It was before seven on a crystalline autumn morning when Rick Burleson left his home in Acton, Mass., and simply drove around. "I felt like I had ulcers,' " the Boston Red Sox shortstop said later. A few days earlier Burleson had summarized the emotions of much of New England by saying, "My only feeling for the Yankees is that I hate them."
The 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and the New York Yankees on Oct. 2 was the sudden-death overtime to a six-month war. In late July the Red Sox had been 14 games in front of the Yankees, living up to a Boston Herald story titled, HOW THE SOX BUILT '78 WONDER TEAM. Then the Yanks began a two-month assault on the Red Sox lead and by Sept. 16 led Boston by 3½ games, prompting New York third baseman Graig Nettles to say of the Sox, "I don't feel sorry for them—I pity them."
But Boston won their last eight games of the season to tie the Yankees, leaving Red Sox fans with a one-game shot at absolution for 60 years of torment. But for many of those fans there was a sense of dread: Said one fearful follower that day, "They got our parents, and now the sonsuvbitches are coming to get us."
The tension in Fenway Park was nearly overwhelming. The Yankee starter was Ron Guidry, who came in at 24-3. Leading off the second for Boston, 39-year-old Carl Yastrzemski guessed right on a Guidry fastball and buzzed it inside the rightfield foul pole. Red Sox 1, Yankees 0. The homer unleashed the crowd, and by the bottom of the sixth it looked as if the Sox might blow the game open. Jim Rice singled in Burleson. Guidry then intentionally walked Carlton Fisk to pitch to Fred Lynn with two on, two out.
"I knew Guidry didn't have his good stuff at that point," Yankee rightfielder on Piniella would say later. "I realized Lynn could pull him. So I moved over towards the line six or eight steps." Lynn smashed a line drive into the corner in right, but Piniella grabbed it just before it hit the low wall. Lynn later asked, "What was he doing out of position? How lucky can he be?"
With two out, two on and a 2-0 lead in the seventh, Sox starter Mike Torrez faced number 9 hitter Bucky Dent. After ball one, Dent fouled a pitch off his foot and limped out of the batter's box. Mickey Rivers, the on-deck hitter, noticed a crack in Dent's bat and gave him another. Dent used it to make history.
At the end of its arc the ball nestled into the screen just inside the leftfield foul pole: Yankees 3, Red Sox 2. How it got to be 5-2 is little remembered: an RBI double by Thurman Munson off reliever Bob Stanley, and a solo blast by Reggie Jackson in the top of the eighth.
But for this 163rd game of the season, the difference could not be three runs—it had to be one. In the bottom of the eighth, as if the game were scripted by the baseball gods, the Sox scored twice. Then, with one out, one on in the ninth, Jerry Remy jumped a Goose Gossage fastball and hit a line drive to right. In the late October sun Piniella could not see the ball. "I knew it was headed towards me," he said. "I just had to wait for it to come into sight and react like a hockey goalie."
The ball landed in front of him and kicked up to his left; Piniella flashed out his glove and speared it. "If it had gone by me," he said, "it would've rolled to the bullpen, Remy would've had an inside-the-park homer, and he would forever be remembered as the man who ended the Curse. Instead, I got lucky."
Rice flied to right center, and with Red Sox on first and third, it was all set up for one final two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth shoot-out between Gossage, the premier fastball pitcher of his time, and Yaz, arguably the premier fastball hitter of his. I was crouched in an aisle near the Boston dugout; after the first pitch, ball one, I turned to a companion and said, "Yaz always wins in these moments."
Gossage's second pitch was 90-something miles an hour, and just as Yastrzemski began his swing, the ball ran in on him. "That I was not prepared for," Yaz said later. The pop-up soared over the third base coach's box, and when it finally came down, Nettles squeezed it. The one-run difference between the two best teams in baseball belonged to the Yankees.
