Feels like '78 all over again with Yanks-Sox

October 5th, 2021

Almost 43 years after Bucky Dent hit his home run at Fenway Park and made the old park go almost completely silent, all this time after Oct. 2, 1978, we'll get another win-or-go home game like it between the Red Sox and the Yankees. We'll get a night like that at old Fenway.

It is a Wild Card Game this time. In 1978, after one of the most memorable pennant races in baseball history -- the Yankees coming from 14 1/2 games behind in July to shock the Sox -- the winner of the one-game playoff went straight to the American League Championship Series. This time, the winner punches a ticket to St. Petersburg and The Trop for a game against the Rays on Thursday night.

It doesn’t change the fact that there have been so few games like this between the Red Sox and the Yankees, across the history between them.

Of course, the World Series isn’t on the line on Tuesday night, the way it was in 2003 and ’04, when the two teams pushed each other to Games 7 in the ALCS. And they did play a dramatic Game 4 against each other just three years ago in the ALDS series before the Red Sox eliminated the Yankees.

That game was at the new Yankee Stadium. Those Games 7 in ’03 and ’04 were at the old Stadium. The Sox and the Yankees can still play a win-or-go-home game at Fenway. They can give us a moment out of the past.

A lot has changed. Baseball has changed. The postseason format has changed. But there will be some of the feeling of Oct. 2, 1978, at Fenway on Tuesday night, you can believe that.

Before his Yankees played the Red Sox that day in 1978 -- a day when his home run ultimately produced the winning run in a 5-4 Yankees victory -- Reggie Jackson stood at the batting cage and said, “The season coming down to a game like this, between them and us, is kind of perfect.”

He smiled and said, “I mean, where else would you want to be today?”

So he hit one late, and Dent hit one off Mike Torrez before that and Carl Yastrzemski popped out against Rich Gossage for the last out. Lou Piniella made a great running catch in right field to catch a ball Fred Lynn hit, and then, in the ninth -- even though he lost the ball in the sun -- Lou Piniella stuck out his glove on a ball Jerry Remy hit and somehow that ball ended up in his glove. And Rick Burleson didn’t get to third base, where he would have scored the tying run on Jim Rice’s fly ball to Piniella.

When it was over that day, and Fenway was even more quiet than it had been when Dent’s ball went out, I found Piniella sitting in front of his locker. And I told him there were a lot of what-ifs in the home clubhouse, mostly about almost magical things Piniella had done in the outfield that day.

He looked up and grinned and said, “Hey, we’re not the world champs for nothing.”

Those Yankees went on to win a second World Series in a row. The Red Sox went home, at that point still looking for their first Series win since 1918. Now, things have changed in The Rivalry. The Red Sox have won four World Series over the last 18 seasons, to just one for the Yankees. The Sox beat the Yankees in Game 7 after coming from 0-3 down in that ’04 ALCS. They ended another Yankees season three years ago, when Craig Kimbrel somehow escaped, barely in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4.

Now the Sox have a chance to end another Yankees season at Fenway on Tuesday night, just nine days after the Yankees swept the Red Sox in Boston, knocked them down and seemed to maybe even have knocked them out of a Wild Card -- especially after the Sox then went to Baltimore and lost two of three.

But then the Yankees lost two of three against the Rays at the Stadium, and they were potentially looking at a tiebreaker game against the Blue Jays until Aaron Judge’s walk-off slow roller to second in the bottom of the ninth on Sunday. That’s how they got to Tuesday. The Red Sox? They came from 1-5 down against the Nationals on Sunday, as Rafael Devers went 4-for-5 and carried them the way David Ortiz used to carry the Red Sox at this time of year, finally hitting a two-run homer near the Nationals logo in Nationals Park in the ninth.

 “No moment is too big for [Devers],” his manager, Alex Cora, said when it was over on Sunday.

Now we get another Red Sox-Yankees moment at Fenway, a great one. The Red Sox dominated the Yankees early this season. The Yankees came on to dominate the Red Sox late. Nathan Eovaldi, who won the pivotal Game 3 of the 2018 division series at Yankee Stadium, gets the ball for Boston. Gerrit Cole gets the ball for the Yankees, and he is being asked to win the kind of game for which New York paid him $324 million as a free agent.

Somebody goes to St. Pete. The other team goes home. The Red Sox and Yankees at Fenway again, with everything on the line. Reggie was right back in ‘78, and is now. Kind of perfect that it ends like this, for these two teams. Sometimes this feels like a great rivalry in name only. Not Tuesday night it doesn’t.