Monday, September 21, 2009
Collision Course: Red Sox versus Yankees
It has been said that those who forget the past will somehow always be re-living it, or words to that effect. Here we are in 2009 - and it's 1978 all over again on the playing field of baseball's greatest rivalry - -without some of the old time sizzle.
In 1976, the New York Yankees finished the season with a 97-62 record and won the American League East title. The Red Sox of Boston finished in third place, 15 ½ games behind. In 1977, the Yankees won 100 of the 162 games they played and repeated as division title winners. Boston won 97 games and tied for second place with Baltimore. Both teams trailed the Yankees by 2 ½ games.
It was during these two seasons that more and more Yankee fans began to sport "Red Sox Suck" tee shirts. And it was during this time that Yankee principal owner George Steinbrenner kept wheeling and dealing, embellishing the Yankee image, his team's skills and the Red Sox failings.
The start of the 1978 season gave Boston fans hope. Over the winter the team engineered several key moves to strengthen itself. Mike Torrez, winner of two World Series games for the Yankees in 1977, was signed as a free agent. Dennis Eckersley, just 23, was acquired from the Cleveland Indians. It was felt that the combination of the veteran Torrez and the youthful Eckersley would shore up Sox pitching. Another key Boston acquisition was Jerry Remy, a sure-handed speedy second baseman obtained from the California Angels. Remy's promise was added speed on the base path and an effective contact hitter near the top of the Boston batting order.
With Remy at second base and Rick Burleson at shortstop, Boston fans felt their team had a double-play combination to rival if not surpass the Yankee tandem of Bucky Dent and Willie Randolph. George Scott, the Sox first baseman, had recorded 33 homers in 1977 -- almost twice the total of Yankee first baseman Chris Chambliss. Slugging Butch Hobson was a fixture at third base. Nettles of New York was peerless with a glove, but Sox fans argued that Hobson outmatched the Yankee third baseman when it came to hitting. Hobson had rapped 30 homers and driven in 112 run in 1977.
Both teams boasted top-flight catchers. Most baseball experts rated Boston's Carlton Fisk and New York's Thurman Munson among the two best backstops in all of baseball.
Both teams had powerful clutch-hitting outfielders, capable of making crucial defensive plays. Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, and Fred Lynn would be Boston's picket line, augmented by perhaps the best potential designated hitter in all of baseball -Jim Rice. The Yankees had steady Roy White, flamboyant Mickey Rivers, and dramatic Reggie Jackson, buttressed by Paul Blair, Lou Piniella, and, if needed, Cliff Johnson.
If there was a difference, it was in pitching. Over the winter George Steinbrenner had signed Rich Gossage, Rawly Eastwick, and Andy Messersmith. This trio joined Catfish Hunter, Don Gullett, Sparky Lyle, and Ed Figueroa, Ken Holtzman, Dick Tidrow, and Ron Guidry (16-7 in 1977 and getting better, much better).
Against this array of all types of pitching talent, Boston had its Latin duo of Luis Tiant and Mike Torrez, Eckersley, Bill Lee, and Bob Stanley. Bill Campbell had saved 31 games in 1977, and it was felt that he could repeat that performance in 1978.
Seven straight wins at Fenway Park launched Boston on a fine start as the season got underway. By May 18th, the Yankees (19-13) trailed the second-place Sox (23-12) who were a half-game behind the surprising first-place Detroit Tigers. On May 24th, the Sox moved into sole possession of first place. They would remain there for 113 days, to the delight of their adoring and rabid fans.
At the All-Star break, powered by a combination of good pitching and power hitting, Boston had a record of 57 wins against just 26 losses $F6 a .687 winning percentage, the best in baseball. More enjoyable to some Red Sox fans was the record of the New York Yankees. The hated rivals were mired in third place, way back off the pace.
"George came into the clubhouse one day," Reggie Jackson recalled, "and said 'I'm going to back up the truck and get rid of all you guys, everybody, if we don't get it turned around.' It was an unbelievable tirade. Whether that motivated us or not, I don't know. I think it made us mad. George yelled at us. Told us we were terrible, that he was going to break up the club and nobody was above being traded."
Emanating daily from New York was news of controversy, sore-armed pitchers, bruised infielders, battered egos, unhappy coaches. In Boston, for a change, there was relative harmony.
On July 18th, the Sox stretched their lead over the Yanks to 14 games. "Even Affirmed couldn't catch the Red Sox now," snapped Reggie Jackson, referring to the horse that had won the 1978 Triple Crown.
Affirmed is long gone and so are the motor mouthings of Reggie Jackson. And this last weekend of September 2009 on a collision course the Yankees of New York and the Red Sox of Boston meet at Yankee Stadium - - a lot is on the line.
Harvey Frommer is his 33rd consecutive year of writing sports books. The author of 40 of them including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM, an oral/narrative history (Abrams, Stewart, Tabori and Chang) was published in 2008 as well as a reprint version of his classic "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball." The prolific Frommer is at work on REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK (2010).
Frommer sports books are available direct from the author - discounted and autographed.
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