Gossage would later say, "In some situations there are no losers, only winners. That was one of them." But while the Yankees went on to win the world championship, the Red Sox, for all they had accomplished, were just another second-place team.
Dent's shocker in the seventh was a knife in the heart of the Fenway fans—though the torture would continue for two more innings.
We asked each of these baseball luminaries to tell us about the greatest game he ever saw.
George Brett, Kansas City Royals
OCT. 26, 1985; WORLD SERIES GAME 6 ROYALS 2, CARDINALS 1
"Bottom of the ninth inning, we're trailing 1-0, man on third, Jim Sundberg on second. Dane Iorg singles to right to score one run. Then Andy Van Slyke throws a one-hop rocket to the plate, but Sundberg slides headfirst around the tag and scores. We get to play another day. The next day we win 11-0 and we're the champs."
Bob Costas, broadcaster, NBC Sports
JUNE 23, 1984; CUBS 12, CARDINALS 11
"It was the Game of the Week telecast, from Wrigley Field. The Cardinals took a 9-3 lead, but the Cubs came back, and in the ninth, Chicago's Ryne Sandberg tied the game with a home run off Bruce Sutter. In the top of the 10th, Willie McGee of St. Louis doubled in a run, and, in the process, hit for the cycle. The Cardinals got another to make it 11-9. Bottom of the 10th, the Cubs had two out, nobody on. As we bestowed Player of the Game honors on McGee, Bob Dernier walked, bringing Sandberg back to the plate. Sandberg hit his second game-tying homer of the day. The Cubs wound up winning in the 11th, 12-11."
Roger Angell, writer, The New Yorker
OCT. 7, 1968; WORLD SERIES GAME 5; TIGERS 5, CARDINALS 3
"The Cards were up three games to one, and winning this one 3-2 in the fifth. Lou Brock, who already had seven stolen bases in the Series, tried to score from second on a single to left, but he failed to slide. His foot hit Detroit catcher Bill Freehan's foot. Tim Harvey makes the call: Brock is out. It turned the tide of the Series. The Tigers win this game and then the next two."
Ernie Harwell, announcer, Detroit Tigers
OCT. 3, 1951; GIANTS 5, DODGERS 4
"Bobby Thomson's home run. I was on NBC-TV, which was a big kick for me. I was usually a Giants' radio announcer along with Russ Hodges. His radio call of that homer is the most famous sports call of all time. Only Mrs. Harwell knows my call."
Roland Hemond, G.M., Baltimore Orioles
MAY 26, 1959; BRAVES 1, PIRATES 0
"Harvey Haddix of the Pirates had a perfect game going for 12 innings, then Felix Mantilla reached on an error leading off the Braves' half of the 13th. After a sacrifice, Hank Aaron was intentionally walked. Still no hits. Then Joe Adcock hit a home run. Aaron didn't realize the ball had gone out, so he stopped running. That's why the score was 1-0."
Marvin Miller, former exec, dir., Major League Baseball Players Assoc.
OCT. 13, 1960; WORLD SERIES GAME 7; PIRATES 10, YANKEES 9
"Mazeroski's home run. A finish as dramatic as anything I can remember. I was sitting in the Steelworkers' union's private box at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The most exciting moment of the entire 16 years that I lived in that town."
Tim McCarver, former catcher
MAY 30, 1967; REDS 2, CARDINALS 1
"Crosley Field. Dick Hughes retires the first 22 Reds batters. Then there's a rain delay. With two out in the eighth, Tony Perez breaks up Hughes's perfect game, and Cincy scores two to take a 2-1 lead into the ninth. Orlando Cepeda leads off for us with a single, and then I get on. First and third, no outs. Phil Gagliano comes up to bat. First pitch, he grounds to shortstop Chico Cardenas, who looks off Cepeda and throws to second. Tommy Helms throws to the first baseman, who throws to the catcher, who tags out Cepeda. A 6-4-3-2 triple play to end the game."