SI Vault
Peter Gammons
September 18, 1978
The Red Sox, once 14 games up on the Yankees, saw their lead shot down by New York's murderous play and their own killing errors
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September 18, 1978

The Boston Massacre

The Red Sox, once 14 games up on the Yankees, saw their lead shot down by New York's murderous play and their own killing errors

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The man had on a gray Brooks Brothers suit, which made him look for all the world as if he were Harvard '44, and he was leaning over the railing of the box next to the Red Sox dugout. " Zimmer!" he screamed, but Don Zimmer just stared dead ahead. The score at that point in last Friday night's game was 13-0 in favor of the Yankees, and except to change pitchers a few times the Red Sox manager hadn't moved in three hours. He had stared as Mickey Rivers stood on third just two pitches into the game. He had stared as, for the second straight night, a Yankee batter got his third hit before Boston's ninth hitter. Butch Hobson, even got to the plate. He had stared as the Red Sox made seven errors. And now he stared as the man kept screaming his name.

"I've been a Red Sox fan for 20 years," the man hollered. "A diehard Red Sox fan. I've put up with a lot of heartaches. But this time you've really done it. This time my heart's been broken for good." Finally Zimmer looked up, just as security guards hauled the man away.

From Eastport to Block Island, New Englanders were screaming mad. Only a couple of weeks before, the Red Sox had been baseball's one sure thing, but now Fenway Park was like St. Petersburg in the last days of Czar Nicholas. Back in July, when Billy Martin still sat in the Yankee manager's office and New York was in the process of falling 14 games behind the Sox, Reggie Jackson had said, "Not even Affirmed can catch them." But by late last Sunday afternoon, when the 1978 version of the Boston Massacre concluded with New York's fourth win in a row over the Red Sox, the Yankees had caught them. And the Yanks had gained a tie for first in the American League East in such awesome fashion—winning 16 of their last 18, including the lopsided victories that comprised the Massacre—that Saturday night a New Yorker named Dick Waterman walked into a Cambridge bar, announced, "For the first time a first-place team has been mathematically eliminated," and held up a sign that read: NY 35-49-4, BOS 5-16-11. Those figures were the combined line score of last weekend's first three games. The disparity between those sets of numbers, as much as the losses themselves, was what so deeply depressed Red Sox fans. "It's 1929 all over again," mourned Robert Crane, treasurer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Red Sox and Yankees began their two-city, seven-game, 11-day showdown in Boston last Thursday—it will continue with three games this weekend in New York—and it quickly became apparent that this confrontation would be quite different from their six-game shoot-out in late June and early July. On that occasion the Red Sox had beaten the Yanks four times and opened up a lead that appeared insurmountable. Back then the Yankees had so few healthy bodies that Catcher Thurman Munson was trying to become a rightfielder, and one day a minor league pitcher named Paul Semall drove from West Haven, Conn. to Boston to throw batting practice. Had the New York brass liked the way he threw, Semall would have stayed with the Yankees and become a starter. By midnight Semall was driving back to West Haven, and soon thereafter injuries became so rife among New York pitchers that reserve First Baseman Jim Spencer was warming up in the bullpen.

Rivers, the centerfielder and key to the Yankee offense, had a broken wrist. Both members of the double-play combination, Willie Randolph and Bucky Dent, were injured and out of the lineup. To complete the up-the-middle collapse, Munson was playing—sometimes behind the plate and sometimes in right—with a bad leg, and the pitching staff had been reduced to Gong Show contestants. Paul Semall got gonged. Dave Rajsish got gonged. Larry McCall got gonged. Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, Dick Tidrow, Ken Clay, Andy Messersmith and Don Gullett were all hurt or soon to be injured. Only the brilliant Ron Guidry stayed healthy. Almost singlehandedly he kept the bottom from falling out during July and early August.

Then, as the regulars gradually began getting back into the lineup, the blowup between owner George Steinbrenner and Martin occurred. Martin resigned on July 24, and the next day Bob Lemon, who had recently been canned by the White Sox, took over. "The season starts today," Lemon told the Yankees. "Go have some fun." Considering the disarray in New York during the preceding year and a half, that seemed a bit much to ask. So was catching Boston. No American League team had ever changed managers in midseason and won a championship. "Under Lemon we became a completely different team," says Spencer. "If Martin were still here we wouldn't be," snaps one player. "We'd have quit. Rivers and Jackson couldn't play for him. But Lemon gave us a fresh spirit. We kept playing. We looked up, and Boston was right in front of us." The fact that a suddenly revived Hunter had won six straight, that Figueroa had regained health and happiness, that Tidrow had again become hale and that rookie righthander Jim Beattie had returned from the minors with his self-confidence restored didn't hurt.

And while the Yankees arrived in Boston 30-13 under Lemon and 35-14 since July 17—the night they fell 14 games behind—the Red Sox had been stumbling. They were 25-24 since July 17. Their 39-year-old leader, Carl Yastrzemski, had suffered back and shoulder ailments in mid-July, and then he pulled ligaments in his right wrist that left him taped up and in and out of the lineup. He had hit three homers in two months. Second Baseman Jerry Remy fractured a bone in his left wrist on Aug. 25 and had not appeared in the lineup thereafter.

Catcher Carlton Fisk had been playing with a cracked rib, which he said made him feel as if "someone is sticking a sword in my side" every time he threw. Third Baseman Butch Hobson has cartilage and ligament damage in both knees and bone chips in his right elbow. The chips are so painful that one night he had to run off the field during infield practice; his elbow had locked up on him. When New York came to town, he had a major league-leading 38 errors, most of them the result of bad throws made with his bad arm. Right-fielder Dwight Evans had been beaned on Aug. 29 and was experiencing dizziness whenever he ran. Reliever Bill Campbell, who had 31 saves and 13 wins in 1977, had suffered from elbow and shoulder soreness all season.

The injuries tended to dampen Boston's already erratic, one-dimensional offense, which relies too heavily on power hitting even when everyone is healthy. They also ruined the Sox defense, which had been the facet of play most responsible for giving the Red Sox a 10-game lead over their nearest challenger, Milwaukee, on July 8. No wonder the pitching went sour, with Mike Torrez going 4-4 since the All-Star game, Luis Tiant 3-7 since June 24 and Bill Lee 0-7 since July 15. And as Boston awaited its confrontation with the Yankees, it lost three out of five to Toronto and Oakland and two of three in Baltimore. The Sox' only lift came in Wednesday's 2-0 win over the Orioles. Tiant pitched a two-hitter that night, and Yaz, his wrist looking like a mummy's, hit a two-run homer. It was one of only two hits the Sox got off Dennis Martinez.

As play began Thursday night at Fenway Park, the Red Sox lead had dwindled to four games with 24 to play. "We'll be happy with a split," Lemon said. By 9:05 p.m. Friday—during the third inning of Game 2—Lemon turned to Pitching Coach-Scout Clyde King and said, "Now I'll only be happy with three out of four." Right about then The Washington Post 's Tom Boswell was writing his lead: "Ibid, for details, see yesterday's paper." The details were downright embarrassing to the Red Sox.

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