Often at times when I write about sports-related subject matter, I’m always drawn back to my roots. You live long enough to retain vivid memories of important days that shaped the positive parts of your life and it becomes more than points on a map. Those memories become part of your history, rich in the moments you embody as you walk through life.
Every time I write about the game of baseball, a sea of memories floods in. It is quite hard to decipher which memories to express for a particular piece. You want to write about a single moment, yet a thousand other moments come to mind. The essay becomes a jumbled mess of facts without any focus.
As I stared at the screen wondering what I should write, I had an epiphany. It came in a very simple question.
PART 1 – 1975
“What was the one moment that hooked you in on the game of baseball?”
After taking this under consideration, one moment did stand out as the point of no return in regards to my love for the game. I better explain further.
Growing up in Reseda, those of us who lived in Los Angeles County were indoctrinated into the realm of Dodger Blue. Ever since the Bums arrived in 1958, they were the only the best show in town as far as sports entertainment went. Hollywood supported the Dodgers through three World Championships through 1965. So did everyone else.
In 1961, the Angels began to play at rickety old Wrigley Field in South Central L.A. As the junior leaguers soon found out, L.A. was not an American League town. When you had Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale holding court on the mound up near Chinatown and Echo Park, anyone wearing the red halo embroidered on their navy blue caps might as well have that halo worn crooked.
Prior to October 1975, the Dodgers represented the National League in the World Series five times since arriving out west. The Angels since moved from Los Angeles County into Anaheim behind the Orange Curtain. They never placed better than third in any pennant race through this time.
By this time, I was an 11-year-old who became sick of the Dodgers and of the National League. I wanted some excitement when it came to the Fall Classic. Despite the fact that the A’s won three Series in a row, it still didn’t even pique my interest. In 1975, the Big Red Machine arrived at the Series for the second time since 1940. In lieu of a Dodger repeat as National League champions, mom was pleased to see her old Reds return in the fall.
Then, there’s the Boston Red Sox. The curse was still on for the Sox and the fans back in Boston had not forgotten about the disappointment of the 1967 World Series. Keep in mind this was before Bill Buckner separated from the Dodgers thanks to Free Agency, the word “idiot” was considered a bad word around New England and the concept of piping Celtic Punk into Fenway’s PA system was out of the question.
The 1975 World Series had been remarkable through the fourth game. At Riverfront Stadium, the Reds took the Series’ advantage by winning the Fifth game handily. The next morning, every newspaper in North America already crowned the Reds as the World Champions of 1975.
The following Tuesday night, the awarding of the Commissioner’s Trophy almost happened at Fenway Park. In one of the best games ever played in World Series history, the Sox and the Reds traded leads and finally tied each other into extra innings. It was late in Boston, but just before my bedtime in Reseda, when a pudgy catcher from Vermont came up to bat in the bottom of the twelfth inning. Reds reliever Pat Darcy served up the fatal pitch. Carlton Fisk took it up to the Green Monster. From Fisk’s standpoint, it went very far along the line. No one knew for sure whether it will clear the foul pole towards the right. Fisk waved his arms in hopes it would stay fair.
It stayed fair. The Sox survived elimination.
And, on that night, my baseball life changed.
Part 2 – 1978
When you peruse the record books and stumble upon the mention of the 1978 World Series, you will notice that it featured the previous year’s opponents: The Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. Certainly, it was destiny that motivated both teams to the 1977 Series. Perhaps in the case of the Yankees to become World Champions again after a 15 year gap. However, the following season began with the notion that once destiny is achieved, it does not last forever.
In fact, both the Dodgers and the Yankees almost did not repeat as league champions in 1978. Both teams were embroiled in the fiercest pennant races ever during the 1970’s. For one team, their manager his job, but made a hero out of a guy named Bucky Dent. Would you imagine a World Series with the Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants? How about the Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies? Considering the state of baseball during that season, these possibilities almost became reality.
By the beginning of June 1978, both the Red Sox and Giants had commanding leads in their respective divisions. The Dodgers were as far back as third behind the Giants in the National League West, while the Yankees bounced between second and third in the American League East. Could it be a coincidence that these two hotly contested pennant races featured their worst division rivals vying for the same flag?
