The sun blazed brightly as I scurried out of the schoolyard and ran the quarter mile home, futilely readjusting my bookbag, wiping streams of sweat away from my eyes, and gasping for air as I reached the back door of my home.
It was Oct. 2, 1978, and a one-game playoff between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, with a trip to the American League Championship Series hanging in the balance, was getting underway 30 miles away at Fenway Park.
Like any 13-year-old kid living in the Boston area, I lived and breathed Boston sports: the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and, to a far lesser extent, the Patriots. Let’s face it: with only seven winning seasons in their first 18 years of existence, the Patriots sucked.
But the Bruins and Celtics were juggernauts in the 1970s. From 1970-78, the Bruins won two Stanley Cups in five trips to the finals while the Celtics, before hitting the skids in the 1977-78 season, won two NBA championships and reached the Eastern Conference finals three other times.
And then there was the Red Sox, a team that had come tantalizing close to ending a 57-year championship drought in 1975, losing a heartbreaking seven-game World Series to the heavily favored Cincinnati Reds. It was considered by many to be the best World Series ever played, with Sox catcher Carlton Fisk’s game-winning home run in Game 6 arguably the most dramatic in baseball history. But the Reds overcame an early 3-0 lead in Game 7 and, bolstered by Joe Morgan’s tiebreaking RBI single in the top of the ninth and Will McEnaney’s 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth, walked off the Fenway lawn with the first of their two straight World Series crowns.
Boston finished second to the Yankees in 1976 and ’77 then built a 14-game lead over the Yankees midway through July in 1978. At last, the Sox seemed to be headed back to the playoffs until the Yankees went on a tear – and the Sox went into a tailspin – catching Boston in the regular season’s final weekend and forcing the one-game playoff at Fenway.
It was all anyone at school was talking about. Even the teachers barely seemed able to keep their minds focused on the day’s lessons. As the bell rang, I scampered out of the building and waited impatiently for the crossing guard to step off the curb and halt traffic. “C’mon’ c’mon, c’mon! What the hell are you waiting for? The game’s already started,” I said to myself. No traffic light in the history of mankind took longer to turn red than that one did that afternoon.
As the crossing guard raised her silly little stop sign and walked toward the middle of the street, I broke into a full sprint so I could get home before the Sox came up in the bottom of the first.
My stomach churned with anticipation and nerves until Carl Yastrzemski homered in the second inning and Jim Rice hit an RBI single in the sixth to give Boston a 2-0 lead. We got this.
Red Sox starter Mike Torrez was humming along, pitching six shutout innings until running into trouble in the seventh. Chris Chambliss and Roy White stroked back-to-back, one-out singles and, after getting pinch hitter Jim Spenser to fly out for the second out, up stepped light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent.
Dent was in his second season with the Yankees, having come over from the White Sox in a trade early in the 1977 season that sent outfielder Oscar Gamble and pitcher LaMarr Hoyt to Chicago. Entering the game he’d had just 22 homers total in his first five major league seasons, but Dent was a better defensive shortstop than Fred Stanley and helped solidify the defending World Series champion’s infield.
Dent had flown out and grounded out in his first two at-bats and seemed to have killed the Yankees’ rally when he lofted a high fly ball to left. Yastrzemski seemed to be camped under it but it just kept carrying and carrying until it nestled softly into the net atop the 37-foot high Green Monster, giving the Yankees a 4-2 lead. It was a devastating gut-punch that was so overwhelming that the world seemed to fall silent – except for the steady stream of expletives coming from my neighbor’s house.
Reggie Jackson added a solo homer in the eighth to make it 5-2 but the Sox pulled within 5-4 with two runs in the bottom of the eighth on RBI singles by Yastrzemski and outfielder Fred Lynn. Hope still had a pulse.
Boston had two men on with two outs in the ninth when Yastrzemski stepped to the plate. He’d been clutch all game. Could Yaz come through again? Yankees closer Goose Gossage had come on in the seventh, replacing starter Ron Guidry, but didn’t seem to be his usual dominant self, having given up the two runs in the eighth.
This is it. This is where the Sox right the ship, slay the giant, and move on to the American League playoffs. This is what I ran home from school to see.
As Yastrzemski’s weak pop out to third baseman Graig Nettles began it’s downward descent, I had already made my decision. I watched in stunned silence as the Yankees celebrated their victory and vowed to sever my allegiance to a team that had provided nothing but heartache.
I could never root for the Yankees. The Brewers, Tigers, and Indians didn’t appeal to me. And the Blue Jays had lost more than 100 games in each of their first two seasons of existence. Forget it.
How about the Orioles? They had an exciting first baseman in Eddie Murray, who won the American League Rookie of the Year after a 27-homer, 95-RBI season. They had a great pitching staff with Jim Palmer, Scott MacGregor, Dennis Martinez, and that New Hampshire guy, Mike Flanagan. And they had a fiery manager in Earl Weaver, who couldn’t wait to run out of the dugout, spin his cap around, and scream in the face of every umpire who made a questionable call against his team, spit flying all over the place. Hell, the Orioles had even won two title in my lifetime. The Red Sox hadn’t won one since 10 years before my father was born.
We jumped together, my father and I. Neither one of us had any link to Baltimore, but we had to do this. Rooting for the Red Sox was like getting smashed in the face with a shovel.
The Orioles made it to the 1979 World Series, falling in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates. But, just four years later, the Orioles were world champions, with Murray and unlikely heroes Rick Dempsey and Jim Dwyer leading the way, beating the Philadelphia Phillies in six games. Cal Ripken, a defensive wizard at shortstop who won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1982, was the AL Most Valuable Player in 1983. A seemingly rubber-armed, strange-looking dude named Sammy Stewart was lights out out of the bullpen.
So this is what it’s like? I can get used to this.
The Orioles made it to the ALCS in 1996 and 1997, but then didn’t get a sniff of the playoffs again until 2012, when they won the wild card game and took the Yankees to five games in the AL Division Series before falling. That came on the heels of 14 straight losing seasons.
Somewhere along the way, my dad fell off the bandwagon and reaffirmed his love for the Sox. In 2004, he, like countless Red Sox fans, had tears in his eyes as Jason Varitek hugged Keith Foulke after the Red Sox ended 86 years of futility by beating the St. Louis Cardinals in four games to win the World Series. Three years later, they did it again, sweeping the Colorado Rockies. Then last month, Boston won its third championship in 10 years, again topping the Cardinals. It is, quite honestly, an embarrassment of riches.
Meanwhile, this long-suffering Orioles waits and wonders. Damn you, Bucky Dent.