35 years ago this week the dreaded Yankees beat Liam Day’s beloved Red Sox in a one-game playoff. What he remembers are the lessons, good and bad, his mother imparted.
Wild card games were the rage this week as Major League Baseball’s playoffs began, using the new, expanded format. Pirates fans greeted the return of competitive baseball to the Steel City after 20 consecutive losing seasons with a frenzy. Boston fans were deprived of the return of former manager Terry Francona, whose Indians bowed to the Rays.
There would have been a measure of justice in the Indians playing into and then beating the Red Sox in the ALDS. Terry Francona was the manager who broke the curse after all, but two World Series Championships weren’t enough to save him after the team’s collapse in 2011.
For those two rings alone Francona holds a special place in Sox history. It’s been almost a decade since the team ended 86 years of frustration and in the interval each of the city’s four major league franchises has won a championship. It’s almost enough to make one forget what it was like to suffer.
But suffer is what Red Sox fans did generation upon generation. The Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter scored from first on a single in Game 7 of the ‘46 series. Jim Lonborg ran out of gas against the Cardinals (again) in Game 7 of the ‘67 series. Darrell Johnson inexplicably pinch-hit for reliever Jim Willoughby in Game 7 of the ‘75 series. The ball rolled through Buckner’s legs in ‘86, though, truth be told, the Mets had already come back to tie Game 6 by that time and all well-conditioned Sox fans knew the rest of the series was already a foregone conclusion. In ‘03, Grady Little left Pedro into pitch not once, but twice, despite the fact the bullpen, particularly Mike Timlin, had been lights out for most of that ALCS.
It wasn’t merely that the Sox lost. In any given season every team but one loses. It was the way they lost: held relays, errors, bad managerial decisions. It was such a well-worn trope that it had become an easy cliche for any sportswriter to lead with when covering them, but the Red Sox did seem genuinely cursed. And, though I wasn’t alive in ‘46 or ‘67 and was only three in 1975, I remember ‘86 and ‘03 vividly. I can recount the respective collapses almost pitch for pitch. Yet it’s a single playoff game, a wild card game if you will, played 35 years ago this week, that I remember most.
I should amend that. It’s the not the game I remember so much as the scream. I was only in first grade at the time and, rambunctious as I was, I wasn’t interested in sitting still to watch nine innings. It was this same rambunctiousness that made me a terror in school. Having as an adult spent five years teaching, I’m able to imagine the challenge it must have been to keep my 6-year old self engaged in the classroom. Fortunately, Sister Debbie was a baseball fan. Unfortunately, her team was the dreaded Yankees, who started the school year that September with a four-game sweep of the Sox en route to making up a 14-game deficit in the standings.
Still, recapping the previous night’s action with Sister Debbie was what I looked forward to when getting ready for school in the morning. Looking back on it, I can see that she was my first schoolboy crush. She was young and pretty and didn’t at all fit the dour stereotype of the Catholic school nun, but those reasons were completely secondary. I liked Sister Debbie because she liked baseball.
Yet, ironically, baseball was one of the reasons I was so difficult to manage in class. Baseball was the reason I was so far ahead of all the other students in math, because baseball, more than any other, is a game of numbers and I spent hours upon hours poring over statistics on the backs of the baseball cards I collected: hits, at-bats, innings pitched, home runs, RBI, batting and earned run average. Before the dawn of sabermetrics, these were the stats that defined greatness in baseball. For a ridiculously skinny little kid with coke-bottle glasses, their power was talismanic.
Unlike the calculations required to derive BABIP and WAR today, yesterday’s stats were mostly a matter of counting, of straightforward addition, except for batting average and E.R.A., that is, and at a certain point I wasn’t satisfied just being able to add up a player’s career home runs. I wanted to know how these other numbers, numbers with periods in them, were calculated. Numbers didn’t have periods. Periods were supposed to signify the end of a sentence.
So my mother taught me, my mother who had never seen a baseball game before she immigrated to this country at the age of 28, who, having known real hardship growing up in a three-room house with 12 brothers and sisters on a farm on the west coast of Ireland, a country that was in many ways the Red Sox of Europe, had naturally adopted a long-suffering baseball team as her own.
My mother sat with me at the kitchen table next to the back door, the only door anyone ever used in our house, and taught me to divide. She showed me how to set the problem up, with the dividend inside the long division symbol and the divisor on the outside, how to bring numbers down and how to use a period, whose new name, a decimal, she also taught me, to extend the dividend when there was a remainder.
With practice I was able to calculate any player’s batting average and for small numbers I no longer even needed to use pen and paper to do the calculations. I knew automatically that one hit in three at-bats was a .333 average, that 2 for 7 was .286, 3 for 12 .250. By the time I arrived in first grade I could, even as my classmates struggled to add and subtract, long divide with any two numbers Sister Debbie threw at me, no matter how big.
