The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of '78by Richard Bradley
In this spellbinding book, Richard Bradley tells the story of what was surely the greatest major league game of our lifetime and perhaps in the history of professional baseball. That game, played at Fenway Park on the afternoon of October 4, 1978, was the culmination of one of the most tense, emotionally wrought seasons ever, between baseball's two most bitter rivals,… See more details below
In this spellbinding book, Richard Bradley tells the story of what was surely the greatest major league game of our lifetime and perhaps in the history of professional baseball. That game, played at Fenway Park on the afternoon of October 4, 1978, was the culmination of one of the most tense, emotionally wrought seasons ever, between baseball's two most bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Both teams finished this tumultuous season with identical 99-64 records, forcing a one-game playoff. With a one-run lead and two outs, with the tying run in scoring position in the bottom of the ninth, the entire season came down to one at-bat and to one swing of the bat.
It came down, as both men eerily predicted to themselves the night before, to the aging Red Sox legend, Carl Yastrzemski, and the Yankees' free-agent power reliever, Rich "Goose" Gossage.
Anyone who calls himself a baseball fan knows the outcome of that confrontation. And yet such are the literary powers of the author that we are pulled back in time to that late-afternoon moment and become filled anew with all the taut sense of drama that sports has to offer, as if we don't know what happened. As if the thoughts swirling around in the heads of pitcher and hitter are still fresh, both still hopeful of controlling events.
That climactic game occurred thirty seasons ago and yet it still captures our imagination. In this delightful work of sports literature, we watch the game unfold pitch by pitch, inning by inning, but Bradley is up to something more ambitious than just recounting this wonderful game. He also tells us the stories of the participants -- how they got to that moment in their lives and careers, what was at stake for them personally -- including the rivalries within the rivalry, such as catcher Carlton Fisk versus catcher Thurman Munson,and Billy Martin versus everyone. Using a narrative that alternates points of view between the teams, Bradley reacquaints us with a rich roster of characters -- Freddy Lynn, Ron Guidry, Catfish Hunter, Mike Torrez, Jerry Remy, Lou Piniella, George Scott, and Reggie Jackson. And, of course, Bucky Dent, who craved just such a moment in the sun -- a validation he had vainly sought from the father he barely knew.
Not a book intended to celebrate a triumph or lament a loss, The Greatest Game will be embraced in both Boston and New York, with fans of both teams recalling again the talented young men they once gave their hearts to. And fans everywhere will be reminded how utterly gripping a single baseball game can be and that the rewards of being a fan lie not in victory but in caring beyond reason, even decades after the fact.
The Washington Post
Bradley (American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.) here retells the classic elimination game of October 2, 1978, almost pitch by pitch, giving moving accounts of the players and framing many of them, e.g., catchers Fisk and Munson, in confrontation. Though not original in the use of player recollections or the consideration of baseball in that volatile era, Bradley is an adept writer who replicates tension even with an outcome that is known. His discussion of the players-and America's-ongoing challenges makes interesting reading. Recommended.Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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It's going to be Yaz, Goose Gossage thought. In the bottom of the ninth, it's going to be me against Yaz.
The relief pitcher was back in his hotel room after drinking beers with his teammates at Daisy Buchanan's on Newbury Street. The Yankees hung out there when they came to Boston to play the Red Sox. Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella, Sparky Lyle, Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent -- it felt like the whole team was out drinking. The 1978 Yankees were a tough crew. They liked to party, razz one another, throw back a few -- even if they were playing the biggest game of their lives the next afternoon, which they were. It was better than sitting around at your hotel. Thinking. Getting nervous. Getting tense. You didn't want that much time to think.
But Gossage couldn't shut out thoughts of the next day. After he and his teammates drifted off to their rooms for the night, he tried to sleep, and that's when the game bored into his head and started to buzz around inside his skull. The Yankees versus the Red Sox in a one-game playoff to determine the winner of the American League East Division. The two teams with the best records in either league, and those records happened to be the same -- 99 wins and 63 losses. After 162 games, the regular season had ended in a tie. Baseball hadn't seen such an outcome for thirty years, since 1948, when the Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians took part in the first such playoff. And for almost thirty years after 1978, the sport would not see it again.
A couple of weeks before the last day of the season, when the Red Sox trailed the Yankees in the standings by two games, officials from the two teams had flipped a coin to see, in the event that there were a one-game playoff, which team would be the host. The Red Sox won the toss but didn't expect anything to come of it. Since late July the Yankees had been winning nearly three of every four games they played, and even the Red Sox players doubted that they would catch them. They were wrong. The Sox won 11 of their last 12, including their last seven straight, to stay within one of the Yankees. Then, on October 1, both teams had a game against considerably weaker opponents -- the Yankees against the mediocre Cleveland Indians, the Red Sox against the hapless Toronto Blue Jays. Much to the surprise of both the Red Sox and the Yankees, the Yankees lost. The Red Sox, however, did not.
