It’s excellent timing that, as the New York Yankees face tomorrow’s postseason play-in game against the Oakland A’s, SI TV has released the documentary film 14 Back.
The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is arguably the most iconic in sports history, and remains white hot to this very day . “14 Back” traces the origins back to the late 1970’s, when it was at its knock-down, dragged-out grittiest, culminating in Bucky Dent’s infamous home run.
I would have liked to watch it, but SI TV’s Free 7-Day Trial requires you to actually subscribe to the service, so here’s the trailer instead.
In fact, this story is how I avoided being made as a Yankee fan in Boston the afternoon 40 years ago today that Bucky Dent hit his infamous home run.
First, though, a recap of how we got there.
“The Red Sox had a 14-game lead over the ridiculously infighting Yankees in July before the teams’ fortunes flipped, and the Yankees caught and passed Boston in September,” Boston Globe sports media columnist Chad Finn reminded us last week.
Then again, as 14 Back filmmaker Jonathan Hock told Finn:
The Sox, when they fell 3½ games back in September, if they could have been tarred and feathered, if that was still legal in the Commonwealth, I’m sure they would have been.
For them to have then turned it around and win eight in a row and 12 of 14 with all of the starters going on three days’ rest, Dennis Eckersley winning four of the last 14 games and Luis Tiant winning three of the last eight, the last on a two-hit shutout in Game 162, that was heroic.
And, as Jerry Remy said in Nick Cafardo’s Baseball Notes column in Sunday’s Globe, “It’s pretty hard to say you choked when you won 99 games. We had an outstanding team. We just had so many injuries the second half of that year.”
Regardless, the race came down to the last game of the regular season. For me, the drama then unfolded in two acts.
ACT 1: FINAL REGULAR SEASON GAME AT YANKEE STADIUM
The whole one-game playoff could have been avoided if the Yankees had won their 162nd game.
But they didn’t.
My friends Rob, Mike, and I – good native New Yorkers all – decided to trundle down to the Big Town to catch the regular season finale between the Yanks and the Cleveland Indians, which did not go well on a couple of levels.
After the game, we trudged out of the big ballpark – as Red Barber liked to call it – just three disappointed Yankee fans among the many.
Until we reached our car.
With the Massachusetts plates.
Right away we drew an angry crowd that raised quite a rumpus that had all the makings of a who-struck-john (namely, me). Luckily, some fast talking defused the situation sufficiently for us to enter the offending vehicle and exit the Bronx in a New York minute.
Only to return to another fraught moment in Boston.
ACT 2: ONE- GAME PLAYOFF AT FENWAY PARK
On October 2, 1978 I was planning to take a Greyhound bus to Hartford and visit the folks, but once I got to Park Square, I figured I should catch the game first.
So I squeezed my way into a bar on Stuart Street (I think it was called My Brother’s Place and I think it might have been a gay bar, but I could be wrong on both counts).
And I’m watching the game and it’s the top of the 7th, Sox up 2-0, and Dent comes to the plate with two men on base and Mike Torrez on the mound. And here’s what happened next.
Of note in retrospect: How much Dent choked up on the bat; how Dent fouled one off his already battered left foot; how Dent got a new bat handed to him at that point; how cheap the home run was.
Also of note: I’m watching all of that in a bar full of Red Sox fanatics, trying my best to blend into the cheap furniture.
And then – two on, two out, Yankees leading 5-4 in the bottom of the 9th. And here comes Yaz and he . . . fouls out to the hated New York third baseman Graig Nettles.
(You can relive the whole game here if you like.)
Quick as a smile, I beat feet before I could out myself as a Yankee fan.
But I grinned all the way home on that Greyhound bus.
Postscript #1: There was also excellent 14 Back talk – and clips – on Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen (starting at 42:15), with both co-host Stefan Fatsis and director Jonathan Hock calling it the greatest moment of their young lives. Also, don’t miss Fatsis’s deconstruction of the whole Bucky Dent/Mickey Rivers corked bat kerfuffle (at 1:04:50). It’s a hoot.
Postscript #2: Very few (including me) remember that Dent was also the 1978 World Series MVP – the sixth worst in that category according to Dan Tylicki’s Bleacher Report ranking.
He did little in 1977 or the 1978 ALCS, so not much was expected in the 1978 World Series. Against the Dodgers, however, he hit .417 and had seven RBI.
Bleeping A, eh?