent Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Thurman Munson and Graig Nettles to the midseason classic.
The Yankees caught fire after the managerial change, going 48-20 under Lemon (a .706 clip). The Red Sox, meanwhile, went 38-36 over their last 74 games. The two teams met in early September in what has been dubbed “The Boston Massacre” by sportswriters. The Yankees outscored the Red Sox 42-9 during that four-game sweep, and the two teams were suddenly tied.
The Yankees then took over first place, but the Red Sox caught fire again, winning 12 of their last 14 regular-season games (including eight in a row).
A coin flip had been taken before the end of the season in anticipation of a tie, and the Red Sox won. The playoff game would be played at Fenway, and Torrez — who pitched for the Yankees in 1977 — would square off against Ron Guidry, who entered the game with a 24-3 record.
With one out in the seventh, Chris Chambliss and Roy White singled. But Torrez got pinch-hitter Jim Spencer to fly out, bringing up Dent.
Dent, who only had four homers to that point, lofted a pitch from Torrez over the Green Monster in left field to stun the Red Sox and the Fenway crowd.
Yastrzemski could only watch helplessly as the ball barely cleared the wall and settled into the net.
"I've always loved Fenway Park. But that was the one moment I hated the place, the one moment the wall got back at us," Yastrzemski told Frommer. "I still can't believe it went in the net."
It was needed. Boston scored two runs off Gossage in the eighth to cut the deficit to 5-4, and had a chance to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.
The Red Sox were thwarted by the heady play of Yankees right fielder Lou Piniella. With Burleson on first base with one out, Jerry Remy scorched a line drive to right field. Piniella was blinded by the late afternoon sun and could not find the ball, but casually pounded his glove as if he were about to make a routine catch.
Burleson had to wait, but the ball dropped next to Piniella, who stabbed at it on one hop, preventing the ball from rolling to the fence. Burleson could only advance to second. He went to third on Rice’s long fly out, but was stranded there when Yastrzemski popped up a Gossage fastball to Nettles at third to end the game. It was Gossage’s 27th save of the season.
The game featured seven players who would be elected to the Hall of Fame — Jackson, Gossage and Catfish Hunter for New York; and Yastrzemski, Rice, Fisk and Eckersley for Boston.
Associated Press columnist Walter Mears told the story that fall about House of Representatives Speaker Tip O’Neill going to Rome to visit the pope. When O’Neill returned, he found himself at a function with Yastrzemski and told him the pope had mentioned him in conversation.
Yastrzemski, of course, wanted to know what was said.
“Tip, how the heck could Yastrzemski pop out in the last of the ninth with the tying run on third?" O’Neill quoted the Holy Father.
I’m not sure that conversation actually took place, but it sums up the frustration felt by Red Sox fans 37 years ago today.