Boston fans wanted nothing more to take the place of the rival Yankees at the World Series. With the memory of the 1975 World Series seventh game loss clear in everyone’s minds, it seemed that the Red Sox were prepared to deliver with their finest roster in years. Jim Rice was clearly the American League’s top slugger during the regular season. His power alone complimented veterans such as Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, and Dwight Evans. Fred Lynn continued to provide excitement out in the field. On the mound, there was no one meaner than “El Tiante,” the fiery Luis Tiant who had no love for batters and fans alike. Before he became one of the finest relievers in baseball, Dennis Eckersley was just as feared as a starter for the Sox.
The irony of Don Zimmer managing the Sox in 1978 would be that he would end up a winning Yankees coach 20 seasons later.
With a team such as the Red Sox, the Yankees knew they were in trouble. The Yanks retained most of their World Champion lineup from 1977, including manager Billy Martin. George Steinbrenner, the Managing Partner of the club, wanted nothing less than a repeat of the last season.
They were as far back as 14 games behind the Red Sox. After a dugout altercation with Reggie Jackson, one that was caught live on television, Martin resigned as manager on July 24. Baseball mainstay Bob Lemon was brought in to replace Martin the next day. On Old Timer’s Day, a mere five days later, the fans in New York were given a huge surprise. Steinbrenner announced that Martin will return as manager in 1980, moving Lemon up to General Manager.
Whether Steinbrenner’s move on Old Timer’s Day or the arrival of Lemon was the catalyst of an incredible comeback, it ended up forcing a one-day playoff on October 3 at Fenway Park. On one swing from Dent, the dreams of New England’s faithful were again washed away in tears.
As rivalries go, the Dodgers and the Giants can get just as ugly. Even to manager Tommy Lasorda, there was nothing wrong with the Dodgers. They only added the powerful Burt Hooton, whose arm alone complimented the starting rotation of Don Sutton, Tommy John, Rick Rhoden and a young phenom by the name of Bob Welch. The nucleus of the Dodgers remained intact, especially the infield of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes and Bill Russell.
Before he became a World Series manager, Dusty Baker patrolled left field in Dodger Blue. It is ironic that he would lead the rival Giants to the 2002 Series.
By contrast, the 1978 Giants were mainly a youthful bunch with two Bay Area icons standing tall: Willie McCovey and Vida Blue. Managed by Joe Altobelli, who would become the National League Manager of the Year that season, the young Giants were hungry and ran out of the gate early much to the behest of the fans to the south. Jack Clark was a relative unknown until he flexed his power swing at National League pitching. Clark and Bill Madlock provided a one-two punch that kept the Dodgers and everyone else at arm’s length for most of the season. Soon, the other Giants started getting notice with names of Johnnie LeMaster, Ed Halicki, Jim Barr, Mike Ivie and Terry Whitfield.
However, it all came down to a four-game series at Candlestick Park in early August. The Dodgers were within reach of the Giants but needed to leapfrog the Cincinnati Reds in order to get to the division leaders. On Thursday night, the opening game of the series, it all came crashing down. With a 4-3 lead going in the top of the ninth, the Giants were two outs away. With Barr on the mound, Lee Lacy came up to pinch hit for reliever Charlie Hough.
Lacy hit a fly ball into right-center field, where Clark and Larry Herndon gave chase until they both collided into each other. Herndon had the ball, but upon impact of the turf, the ball simply rolled out. No one came to cover the ball as both Clark and Herndon just lay on the ground, knocked out. Lacy tied the game with an inside the park home run, as ruled by the umpires.
The Giants went on to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, but the team was never the same after that point. The Dodgers seized the division lead by the following week while the Giants took a freefall into third at the season’s end.
In retrospect, these pennant races provided the drama that makes baseball what it is today. The unexpected drama that almost prevented Bob Welch from being a hero by striking Reggie Jackson out in game 2 of the 1978 Series. Even Reggie being at bat almost happened. Ultimately, these two men survived the roughest of pennant races to face each other that night at Dodger Stadium.
Yet, we are reminded that in the game of baseball anything is possible. Especially the events that almost happened.