As a result, baseball's two best teams would be facing each other in a 163rd game. The winner would take on the Kansas City Royals in the league championship series, the prelude to the World Series, but both teams were confident that whoever won this game was the best team in baseball. This game, they felt, was like an entire World Series compressed into one afternoon at Fenway Park. And that was why Richard Michael Gossage, best known as "Goose," had a feeling that, come the ninth inning, he would be on the mound. Closing out games was his specialty.
It's going to be Gator for as hard as he can go for as long as he can can go, Gossage thought. And then...
"Gator" was Ron Guidry, the team's soft-spoken, left-handed ace, who in his second full season had compiled an astonishing record of 24-3, the best in the majors and one of the best in baseball history. Game after game that 1978 season, Guidry had been almost unhittable. He threw a rising fastball in the mid-nineties, setting up a wicked slider that darted in on right-handed hitters. Guidry disguised the pitch somehow; batters couldn't see the spin on it. The slider looked like a straight-up fastball, but then, just as a batter started his swing...it made hitters look silly.
Guidry, however, had pitched just three days before, one day less than his usual rest between starts, and Gossage, the big, strong relief pitcher, suspected that Guidry wouldn't have his best stuff.
Gator for as long as he can go, and then it's going to be me. Against Yaz.
That night, Carl Yastrzemski, successor to the great Ted Williams and Red Sox star since 1961, lay in bed and thought about the game the next day. He tried to picture in his head the pitchers he would be facing -- Guidry and Gossage. He'd faced them plenty of times before. What did they like to throw? What did they like to throw against him? What did they like to throw against him at Fenway? That was what Yastrzemski did before games. He was always thinking, always preparing, so deep inside his head that some of his teammates felt like they barely knew him.
Carl Yastrzemski had turned thirty-nine years old that season. He was well past his prime, eleven years older than he had been in the miracle season of 1967, when an unheralded Red Sox team came from nowhere to win the pennant. Yaz won the Triple Crown that year, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs driven in. No player in either league has done so since. But now, after seventeen seasons in the majors, Yaz's body was starting to break down. His back hurt him constantly; one of his vertebrae was digging into the surrounding tissue. Since August he had worn a steel back brace whenever he played. His wrists ached from an awkward check swing early in the season. Before each game, Yaz had them wrapped so heavily he looked like a burn victim. He couldn't run with his former daring, and more and more he played first base instead of his usual position in left field in the shadow of the thirty-seven-feet-high left-field wall, Fenway's famed Green Monster. First base was easier on the body -- less running.
None of that, though, would matter in this game. As Gossage knew, Yastrzemski was the last man you'd want coming to the plate with the game on the line. He was unflappable, and he performed brilliantly under pressure. On that last day of the '67 season, when the Sox had to beat the Minnesota Twins to win the division, he went 3-4 with three runs batted in. Yaz was just tough. Midway through the season, the doctors wanted to hospitalize him so his back would heal. Yaz walked out on them. Blocks away from the hospital, he came across a construction site and picked up a shovel, the closest thing to a bat he'd seen in days. He picked it up and started to swing. If his back could handle the shovel...
When he was a kid, the son of a Long Island potato farmer, Yastrzemski had done much the same. In the summers, he'd toss hundred-pound bags of potatoes onto a tractor. On winter nights, bundled up against the cold, he'd trudge up a long hill to the family garage and swing a lead bat for hours, hundreds of times, peeling off the layers of coats and sweaters as he warmed up. Night after night, Yastrzemski went to that garage to practice his swing and build his strength. Twenty years later his swing was still powerful, just less frequent. Yaz had always been mainly a fastball hitter. Now, in the twilight years of his career, fastballs were about the only pitch he'd swing at. Breaking balls, curves, changeups -- unless he guessed fastball, and guessed wrong, Yaz would stand and watch them go. And if Gossage and Yastrzemski did face each other, the two men's individual strengths would make the confrontation particularly compelling: a fastball hitter against a fastball pitcher. For Gossage was even faster than Guidry -- over short stretches, anyway -- and maybe the fastest in the game. So against Gossage, Yaz would get his chances, and that was as it should be. You didn't want to come at a legend throwing junk. Gossage would match his strength against Yastrzemski's.
