Carl Yastrzemski took one step toward first, stopped, and started to look away. But limply he turned back, to watch in fatal disbelief.
Rick Burleson pulled back to the third base bag, turned, and watched, too. So did Jerry Remy, standing on first. As they stood, frozen, Yankee catcher Thurman Munson waved his mask above his head, and Lou Piniella, his hands raised in triumph, started in from right field. And when the ball finally came down to Graig Nettles and he held it for all the world to see, the Yankees had tickets to a paradise called Kansas City and the Red Sox were going home.
When it was over, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner stood in the Red Sox clubhouse. “It’s a shame that this is not the World Series, that our series is not seven games and when we’re finished with each other that the season then isn’t over,” he said. “We are the two best teams in baseball. We said that on the field today. We won, but you didn’t lose.”
After an entire season that proved nothing except that the Red Sox and Yankees are equals, they tried to decide it all with one game. In a sense, it was a microcosm of the entire season: Boston leading, New York surging ahead, Boston rallying frantically -- until, in the end, the difference was one run, a Boston runner watching, 90 feet from home, and enough ifs and maybes for every one of their 64 games, enough for each winter’s night ahead.
It was a split decision after 15 rounds between two proud, battered champions named Marciano and Ali, two teams worn to profound respect for one another.
But it was also Yankees 5, Red Sox 4, and the Yankees are the American League East champions, with the Red Sox second. In the end, it was another promise turned frustration that every New Englander has lived with since Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to New York. As historic a season, as magnificent a game, it was still the 1975 World Series, the 1967, 1949, “48 and ‘46. “We have everything in the world to be proud of,” said Yastrzemski, “what we don’t have is the ring.”
Bucky Dent. This was a game that Rich Gossage saved by getting Jim Rice and Yastrzemski with Burleson and Remy on in the ninth. It began with Yaz hitting a stunning home run off Ron Guidry, with Guidry struggling through until the seventh with barely a hint of the fire that has made him 25-3. It was a game in which the winning run turned out to be a Reggie Jackson homer, a game that had Gossage bail out of two-on, one-out jams the last two innings, a game also saved by two memorable defensive plays by Lou Piniella, who is a winner.
But somehow this winter in a pub in East Cambridge or St. Alban’s, Vt., or Somerset, Mass., someone will say, “Bucky Dent.” Harry Brecheen, Denny Galehouse, Jim Longborg’s two days’ rest, Jim Burton and Bucky Dent. The Yankee shortstop, batting because Willie Randolph is injured and Fred Stanley thus had go in at second base, hit a three-run Fenway net job in the seventh that killed Mike Torrez’ shutout and was the game’s bottom line.
Pitching on three days’ rest, Guidry did not have the fastball that brought him one of the great seasons any pitcher has ever had. “He was throwing 85 percent sliders,” said Fred Lynn. “He wasn’t the same guy we saw earlier. I don’t see how he could last throwing that way. His elbow will fall off.”
Yastrzemski sat on a fastball and smashed it down the right-field line to lead off the second. But between then and Dent’s homer, while the Red Sox hit a half dozen drives to the warning track and did manage a second run, they had chances and didn’t capitalize.
George Scott lined a double off the base of the center-field wall in the third - helped by Mickey Rivers’ lack of sunglasses (perhaps he didn’t call the weather bureau to find out if the sun was out). And after Jack Brohamer bunted him to third for the first out, Burleson tapped to Nettles. Twenty-four times in the last month the Red Sox had a runner on third and failed to score him; five of those games they lost by one run.
In the sixth, Burleson doubled into the corner, Remy bunted him to third and Rice banged a single to center, his 139th RBI. But after a Yaz grounder and an intentional walk to Carlton Fisk, came one of Piniella’s two key plays.
Lynn was trying to go to left. Guidry gave him a breaking ball down and in, and Lynn drove it deep and to dead right field, to the foul pole side of the bullpen. “I don’t hit five balls there all season,” said Lynn. “I can’t figure out why he was there.” Asked, Piniella shrugged. “I don’t really remember where I was playing him,” he said. But turning away and near the warning track, he fought the brutal sun and made the catch. “Don’t anyone ever tell me Piniella isn’t a good outfielder,” said Don Zimmer. “I’ve never seen the man make a mistake.”
