Thanks to my age, I have more teams from which to choose for this series ... but, for me, the choice has to be 1978: the year that cemented in me what my Yankee-devoted friend called the "disease" of rabid fandom.
Given my screen name, you may be surprised that it took so long. The fact is, while I was excited by the shiny object of the ‘61 home run chase, I was far too young to truly appreciate teams of that era – and, in all honesty, more theatre nerd than sports guy at the time. Through high school and college years, I was strictly a watch-the-Series sort of fan. (This, of course, coincided with the Yankees’ dark period, so I didn’t miss a whole lot.) I was attuned enough that I saw Chris Chambliss hit his epic home run -- but also sufficiently detached that I didn’t suffer greatly at the team’s demolition by the Big Red Machine.
It wasn’t until I moved to Manhattan, in 1977, that the Yankees became a regular feature in my life. Even there, I didn’t truly latch on until late season: the wild run for the division crown (40-of-50 wins down the stretch), the ninth-inning comeback in Kansas City, and, of course, Reggie Jackson’s miraculous, championship-clinching night ... all this made me into a locked-in fan. From then on, I’d be following the team from Opening Day onward.
1978, as it turned out, was a year to test that plan. The team placed extreme loyalty demands on the fan base – then, in the end, provided explosions of joy almost impossible to imagine.
The roster that took the field in April was more or less the one that had won the World Series the previous October (with the great Goose Gossage added to the bullpen). It also brought back some issues from that previous year – the ego that was Reggie; his combustible relationships with captain Thurman Munson and, especially, manager Billy Martin. But a lineup that also had Willie Randolph, Lou Piniella, Graig Nettles, and Chambliss – not to mention Ron Guidry and Catfish Hunter on the mound – seemed enough to get past that.
Before long, though, the problem became how many of those players who weren't on the field. By the time June rolled around, Reggie, Willie, Mickey Rivers, Bucky Dent and Roy White -- along with Don Gullett and Catfish – had all missed significant time (Catfish in such pain it was feared he’d never pitch again). Think 2019, only without miracle offsetting performances from the likes of Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman; these Yankees stumbled through the early months.
At the same stage, Boston was off to an historically great start – not quite Yankees 2022, but within shouting distance. The Yankees managed a few moral-victory wins against them – a Fred "Chicken" Stanley grand slam in Fenway, a 14th-inning walk-off from Nettles (both of which would, in the end, be crucial) – but fell inexorably behind by summer’s arrival. The only thing keeping the Yankees afloat was Guidry’s spectacular performance – he started off 13-0, en route to his 25-3 Cy Young season – but it wasn’t nearly enough. By mid-July, the Yankees were, famously, 14.5 games behind the Sox.
Then followed the psychodrama portion of the season, which, to be honest, never engaged me that much (though it delighted the back pages of New York's tabloids). You can read detail about this elsewhere, but the essentials: Billy (defensibly) decided it was time to take Reggie out of the outfield and limit him to DH duty. Reggie took it poorly. He took even more poorly being ordered to bunt in an extra inning game: showing defiance, he kept bunting, even after the sign was taken off. This got him suspended for insubordination.
Upon return, Reggie expressed no contrition. Billy, likely under the influence, grumbled (on camera) that Reggie and Steinbrenner "deserve each other; one’s a born liar and the other’s convicted". Billy resigned in a tearful scene, and was replaced by Bob Lemon. Then, in the most circus-moment of a circus-season -- at Old Timers’ Day – Billy was announced to be returning as manager in 1980, which set up a cycle that damaged the team over succeeding years. But, for 1978’s purposes, the key fact was, the chaos Billy could bring was eliminated, and calm seemed to set in with Lemon. (Some thought the fact the New York newspapers went on strike also eased things, since the Post, especially, had made a cottage industry of Yankee Strife on their back pages.)
The Yankees, in fact, started playing better, while Boston slipped a bit. Catfish was, miraculously, back on the mound and nearly unbeatable; Ed Figueroa also went on a hot run. By the time the Sox came into the Stadium for an early August two-game series, the deficit was only 6.5 games. Unfortunately, the Yankees lost both those games, and were back to 8.5 games out. It should be noted that, by this time, the Yankees had the second-best record in baseball. Since, however, this was before any such thing as a Wild Card, the Yankees’ only reward for that would be watching the Series on television. Which is what everyone expected. I was at a Central Park Meat Loaf concert in late August. Meat Loaf, devoted Yankee fan (he’d famously incorporated Phil Rizzuto into "Paradise by the Dashboard Light"), at one point said "If this band’s record can go gold, the Yankees can still pull it out". We all dutifully cheered, but I don’t think a soul believed it. Labor Day weekend arrived; the Yanks were still 6.5 games back.
It’s the dramatist in me, looking for a juicy turning point, but I’ve never forgotten the game Sunday of that weekend. The Yanks were leading Seattle going into the ninth, 4-2. Sparky Lyle allowed three straight hits, making it 4-3 with runners on second and third, no outs. You’re starting to think, who’s coming up in the bottom of the ninth, after they’ve (hopefully, only) tied it? But the Goose came in, and struck out the side on 11 pitches (the first two on three strikes each). It’s not like such things never happen – I’ve been around long enough to have seen a few similar – but the timing seemed auspicious: It suggested that, maybe, wildly unlikely things could happen. Which turned out the case.
