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Madden: 40 years ago, my career took an improbable turn leading to an impossible home run

September 29, 2018

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Sunday afternoon, October 1, 1978, 40 years ago, I was sitting in the press box at Yankee Stadium, watching the Cleveland Indians complete their 9-2 demolition of the Yankees in which Catfish Hunter had been unceremoniously pounded for five runs and two homers in just 1.3 innings, when the United Press International phone in front of me rang.

“Billy,” the voice on the other end said, “you’re going to Boston with me tomorrow to write the night lead.”

It was Milton Richman, my boss and the sports editor of United Press International, a rival wire service to the Associated Press. By this time Richman was already a legend in the baseball writers community. I, on the other hand, was a pup. The No. 2 baseball writer on the UPI staff, but as Milton explained over the phone, our No. 1 baseball writer, Fred McMane, was already on a plane to Kansas City to cover the American League Championship Series.

He needed someone in Boston right away.

“Finish your game story there,” Milton said, “and meet me tomorrow at LaGuardia. We’re taking the first (7 a.m.) shuttle to Boston. Just bring your typewriter. We’ll fly right back after we’re done up there.”

This was to be my first baseball postseason writing leads for UPI. From 1975 (my first World Series)-1977, I had been relegated to writing sidebars while the senior writers handled the lead story. I felt I was ready, but I also thought I had three days to prepare myself. It was assumed if there was to be a playoff game in Boston, our local UPI correspondent there, would handle it. Now, suddenly, without any advance notice, I was on my way to cover one of the biggest games in baseball history!

Milton and I arrived at Fenway Park at about 8:30 the next morning. We were the first reporters to arrive at the then-66-year-old ballpark, and when we entered the press room, Tommy McCarthy, the venerable Fenway Park press steward and one of the sweetest men ever to work in baseball, greeted us warmly and asked us if he could make us some breakfast.

“You want some eggs, Billy?” Milton asked.

I was dumbfounded. It’s the biggest game of the year, in which hundreds of newspaper men and women would soon be swarming into Tommy McCarthy’s press room and here he was offering to personally cook us breakfast. Looking back now, it also says a lot about the respect for which Richman was held throughout baseball.

After finishing a plate off scrambled eggs, I strolled out to the press box, found our seats, made sure the phone was in working order, and began taking in the scene. It was a magnificent cloudless early fall morning, temperatures in the mid-’70s. Couldn’t be a more perfect day for a ballgame that would decide the American League East after what had been a riveting roller coaster division race in which the Yankees had stormed back from 14 games behind on July 19 (four days before Billy Martin was fired as manager and replaced by Bob Lemon) to take over first place on September 13 and hold it for the rest of the month until being tied on the final day by the Red Sox, who won their last eight games in a row.

Many years later, former Red Sox manager Don Zimmer, reflecting on the ’78 season, expressed his frustration at how it will be remembered.

“They’ll say forever we choked,” Zimmer said, “but that was the last thing that happened. One of the proudest parts of my career was the Red Sox winning those last eight games in a row to force the tie. We could have rolled over and quit after being swept those four games in Boston (Sept. 7-10) to lose first place (an utter destruction forever known as the Boston Massacre). But it was the mark of my team that they didn’t.”

Former Red Sox manager Don Zimmer (r.) talks with Sox legend Ted Williams on September 30th, two days before Boston took on the Yankees in a one-game playoff for the AL East at Fenway Park. (Dave Tenenbaum / AP)

As I gazed out on the field, the Yankee team bus had pulled up behind the left field bleachers and the Yankees, in their street clothes, were strolling slowly across the outfield grass, en route to third base dugout with its the perpetually puddled tunnel that leads up to the visitors clubhouse. Their faces were somber and there didn’t appear to be any discourse among them. For the first time in my life I could actually feel the tension in the air. It was a tension that would not subside until the final out of the game.

It didn’t matter that Ron Guidry, at 24-3 and closing in on a rare triple crown of pitching (;leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts) was the Yankees’ starting pitcher against Mike Torrez, sporting an ERA of more than two runs per game higher (3.92 to 1.71). So much had happened with these two teams to get to this point that no one would dare predict the outcome of one game to decide all – least of all me.

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“We were two very evenly matched teams,” said Lou Piniella. “By far the two best teams in baseball. We knew whoever won this game was going to win it all. Sure, we liked our chances with ‘Gator’ but we were playing in their ballpark and their lineup had no weaknesses.”

