The day that baseball remembers the best from the 1978 American League season, the one when the Yankees came from 14 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in July and finally overtook them in September, and then beat them in a one-game playoff at Fenway Park on Bucky Dent’s homer, will always be one of the most famous October home runs in baseball history.
It wasn’t just because of the stakes of the AL East title that day. It was also about where Dent hit that homer off Mike Torrez, who he hit it against.
But the real story of Oct. 2, 1978, began the day prior, and not at Fenway, but at old Yankee Stadium. It involved two pitchers who were as much the stars of the historic Yankees comeback as anybody: manager Bob Lemon and starting pitcher Ron Guidry. None of what finally happened that day at Fenway, and the Yankees winning their second straight World Series, would have happened without them.
Lemon was a great pitcher over his career, which he primarily spent with the Indians. Lemon won 20 games seven times, pitched a no-hitter, won 23 games in 1954 when the Indians won 111 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976, two years before the Yanks' epic comeback in ’78.
When Lemon took managerial duties over after Billy Martin was forced to resign in July, the Yankees were still 10 1/2 games behind Boston.
Later, much later, Lemon was asked what he did to get things turned around.
“I just straightened out the pitching and hoped Reggie [Jackson] would hit,” Lemon said.
Finally, all the Yankees had to do on the last day of the regular season was beat Lemon’s old team, the Indians, on a Sunday afternoon at the Stadium. Only they did not. They got crushed, 9-2, which felt like the worst loss to anybody since the great comeback began. After seeing what we’d seen from the Yankees for more than two months, nobody thought they’d lose, starting with New York's skipper (who had no starter for the next afternoon at Fenway).
Lemon’s ace was Guidry, who on Thursday night had finished off one of the spectacular seasons that any Yankees pitcher had ever had -- that any pitcher had ever had. Mets fans remember how Dwight Gooden looked like a young Sandy Koufax when he went 24-4 in 1985. It meant he was almost as great as Guidry had been in ’78.
Guidry was 24-3 by the final Sunday of the season, on his way to a 1.74 ERA and the AL Cy Young Award. And, oh by the way, he'd thrown nine shutouts too.
The only thing Guidry hadn't done yet was pitch on short rest. He was known as "Louisiana Lightning," but he was as skinny as a swizzle stick. As Guidry got better and better as the season went along, there had never been a thought, not even during the comeback, of deviating from his routine.
When the Sunday game against the Indians ended, the Yankees' clubhouse was as quiet as church. They couldn’t believe they’d lost. Couldn’t believe they now had to get on a plane and fly to Boston for a one-game playoff that could halt one of the most memorable comebacks the game had ever seen.
After speaking to the media in his office, Lemon slipped out to the dugout, wanting some time to think about whom he could give the ball at Fenway. Guidry found him there.
This was the entire conversation between them, pitcher to pitcher:
Guidry: “I’ll take the ball.”
Lemon: “Thanks, Meat.”
(That’s what Lemon used to call almost everybody: "Meat.")
Then they flew to Boston. Again, everybody remembers Dent's homer, and how Jackson supplied what turned out to be the winning homer in the eighth. Goose Gossage was the Yankees' pitcher by then. Lemon was going to live or die with his best that day: Guidry until there was one out in the seventh, Gossage the rest of the way. Guidry gave up six hits in his 6 1/3 innings and struck out five. His record would go to 25-3, and the Yankees would go play the Royals in the AL Championship Series.
So much happened at Fenway that day. Lou Piniella made a great running catch against Fred Lynn, going hard to the right-field line, on a ball that would have been a triple if it had gotten by him. It didn’t. Then in the ninth, with Rick Burleson on first and the Red Sox trying to tie the game or win it, Jerry Remy hit a ball to right that Piniella lost in the sun. But he acted as if he had it all the way. The ball landed in front of him -- and bounced into his glove. Burleson didn’t get to third, from where Jim Rice’s fly ball to Piniella would have tied the game.
When it was all over, after the Yanks went on to defeat the Dodgers in the World Series, I found Sweet Lou in front of his locker, cold beer in hand, and told him about how a lot of the what-ifs in the Red Sox clubhouse involved two plays he’d made in the field.
“Hey,” Piniella said in that squeaky voice of his. “We’re not the world champions for nothing.”
So that is how Oct. 2, 1978, ended. But the great baseball day had really began the day before for the Yankees, when their best starting pitcher did as much to save them as Bucky or Reggie or anybody else.