In addition to being the season that saw one of the most amazing pitching exhibitions in baseball history from Ron Guidry, who went 25-3, 1978 also marked one of the all-time greatest moments for fans of the New York Yankees and anyone else who hates the Boston Red Sox. Which, I can only assume, is anyone who doesn’t actually live in Boston, Mass. It is my understanding that when Bostonians actually leave the city limits the spell of undying support for a decidedly mediocre team breaks and they become conscious again of what a joke their baseball team is.
I kid. I kid because I love.
The great moment I am referring to is the home run hit by the single greatest Yankee of them all, Mister Bucky Dent. (Again, I kid.) It is important to remember that in the middle of July, the Yankees stood a quite pathetic 14 games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox. This despite the fact that the Yankees not only had the best pitcher in the game at the time, but also Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Reggie Jackson and most of the rest of the lineup that had won the World Series the year before. July proved to be the absolute nadir of the 1978 season. In addition to appearing as though the Yankees had absolutely no chance to catch up to the Red Sox, July was also the month that saw superstar and egomaniac Reggie Jackson ignore the advice of manager of Billy Martin to not bunt. Jackson’s decision to hold his bat horizontally as the ball left the pitcher’s hand proved disastrous in many respects. Billy Martin was not a man to be crossed, in part because he was heavy drinker and a sullen drunk. Not long after the ill-fated bunt Martin made comments to reporters that Reggie Jackson was a born liar. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also called Yankees owner George Steinbrenner a convicted felon in reference to Steinbrenner’s illegally contributing to Richard Nixon’s campaign. Shortly thereafter Billy Martin quit and was replaced by Big Bob Lemon. As an example of how George Steinbrenner must be regarded as one of the worst baseball owners ever, Steinbrenner in short order revealed his brand of loyalty, and trust in his new manager, by announcing that it didn’t matter what Bob Lemon did, Billy Martin would be brought back the next season.
In fact, Bob Lemon’s calming presence was vital in engineering one of the extraordinary comebacks in sports history. When Lemon took over, the Yankees were 10½ games out of first place. Incredibly, the Yankees actually overtook the Red Sox by early September. The rest of the season was a see-saw and it quickly became obvious that the representative of the American League’s Eastern Division in 1978 was probably going to be the team that managed to eke out just one more win than the other. In fact, neither team could pull out that one extra victory. The 1978 season saw the Yankees and Red Sox with absolutely identical records. The result was a one game playoff to be held at Fenway Park.
On October 2, 1978 the two teams that make up the greatest rivalry in professional sports—although that may be a bit misleading since only the Red Sox consider it a rivalry, while the Yankees consider the Red Sox just another team they have had little trouble crushing on their march toward appearing in ten World Series every one that the Red Sox have made—and the Red Sox took a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning. The Yankees came to bat and found themselves with two men on base when Bucky Dent stepped up to the plate. Bucky Dent was the Yankees shortstop and definitely one of the team’s second tier players. Although Dent ended his career as a three-time All Star, he was hardly the home run threat of that Jackson or Munson might be. (The great irony, of course, is that Bucky Dent is mostly remembered for his home run when he only hit 40 in his entire career.) With two on an two out, Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez made the fatal mistake of underestimating Dent. Torrez handed Dent two straight strikes and rather than playing around with him to make him go after a bad ball he went right for the quick strikeout. The result was a high fly ball that just barely cleared the Green Monster, the 37 feet high left field wall in Fenway Park. As that ball just barely made it over the wall, landing softly in the netting, Yankees fans everywhere went wild. I remember jumping up and down with all the delirious madness of a Dick Cheney. Without question, Red Sox fans were filled with thoughts of the Curse of the Bambino.
Bucky Dent’s blast put the Yankees ahead 3-2 and instantly gave him a new nickname, Bucky “Bleeping” Dent. Bucky became an object of hatred for Red Sox fans that wouldn’t be replaced until another a slow ball rolled between Bill Buckner’s legs. Bucky Dent went on to become a legendary player in the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry and his name—both with and without the nickname—can be found mentioned in everything from an episode of Bosom Buddies to the Drew Barrymore movie Fever Pitch.