As September drew on, the Yankees caught and then passed the Red Sox. Another collapse seemed all but imminent. Somehow, though, despite the wretched baseball they’d been playing for weeks, they were able to stage something of a comeback, winning the last seven games of the season to tie the Yankees for first place in the American League East and force a one-game playoff to see who would play the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series.
The game was played at Fenway Park after school on Monday, October 2, 1978. The first pitch from Sox starter Mike Torrez was thrown at 2:52PM EST. Ron Guidry, Louisiana Lightning, winner of 25 games that year, started for the Yankees. The Sox jumped out to a 2-0 lead on a Carl Yaztremski home run and a Jim Rice single. Rice, who would be voted American League MVP later that fall, was my favorite player. I had learned to mimic his stance and his practice swing as he settled into the batter’s box.
But fall is Boston’s best season and October 2, 1978 was no exception. High 60’s, no precipitation. More interested in playing than watching, I left the couch where my mother was glued to the television and wandered out the back door with my glove and ball to play off-the-wall in the back yard against the foundation of the house, which rose three feet above the ground.
Off-the-wall was a simple game and could be played with one or two players. It entailed exactly what its name indicates, throwing the ball off the wall and then trying to catch it on the rebound. If you were throwing the ball, you were at bat. If you were doing the catching, you were in the field. If the fielder caught the ball on the rebound, then the batter was out. If not, the batter was automatically safe at first base. When playing by myself, I was both teams. I kept score meticulously so that I would be able to calculate the game’s statistics later.
The foundation of our house was built of a concrete and gravel mixture, whose surface was rough, perfect for off-the-wall because the ball would jump off the pebbles embedded in the stone in all different directions, forcing the player in the field to dive for ground balls and line drives, just as our favorite players did on television. If you were really adroit, you would skip the ball off the ground just in front of the wall first to get some elevation on the rebound. Any ball that sailed over a defender’s head and wasn’t caught was considered a home run.
Alone that afternoon, my imaginary game having reached the fourth or fifth inning, I froze as the sound of my mother screaming reached me through the open windows. I don’t remember which two teams I was pretending to be or what the score was at the time, I only remember that I had never heard my mother make that sound before.
Oh, I’d heard my mother yell before, usually in anger when I was driving her crazy in the kitchen, which I was wont to do, but this was different. This was the sound of a wounded animal, which, in that moment, she quite literally was, having stuck herself with a sewing needle. She’d been knitting to calm herself as the Sox clung to their 2-0 lead going into the seventh inning.
But it was more than just the mere pain of a needle piercing her skin. Her scream was the sound of a mama bear watching her cub being wounded. Because what had caused her to stick herself with that needle, rather who had caused her to stick herself with that needle, was Bucky Dent. Bucky F%&$ing Dent.
In the top of the seventh of the real game being played not six miles from our house, Bucky Dent of all people, Bucky F#@$ing Dent, had lofted what at first appeared to be a harmless pop fly to left only to have it float on the autumn breeze up and over the Green Monster for a three-run home run. The Sox were now losing. And as all well-conditioned Sox fans knew, from that moment on the game’s outcome was already a foregone conclusion.
Yes, there was a final, bottom-of-the-ninth glimmer of hope, when my hero, Jim Rice, came to bat with two runners on, but he flew out and then Carl Yaztremski popped up and the game was over.
There have been persistent rumors that Dent’s bat was corked, which only prolonged the pain, because it added a large dash of what-might-have-been to the memories of that day 35 years ago. The Yankees went on to defeat the Kansas City Royals and then the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, their then 22nd championship and second in a row. It would take the Red Sox another 26 years to finally break the curse.
I don’t remember what Sister Debbie said to me the next morning when I got to school. She may have teased me in a good-natured way. Or she may have taken the high road, recognizing the vulnerability of a young Sox fan experiencing for the first time what it truly meant to be a Sox fan.
But that’s the thing, kids bounce back much more quickly than adults do. By Tuesday, October 3, 1978, I’m pretty sure I had moved on to football, whose season was already a month old by then, and the Patriots, for once, looked pretty good. They would even make the playoffs.
Like all matters, losing is learned. By itself, losing is merely a single data point among thousands of data points. So many variables go into determining whether a team wins or loses—a gust of wind at just the right moment, a corked bat, the fraction of an inch Jim Rice got under that Goose Gossage fastball in the ninth inning—one game can hardly tell us anything at all. It certainly can’t sum up a century of history.
But we impart meaning to single data points. We extrapolate from them to convince ourselves a team is cursed and that curse then becomes self-sustaining. My mother taught me many lessons when I was a young boy, good and bad. She taught me how to use long division to calculate the batting and earned run averages of my favorite players. She also taught me to believe that, at least as far as the Red Sox were concerned, superstition trumped talent.
So, on this, the 35th anniversary of one of the landmark games in the history of the lopsided rivalry between my Red Sox and those dreaded Yankees, all I can say is, Bucky F$%&ing Dent.