Although he struck out two of the first three Red Sox in the first, it didn’t seem Guidry, pitching on three days’ rest for the third straight start, had quite the same zip on his fastball and slider he’d demonstrated all season long – most notably that June 17 night at the Stadium when I’d covered his 18-strikeout game against the Angels. The most electrifying pitching performance I’ve ever seen; the game that gave birth to the rhythmic clapping after two strikes.

Yankees ace Ron Guidry didn't have his best stuff on Oct. 2, 1978 at Fenway Park, but had just enough to beat Boston for his 25th win and send the Yankees to the ALCS vs. Kansas City.
Yankees ace Ron Guidry didn’t have his best stuff on Oct. 2, 1978 at Fenway Park, but had just enough to beat Boston for his 25th win and send the Yankees to the ALCS vs. Kansas City. (Anonymous / AP)

My thoughts were founded when Carl Yastrzemski led off the second inning with a homer into the right-field seats and Guidry had only one more strikeout into the sixth when the Red Sox got him for another run on a leadoff double by Rick Burleson, a sacrifice by Jerry Remy and a single to center by Jim Rice. Fenway was rocking and I started thinking of ideas for my lead – at last atonement for losing the last two games of the season to the Yankees in 1949, sending the Bombers to the World Series.

After a groundout to first by Yastrzemski moved Rice over to second, Lemon ordered an intentional walk to Carlton Fisk to set up a lefty-lefty matchup for Guidry with Fred Lynn. As Zimmer later noted ruefully, normally at Fenway Park the defensive strategy is to bunch your outfielders toward center field in order to cut off the gaps, so when Lynn pulled a drive toward the right-field corner he leaped to the top step of the dugout, visualizing two more runs coming home, only to be stunned at the sight of Piniella running over and catching the ball right in front of the wall. Inning over.

The Yankees had managed only two hits off Torrez to that point and I privately began to wonder if their historic comeback was going to end on a whimper in Boston. But then, suddenly, after Torrez retired Graig Nettles on a routine fly to right leading off the seventh, Chris Chambliss and Roy White hit back to back singles and a nervous hush came over Fenway, even after power hitting lefty Jim Spencer, pinch hitting for Brian Doyle, flied out to right.

Now it was up to Bucky Dent, the No. 9 hitter in the Yankee lineup who’d hit .242 for the season. I remember looking down to the Yankee dugout to see if Lemon was going to call Dent back for another pinch hitter. I’m sure he would have wanted to, too, but the Yankees were playing one infielder short with Willie Randolph out for the postseason with a hamstring injury. He had no choice but to let Dent bat.

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After taking the first pitch from Torrez for a ball, Dent fouled the second pitch off his left ankle. Everything stopped for what seemed like nearly five minutes as Dent hobbled around home plate and then went back to the dugout to grab a new bat. During that time, I remember being somewhat surprised watching Torrez just pacing about the mound and not taking any warmup pitches while waiting for Dent to return. No one knew it at the time but Dent had been using one of Mickey Rivers’ bats the past few games, or that this particular one had been chipped.

When he finally got back in the box, I wondered if he, too, was injured from that foul ball off his ankle and was just trying to gut out the at-bat. My question was answered with the very next pitch from Torrez, a belt high inside fastball on which Dent swung hard and lofted a high fly to left. Once again, Zimmer leaped to the top step of the dugout, craning his head to the left. Later he would say, his first thought was that it was just an out. Then when Yastrzemski reached the Green Monster and turned around, Zimmer thought the ball was going to bounce off the top of the wall. This was, after all, Bucky Dent (later to be immortalized in Boston as “Bucky F-ing Dent”)

In the top of the seventh, with the Yankees trailing 2-0, Bucky Dent connects off Mike Torrez, launching 3-run bomb over the Green Monster, etching his name in Yankee lore and giving birth to Bucky (f'ing) Dent in Boston.
In the top of the seventh, with the Yankees trailing 2-0, Bucky Dent connects off Mike Torrez, launching 3-run bomb over the Green Monster, etching his name in Yankee lore and giving birth to Bucky (f’ing) Dent in Boston. (Ray Stubblebine / AP)

“But then I realized the wind had been blowing out and my heart sank when saw the ball land in the screen,” Zimmer said.

Never had I ever experienced a ballpark going as silent as Fenway did at that moment — 32,925 fans in stunned disbelief. I looked at Milton.

“You better start writing Billy,” he said. “I’ve seen this act before with the Red Sox.”

“Torrez had thrown that same inside fastball to me before and handcuffed me,” Dent said. “But I was hoping to see it again because I knew how Torrez pitched. He’d been with the Yankees the year before. I knew if I got it, I’d be able to drive it.”

When Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, homered leading off the eighth to make it a 5-2 game, the final outcome looked more certain. Still, this was Fenway Park. Goose Gossage came on for Guidry in the eighth and gave up a leadoff double to Remy and three successive one-out singles to Yastrzemski, Fisk and Lynn to cut the deficit to 5-4. I felt a knot in my stomach. Gossage had nothing. I thought of a favorite saying we have in the press box: “What we’re all going to be writing about for tomorrow has not yet happened.” I stopped writing.

It turned out the most dramatic inning of the whole game was about to unfold.

Bucky Dent is greeted at home plate by Roy White (8) and Chris Chambliss after he his memorable three-run home.
Bucky Dent is greeted at home plate by Roy White (8) and Chris Chambliss after he his memorable three-run home. (Bettmann / Bettmann Archive)

After retiring Dwight Evans on a fly to left for the first out in the ninth, Gossage walked Rick Burleson, then gave up a soft liner to right field by Remy. Right field in Fenway Park can be one of the most treacherous in all of baseball, especially on a cloudless day like this when the sun rises over the roof behind home plate, right into the right fielder’s eyes. That was all Piniella thought about when he saw his name penciled into the lineup in right field and Jackson, who’d played right the previous two games at Yankee Stadium, in the DH spot. Now, his worst fears were being realized as Remy’s ball came right at him and he couldn’t see it.

Operating purely on instincts, Piniella backtracked a little, waiting for the ball to come out of the sun before dropping a few feet to his left. He lunged to cut it off, keeping it from getting past him, picked it up on one hop, and fired over to Nettles at third. His ‘deke’ job had caused Burleson to hesitate between first and second, just enough to force him to hold at second. Had he made it to third, he would have scored the tying run on Rice’s subsequent fly to right.

Now the Red Sox were down to their final out, in the person of their captain. Leader and former AL MVP, Yastrzemski, hero of their 1975 Impossible Dream team. Once again I began envisioning my new lead. Outside of the Yankee dugout, I don’t think there was a single person in the ballpark, myself included, that didn’t think Yaz was either going to tie the game right there with a base hit, or win it outright with a home run off the struggling Gossage.

It is why everyone was again just stunned (as they’d been with Dent’s homer) when Yaz lifted a half-swing pop-up to Nettles at third which seemingly took an eternity to come down safely into his glove.

“Okay, Billy, put a topper on your running story and meet me down in the clubhouse,” Milton said. “Yankees first.”

There was predictable bedlam and spraying champagne in the tiny visitors clubhouse, almost impossible to navigate around the mob of reporters and TV crews. I saw where Milton was, front and center at the foot of Dent’s locker, so I headed for the scrum surrounding Piniella. They were asking him about the two game-saving plays he’d made in right field — the catch off Lynn in the corner in the sixth and the Remy play in the ninth. On the Lynn play he said: “I’d noticed that Gator didn’t have his best stuff today and I was concerned that Lynn would be able to pull the ball off him, so I shaded a few feet toward the (right-field) line,” Piniella explained. “On the Remy play, I admit I was totally blinded. I had an idea where the ball was and the key was not to panic and to keep the ball in front of me when it came down. I could see Burleson wasn’t sure if I caught it.”

Yankees mob oneanother after winning the one-game playoff against the Boston 40 years ago on OCt. 2, 1978 Red Sox at Fenway Park, sending the Bombers to a meeting with Royals in the ALCS. The Yankees would go on to win the '78 World Series, their second in a row.
Yankees mob oneanother after winning the one-game playoff against the Boston 40 years ago on OCt. 2, 1978 Red Sox at Fenway Park, sending the Bombers to a meeting with Royals in the ALCS. The Yankees would go on to win the ’78 World Series, their second in a row. (Anonymous / AP)

I don’t remember what my final story read like, other than I’m pretty sure I had all the elements of the game in it and Milton bought me dinner in New York when we got home. The story appeared in hundreds of papers around the country, mostly without a byline, just not in New York. Such was the price paid working for a wire service, where you toiled in virtual anonymity. A few months after the ’78 World Series (and the newspaper strike which Lemon credited as the biggest factor in the Yankees’ great comeback), I joined the Daily News and became the Yankee beat man, forming lasting friendships with most of the players on that 1978 team over the years. Dent, Piniella, Guidry, Gossage, Chambliss, Spencer, Randolph, White…they were all genuinely good guys and fun to cover. And I will never forget the night years later I was having a drink with Dent in a bar in Manhattan when some guy, half inebriated, came up to us and blustered: “Ahhh Bucky Dent…how many f-ing home runs did you hit in the big leagues?”

Without hesitation, Bucky deadpanned: “Only one. But it was a big one.”

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