By the time the Yankees hit Fenway that Thursday, the Sox lead had dwindled to four. And the Yanks just jumped all over Boston pitchers that night, scoring 15 runs -- my vivid memory is Rizzuto repeatedly saying "And there’s another base hit..." It was only one game, the Sox still held the whip hand, but, after months of having eaten Boston’s dust, it felt good to watch them pummeled.
The following night, I’d gone to a movie with a friend. We stopped at a newsstand on the way home, and asked the guy the score. He said 13-2 Yanks, and we both reacted "No, tonight’s score". Amazingly, the same had happened again.
Saturday afternoon started out different -- a pitchers' duel between Guidry and Dennis Eckersley -- until the fourth inning, when, after two outs, a ball fell just out of an outfielder’s reach, and, before you knew it, the Yankees had scored seven runs. With Guidry pitching a two-hit shutout, the lead was down to one game.
That became zero the next day, as the Yankees won a closer but still comfortable 7-4 game. The Boston Massacre was in the books.
The next few weeks were unbearably tense. The Yankees pulled a few games ahead, but Boston, once they got out of their tailspin, firmed up. They reduced the Yankee lead to one for the final week of the season, which held all the way till Sunday – when the Yankees finally lost and the Sox won, putting the AL East in a dead-tie. A Monday afternoon playoff at Fenway – Guidry pitching against former Yankee Mike Torrez – would settle things. It was a seemingly inevitable, fitting end to the chase; what we in the drama trade call the obligatory scene.
I reckon you’ve read some about that game; one of the most legendary in Yankee history. What’s hard to convey is what New York City was like that day. It was a day game, and, while some abandoned their jobs for gin mills post-lunch, most of us didn’t have the option to skip work. This is way before everyone carried around video-capable phones, or had the internet for instant information retrieval. A friend who worked down the hall had a radio, but I couldn’t spend the whole game in his office. My way of following early action was calling SportsPhone, where a nasal-voiced guy named King Wally gave to-the-minute updates.
By mid-innings, Boston was ahead 2-0 (via a Carl Yastrzemski homer and Jim Rice single), but I held out hope. When I dialed in shortly after 4pm, I heard "The Yankees are threatening here in the seventh; with one out, Chambliss and White singled…" – I slammed the phone down, and raced to my friend’s office. A group was gathered around his radio. Bucky Dent was at the plate. Someone said "Dent has to hit a home run". A moment later ... well, you know.
I was just barely in time to hear Dent hit the home run that will be the first line of his obituary. Delirium reigned.
From there to the end, I just parked in my friend’s office. As you likely know, there was way more to come: the Yankees pulled ahead, seemingly safe, but the Goose was shaky that day, and they went to the bottom of the ninth, leading just 5-4. Those who want to throttle Aroldis Chapman for scary innings wouldn’t have survived that final frame: the two-out walk, the ball Piniella lost in the sun but somehow kept in front of him, the Rice deep fly that would have scored Burleson had he been on third rather than second. And, at last, the Yaz at bat – Hall-of-Famer facing Hall-of-Famer – that ended in the popup that created mass elation across New York City.
Because that game was so singular, so consequential, so summing up of the entire season, there’s a tendency to think of subsequent events as rote. But, in fact, the Kansas City series was hard-fought – in pivotal Game 3, the lead changed hands over and over (mostly because George Brett kept hitting game-tying home runs), and wasn’t settled till Thurman Munson hit maybe the last important home run of his career in the eighth; and the clincher was a 2-1 affair that required the best of Guidry and Gossage.
And the Series! After the Dodgers won the first two games, widespread consensus was that the Yankees were finally just worn out, ready to be taken. Game 3 was Guidry, but not vintage Guidry – according to legend, Munson told him after his first pitch that he didn’t have his fastball (I always wondered how big a gulp that elicited from Thurman). But the team survived the many baserunners, because Graig Nettles had as great a night at third base as anyone this side of Brooks Robinson has ever had. The following day, the Yankees trailed 3-0 early, but tied the game with the help of the ol' Reggie-sticks-out-his-hip-and-breaks-up-the-double-play – a move that wouldn’t survive this replay era – and won in extras. After that, the Dodgers started whining about the infield and Yankee fans, so we all enjoyed watching the Yankees crush them in the final two games.
Two lasting memories: Reggie and Thurman, arm in arm in the celebratory locker room – proving winning soothes a lot. And waking up the next morning to the strains of "We Are the Champions" (still a relatively new song); nothing had ever sounded so joyous.
Of course, all victories are ephemeral. The Yankees had a terrible year in 1979, both professionally (fourth place finish) and personally (Thurman’s unthinkable death). Although they got back to the post-season in ’80 and ’81, they didn’t win another Series ... not 'till 1996. And my friend – who shared the "disease" with me – died a dozen years ago; I, to this day, miss sharing all big Yankee moments with him. But the deep pleasure of, especially, those last six weeks in 1978 will be with me forever.