The two men tried to sleep, but couldn't, and lay in their beds wondering. What would the next day be like? Surely there would be two on, two out. Bottom of the ninth, the season on the line. Maybe the greatest chapter in the greatest rivalry in baseball and beyond. Was there a more intense, more passionate, more historic rivalry in all of sports? Going back to the turn of the twentieth century, the competition between the Red Sox and the Yankees wasn't just about two teams, but also about two cities, two regions, two cultures, two different ways of looking at the world. Whether you rooted for the Yankees or the Red Sox had something to do with your outlook on life, your reverence for tradition versus your tolerance for change -- even, perhaps, how you saw the United States itself. There weren't many rivalries in sports you could say that about.
Fate, destiny, logic, whatever you wanted to call it -- that was how the two teams had wound up here. The Sox and the Yankees had battled for six months now. Back in April, they'd started from two very different places. The Yankees had won the World Series in 1977, but even in spring training they seemed weary of the infighting that had plagued them the prior season, when manager Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson feuded and fought for months, and owner George Steinbrenner played the team like a puppeteer. Steinbrenner was "the kind of owner," right fielder Lou Piniella said in April 1978, "that likes a 163-game lead with 162 games left." Now, even the off-season was exhausting. "This club can't take it for another year," Piniella said.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, were optimistic, and with good reason. Defense? Player for player, theirs was better than the Yankees', and the Yankees themselves would probably have admitted that. Offense? In 1977, their third baseman, Butch Hobson, had 30 home runs and 112 runs batted in, and he was the last batter in the Red Sox lineup. Ahead of him came Yaz, of course, and catcher Carlton Fisk, former MVP Fred Lynn, the powerful George "Boomer" Scott, and the slugger Jim Rice, who would go on to have the finest offensive season in baseball in decades. The 1978 Red Sox might have had the strongest-hitting lineup in the team's storied history. They even had some speed, a Red Sox rarity, to go with the power. In the off-season, they had acquired second baseman Jerry Remy from the California Angels; Remy had stolen 41 bases for the Angels.
Pitching had been the club's weakness in 1977, when not a single Red Sox pitcher had won more than twelve games. But in the off-season the team had traded for the young and promising Dennis Eckersley and signed Mike Torrez, a right-hander who'd won 17 games for the Yankees the year before, with two more victories in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Torrez had been with four teams before joining the Yankees, but from 1974 to 1977, even as he was traded from coast to coast, he'd won 68 games. After the advent of free agency in 1975, Torrez had taken charge of his own future. His father had been a Mexican immigrant who worked on the railroad for a living; Torrez wanted a better life. He played out his contract with the Yankees and signed a seven-year deal with their enemies in Boston for a million dollars more than the Yanks were willing to pay. New York fans called him a traitor. He told them to talk to George Steinbrenner.
Baseball was changing in the 1970s. With the recently obtained right to sell their services on the open market, players were acquiring new wealth and power; the days when even the greatest players were simply handed a contract every spring and told to sign it were gone forever. But this good fortune was also costing the game some of its former pleasures. The lure of seven-figure contracts separated players not just from their old teams, but from the writers who wrote about them, the fans who rooted for them, and even the teammates they played alongside. As wealth began to isolate the players, press coverage grew tougher and more invasive, while the fans, stunned and angry at the amounts of money these baseball players -- baseball players! -- were making, not to mention their sudden ability to pick up stakes and move to another city, were starting to look upon the athletes like racehorses -- worse than that, even. Fans in the 1970s would hurl curses and objects at the players with whom they once felt kinship -- beer, hot dogs, cherry bombs, bolts. Such vitriol reflected the fans' frustration over the uncomfortable ways in which baseball, the most traditionconscious of American sports, was undergoing rapid and disconcerting change. It also showed how the violence and anger of the late 1960s and early 1970s was seeping into baseball stadiums, no matter how much those fortresses of constancy and tradition tried to filter out the cultural transformations, both good and bad, coursing through the country.
The game was changing, and even as the players tried to capitalize on that, they struggled to preserve the sense of joy so vital to the sport, that element of eternal boyhood so hard for most of them to articulate but so crucial to their love of the game. They welcomed the money that free agency brought. Who wouldn't? But money wasn't why this generation of athletes started playing baseball. When they were boys, no one went into baseball to get rich, because the vast majority of players never would. In backyards and on dusty playgrounds, in inner-city parks and on high school diamonds, they played baseball because when they were young they listened to the game on the radio and watched it on television, sometimes in color, but more often in grainy black and white. They saw Jackie Robinson steal home or Mickey Mantle race to make a catch in center field, or heard the crack of Ted Williams's bat sending another line drive into right field at Fenway Park, and that's what they wanted to do when they grew up: play baseball like their heroes. They never dreamed of making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, much less millions, just for playing a game. They played baseball because they loved the sport, and for many of them it was the only thing they knew how to do.