Guidry thus had survived the sixth down only 2-0, and Torrez went into the seventh with a two-hitter. Stuff? He had struck out Munson three times, which should say enough. With one out, Chris Chambliss singled through the hole to left, Roy White singled to center. Jim Spencer batted for Brian Doyle - whose replacement would be Stanley - and flied out. So Dent had to bat.
He fouled a ball off his foot, and it was there that Mickey Rivers and batboy Sandy Salandrea talked Dent into trying Rivers’ bat. He did. “I thought I got the fastball in enough on him,” said Torrez. “He kinda jerked back, and I never thought it would carry.” Ah, a winter’s lament - in the second inning the wind turned around. It had been blowing in from left.
Ah, a winter’s irony: For all the complaints of the luck of the Fenway draw, Lynn’s was a Yankee Stadium homer, Dent’s (and, eventually, Jackson’s) were Yankee Stadium outs.
Torrez then walked Rivers on a 3-2 pitch, and Zimmer yanked him. Ah, a winter’s second guessing: Torrez says he was throwing well, had fanned Munson thrice and shouldn’t have left. Relief pitchers’ records show Dick Drago a better man with men on base than Bob Stanley. “Stanley had done the job all year,” said Zimmer. He came in, Rivers stole second, and Munson doubled to left-center for another run.
Gossage came on when Scott singled with one out in the seventh, and Jackson’s drive into the center-field bleachers off Stanley made it 5-2 in the eighth. The game-winner. “I’m just a guy who always ends up in the right place at the right time,” said Reggie.
Gossage, with a 5-2 lead, began struggling. Remy - whose brilliant day included two hits, a perfect bunt and a diving stop - doubled and rode home on Yastrzemski’s single. Fisk fouled off four two-strike pitches and singled, and Lynn lined another single to left for another run. Gossage got out of that inning when Butch Hobson flied out and he pumped a fastball past George Scott, but a one-out walk to Burleson began trouble in the ninth.
Remy hit a line drive toward Piniella in right. Piniella never saw it. Momentarily, even as third base coach Eddie Yost frantically waved him around, Burleson thought Piniella could catch it, held up. And still the play wasn’t over.
If Piniella had been unlucky, the ball would have shot by him on the hop, rolled to the bullpen, Burleson would have scored and Remy, the winning run, would have been on third. “I went to where I thought it would land,” said Piniella. “I saw it when it hit and reacted.” The play was like Rogatien Vachon flicking his glove out for a screen shot, and Burleson was kept at second. On third, he would have scored on Rice’s fly. Instead he was on third, two outs.
Gossage, Yastrzemski. Fastball pitcher, fastball hitter. “I wasn’t going to mess around with breaking junk and get beaten by anything but my best,” said Gossage. “Yastrzemski’s the greatest player I’ve ever played against. I just wound up and threw it as hard as I could. I couldn’t tell you Where.”
Yastrzemski thought the 1-0 pitch would tail away. It tailed in. He tried to hold up. He went through. The ball sailed high into foul territory off third, and Yastrzemski took one step, stopped and started to look away.
When it was over, Jackson sat in the Boston clubhouse. “8oth of us should be champions,” he told Scott.
“Win it all,” Yastrzemski said, embracing him, as across the way Catfish Hunter prepared to take Ken Harrelson’s lucky hat the rest of the way through Kansas City and the World Series, if the anti-climax doesn’t get them.
Jackson and Steinbrenner came by to tell the Red Sox what they themselves would like to believe: that the best team in baseball is better than the second best team in baseball by a run with a runner on third in the 163d game of the season.
Which is true, and perhaps it is consolation enough. For New England has seen the Red Sox one run down, a runner on third, the seventh game of the Series before. It was one of the great games in the history of the grand old game, but it was the ultimate Red Sox fan’s frustration.
But as New England is conservative and the conservative’s ethic is that man’s lot can never truly be enhanced, perhaps in the end the Olde Towne Teame has given its faithful what will comfort them most in the cold days and long nights until they meet again, in Winter Haven.