This week The Post takes a fresh look at the “best of” New York sports history – areas that are just worthy of debate, but that have been argued incessantly. Today’s edition: the best comeback in New York sports history.
The summer of 1978 hardly seemed like it was setting up for the Yankees to pull off one of the most dramatic comebacks in baseball history.
Coming off a World Series victory last year, they found themselves in the fourth place and 14 games behind the first-place Red Sox in the AL East on July 19th.
They were still 8½ out on Aug. 20, but managed to trim that deficit to just four games by the time the Yankees visited Fenway Park for a four-game series that began on Sept. 7.
What happened then became known as the Boston Massacre, four straight wins by the Yankees by a combined score of 42-9 that moved them into a tie with the Red Sox atop the division.
The Yankees eventually went up by as many as 3½ games, but gave away the last of that lead on the final day of the regular season, which forced a one-game playoff.
At no point, though, did Bucky Dent believe the Yankees would come to finish on top.
“It was a classic game at the end of a phenomenal year, ” Dent said by phone. “It’s hard to explain how we pulled it off.”
Dent provided the big blow in the winner-take-all contest, a three-run homer to give the Yankees the lead in the seventh inning. And not surprising the season still resonates with fans – and is considered the best comeback in New York sports history by The Post’s sports department.
“Not at all, ” Dent said. “You had it all: drama, our most bitter rivals and it just became one game or one series. It seemed a good reason stood the test of time. “
After all, it resulted in two nicknames: The Boston Massacre and Bucky [bleeping] Dent and one of the most memorable sports quotes with Billy Martin’s line: “One’s liar, the other’s convicted” when talking about Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner.
Following their first title since 1962 last year, the Yankees lost four of their first five games to start the ’78 season. They recovered to get to 29-15 on May 29, but then went nine games under .500 through July 17 to fall to 47-42.
When the season went from disappointing to bizarre – including Thurman Munson was moved to the right field and Jackson had his playing time reduced.
In the middle of a July winning streak, Jackson was suspended for ignoring a sign from the dugout – then Martin resigned under pressure a week later, a day after his infamous quote about Jackson and Steinbrenner.
Bob Lemon replaced Martin and that, according to Dent, was a key part of the turnaround.
“That relaxed the team, ” Dent said. “Bob calmed everyone down and just said, ‘Go play.’ You could feel the tension go away. ”
The team also dealt with injuries to Dent, Catfish Hunter, Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph, who all spent time on the disabled list.
Despite Lemon’s impact, the Yankees opened September 6½ games behind Boston, the same deficit they had faced on Aug. 1.
“As we got guys back and healthy, we had Catfish to go along with [Ron] Guidry, who we know we are winning with every five days, ” Dent said. “Once we started winning two of three and three of four, we felt like we would keep rolling. Our mindset was that we needed to pick up one game a week. “
They also had seven games remaining against Boston, which Dent said the Yankees knew “would make or break our season.”
Then came the four-game series at Fenway in early September.
“That was our chance, ” Dent said.
They made the most of it.
“You play well without timely hitting, great pitching and defense,” Jackson said. “And the players were there, from Thurman, to [Lou] Piniella, to [Graig] Nettles, to Dent and Randolph and [Chris] Chambliss. … Of course, we had Ron Guidry, the best pitcher in baseball and that made a difference – and [Goose] Gossage and [Sparky] Lyle. ”
Boston’s manager that season, Don Zimmer, recalled the infamous series in 2003.
“Let me ask you a question, it’s a four-game massacre, right?” Zimmer said. “How many doubles and home runs were hit? It was base hit after base hit. As a manager, all you could do was bring in another [pitcher] and try and bring in another and try it. Nothing worked. When they say massacre, somebody uses the right word. “
Jackson, also in 2003, remembered the aftermath of the series.
“I remember sitting next to Lou Piniella in the clubhouse after the fourth game and I asked him, ‘What do we do now?'” Jackson said. “He was smoking a cigarette, turned to me and said, ‘We keep winning.'”
The winning, which actually started before the Massacre, extended to a 13-2 run, including the first two games of the Yankees’ next series against the Red Sox, this time in The Bronx. They went up by 3½ games, but the Red Sox never went away and caught the Yankees on the final day of the season, leading to a one-game playoff.
After the Yankees lost a coin toss, the game was played in Boston, but that shook Dent’s confidence.
“We were just locked in at that point, ” Dent said. “When the team was focused, we were hard to beat. We had so many tough guys that had been through it all before. We always felt we were gonna win [the division], even when things work out for us that last day. ”
Boston took a 2-0 lead into the seventh, when Dent hit his three-run homer. The Yankees went up 5-2 before Gossage allowed two runs in the eighth and the Yankees held on for the victory, then went on to beat the Royals in the ALCS. In the World Series, the Yankees pulled off another comeback, winning four in a row after dropping the first two games to the Dodgers to win their second straight title.
“To do what we did under the circumstances made it even better,” Dent said. “In both ’77 and ’78, whatever was going on the field impacted what we did on the field. … It was a group of guys that lost. ”
– Additional reporting by George A. King III