The Boston Red Sox capped off the largest mid-season collapse in history with a loss to the New York Yankees, and a home run to a complete nobody.
Sixty years after winning their last championship, Boston had made the postseason only three times. This was before the creation of the wildcard spot in postseason play; the Sox could only get in if they posted the best record in their division, and with the Yankees constantly in their way, that seldom happened.
1978 appeared to be the Red Sox year. They had American League MVP Jim Rice, a solid pitching rotation, and a double-digit lead over every team in the AL. By July 19th, the Red Sox possessed a 14-game edge over the rival Yankees. Their spot in the postseason was all but secured.
Of course, these were the cursed Red Sox, and nothing was easy. Over their final 72 games, Boston barely etched out an above .500 record while the Yankees, after firing manager Billy Martin and replacing him with Bob Lemon, cruised and finished the season 52-21. New York made their meetings with the Red Sox count. In early September, the two teams met at Fenway Park for a crucial four-game series. The Yankees obliterated the Sox in all four games by a combined score of 42-9; the series was described as "The Boston Massacre" in New England.
Pitching for the Red Sox was Mike Torrez, a Yankees defector who won a championship with the Bronx Bombers the previous season, while the Yankees tossed out Cy Young winner Ron Guidry, who would finish 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA.
The Red Sox started out strong with a home run from Carl Yastrzemski and an RBI from Rice. Through six innings, Torrez was throwing a two-hit shutout and Boston led 2-0.
In the top of the 7th, Torrez started to slip. Singles by Chris Chambliss and Roy White put the tying runs on base with two outs. Luckily for Boston, the man at the plate was the ninth hitter in the Yankees' order: shortstop Bucky Dent. Dent was in a bit of a slump, going hitless in his past thirteen at-bats, and posed no threat to drive it out of the park. Through 162 games, Dent had only produced four home runs and 37 RBI.
Dent cracked his bat only a couple pitches in and was handed a new one from teammate Mickey Rivers. With the count at 1-1, Torrez rocketed a fastball to the plate. Bucky swung his new bat and lofted the ball towards the Green Monster in left field. Yastrzemski turned towards the wall and watched the baseball soar over the 37-foot barrier -- his last attempt at a title escaping from view. The stadium went deafly silent as Dent crossed home plate, giving New York a 3-2 lead.
"When I hit the ball, I knew that I had hit it high enough to hit the wall," Dent said. "But there were shadows on the net behind the wall and I didn't see the ball land there. I didn't know I had hit a homer until I saw the umpire at first signaling home run with his hand. I couldn't believe it."
Red Sox manager Don Zimmer was surprised at the homer as well. When Dent hit made connect with the baseball, Zimmer rejoiced at what he thought was a sure out. But with the wind blowing away from home plate, Dent's ball hung in the air long enough to escape the ballpark all together.
The Yankees added two more runs to make it 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. Goose Gossage came on for the save but struggled as he fought through the heart of the Red Sox order. With one out in the inning, Boston had plated two runs, had two men on base, and had their best two hitters waiting to tie the game. In succession, Gossage got Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski to fly out. Yaz's pop fly stranded a man at third and gave the Yankees a 5-4 win.
"There must have been some magic in that new bat," said Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph. "He took one swing, and the rest is history."
A disgruntled Don Zimmer, having watched the season evaporate before his eyes, referred to the game's hero as "Bucky F***ing Dent." For the rest of his life, this is how the Yankees shortstop was referred to by Red Sox fans. Even though his major league career was adequate at best, by performing when it really mattered, Dent become a hosehould name in New York and New England.
"One of my close friends called me and said, 'You know, that home run is going to change your life,''' Dent recalled. "I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'It's going to be something that's really special because everybody's going to remember where they were watching that game and stuff like that."
(Reggie Jackson -- who hit a homer in the eighth -- and Bucky Dent. Photo courtesy of AP)
The Yankees advanced to the World Series where they faced the Los Angeles Dodgers. Dent batted .417 in the series and won the MVP as his Yankees conquered L.A. in six games. ''I played in three All-Star Games. I played in the World Series. And I got to play for the Yankees. But that home run was the biggest thing I ever did," he said.
Zimmer, having presided over the largest mid-season collapse in baseball history, was heavily blamed for the Red Sox defeat.
"(He) took Bill Lee out of the rotation because they did not get along," Mike Torrez said. "Bill had 10 wins and 3 losses at the All-Star break. But he called Don a buffalo head and Don took him out of the rotation and put him in the bullpen. He called up Bobby Sprowl from the minors to start and he didn’t win a game in seven starts. That hurt us."
Torrez, having won a title with the Yankees, was not haunted by Dent's home run. "It's one of the biggest moments in baseball history, so I'm kind of tickled pink that I gave it up. What the hell. He got lucky, but that's all part of the game."
As time went on, a wildcard position was added to the playoff system. This allowed teams who finished second in their division to compete in the postseason. In 2004, the Red Sox, as a wildcard team, beat the Yankees in seven games and finally won a championship, breaking the "Curse of the Bambino." Fittingly, the Sox won with Don Zimmer sitting in the Yankees dugout as a bench coach.