Rich Gossage had been a free agent when he was signed by the Yankees after five years with the White Sox and one with the Pirates. When he came to the Bronx that spring of 1978, he learned how brutal the fans could be when you were being paid enormous sums of money but didn't perform brilliantly from day one. Gossage blew a few games early, on the road. Then, on opening day at the Stadium, when Gossage was announced with the rest of the Yankees, the fans had booed and booed, like nothing the twenty-six-year-old Gossage had ever heard. Playing for the White Sox, the fans had never been anywhere near as vocal -- or hostile. He stood disbelieving in a line of Yankees, the jeers and catcalls cascading down upon him. Gossage was one of the game's most intimidating players. He stood six feet three inches tall and weighed 210 pounds, and pitched with his cap yanked down low so that opposing batters couldn't see his eyes. On his first day in his new stadium, Gossage stood on the field, alone in front of 50,000 people, and pulled his hat down to hide the fact that he was crying.
The 1978 season was like that for the Yankees and the Red Sox -- gritty, emotional, fiercely competitive. It was also, as the writer Roger Angell said at the time, a painful season. All of those qualities contributed to the drama of the 1978 American League East pennant race. In the first months of the season, the Sox raced to a fourteen-game lead over the Yankees, who bickered and fought with one another as they had the year before. Then, in mid-July, Yankee manager Billy Martin simply imploded, the result of too much pressure and too many scotch-and-waters. One night he told two reporters that his most famous player was a liar and the team's owner was a crook, and the next day, as he unsuccessfully fought back tears, he announced his resignation in the lobby of a Minnesota hotel.
The Yankees hired a new manager, the quiet, self-assured Bob Lemon, who didn't say much, just wrote out the lineup card and let the players play. And even as the Red Sox started to lose, the Yankees started to win. A fourteen-game deficit became eight...then four...then none...and suddenly, in early September the Yankees had a three-game lead. No team in American League history had ever come back from fourteen games down. Red Sox fans, always the first to put the worst on the table -- it hurt less that way -- were calling their team's slide the greatest choke in baseball history.
And then the Red Sox surprised those fans by picking themselves up and fighting back.
The playoff started at two-thirty in the afternoon on October 2. Inside Fenway Park, 32,925 fans would watch as if the weight of a combined 324 games was riding on every pitch, because it was. For Red Sox fans, whose team had come tantalizingly close but fallen short for some sixty years, the weight of decades was riding on the outcome. This game was not just about who would go on to play the Kansas City Royals; both the Yankees and the Red Sox were sure they could beat the Royals. It was about everything that had come before it. You could trace a line from the men involved in this game back to the origins of the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry at the beginning of the century, and from there back to the very beginning of baseball in the United States, before the Civil War. Yet you could also look forward and see that, whoever won on this October day, when it was done everything was going to change -- faster, probably, than baseball had ever changed before. That was one reason why players on both teams agreed it was the most important game of their careers. It felt not just like a singular moment, but also like a fragile one, a rare convergence of tradition and rivalry and timelessness that would not be easily, if ever, re-created.
Outside Fenway Park that afternoon, Red Sox fans lamenting their failure to acquire tickets would mill around Kenmore Square, carrying signs with obscene sentiments and harassing any Yankee fan reckless enough to flash his pinstripes. And beyond Fenway, north to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, south to Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, and west across the entire country, fans would play hooky from work or school to park themselves in front of their televisions and watch a game that would burn itself into their memories, a game that reminded them of why they loved baseball, of how beautiful it felt to win and how much it hurt to lose, of the reassuring constancy of the expected and the inevitability of the unpredictable, of struggle and hope and redemption and disappointment and all the ways in which baseball was like life itself. Much of that feeling would be inspired by a light-hitting shortstop named Bucky Dent, whose uncharacteristic moment of greatness changed his life forever and would become one of the sport's iconic events. And much of the emotion would result from a showdown between a fiery but anxious relief pitcher and an intense, driven veteran near the end of his career, desperate to win it all for the very first time.
After 162 games, the New York Yankees would fly from New York to Boston and Goose Gossage would sit in his hotel room, thinking that the game between his team and the Red Sox would probably come down to a single confrontation between him and Carl Yastrzemski. Meanwhile, Yastrzemski lay in bed and wondered if he would get a chance to win the game for his team, bringing the Red Sox and himself one huge step closer to the goal that had so long escaped him: winning a World Series.
Copyright © 2008 by Richard Bradley
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