There was a moment there in late August, when the Boston Red Sox were slumping and the New York Yankees were surging, and it appeared that maybe, just maybe, 1978 was about to repeat itself. That was the unforgettable year in which the Red Sox squandered a 14-game lead down the stretch, and then lost a one-and-done playoff game to the Bronx Bombers after light-hitting shortstop Bucky “Bleeping” Dent hit a pop-fly home run into the screen above the Green Monster at Fenway Park.
“It was getting very worrisome for a while this August,’’ said Jeff Howlett, a Hingham, Mass. native who has been a diehard Red Sox fan for most of his 65 years. “Fortunately, American League Most Valuable Player Mookie Betts and the boys turned the jets back on and won going away. But when you’ve followed this franchise for as long as I have, you can’t help but have some painful flashbacks from time to time.”
Despite a 2018 season that saw Boston win a franchise-record 108 games, and despite claiming three World Series titles in the past 14 years, tying it with the San Francisco Giants for “Team of the 21st Century” bragging rights, scars remain. There’s a certain fatalism that comes with being a long-in-the-tooth Sox fan. A feeling that, at some point, the sky is going to fall and your heart will be broken. Old fears die hard.
“I’m really looking forward to this post-season because this has been such a fun team to watch,” said Howlett, a former long-time station manager of Rochester radio station WHAM who attended a Ted Williams baseball camp as a kid. “But I know there are some Sox fans who are praying that we don’t become the next (2001) Seattle Mariners.”
Propelled by Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, those Mariners won an AL-record 116 games, only to have their season ruined in the league championship series against the Yankees.
“I really don’t see that happening to us,’’ Howlett said, “I really don’t. But if it did it would be bitterly disappointing.”
Almost as tough to take as what transpired 40 seasons ago. While working as a news director of a Portland, Maine radio station that summer, Howlett had a front row seat to the ecstasy and the agony. His press credential enabled him to attend numerous games at Fenway, and he thought for sure that was going to be the year the Sox finally exorcised the “Curse of the Bambino” and snapped a World Series title drought dating back to 1918.
Powered by slugger Jim Rice, Boston built a 14-game lead over their hated rivals, the Yankees, by July 19. The margin seemed insurmountable because while the Sox were soaring New York was imploding. That was the era of the infamous “Bronx Zoo,” where every day seemed to bring a new crisis, with bombastic owner George Steinbrenner, brawling manager Billy Martin and egomaniacal slugger Reggie Jackson usually at the center of the storm.
“Some kids dream of joining the circus, others of becoming a major league baseball player,’’ quipped then-Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles. “I have been doubly blessed. As a member of the Yankees, I’ve gotten to do both.”
By mid-season, Steinbrenner had enough, and replaced Martin with mellow Bob Lemon. That move, along with a newspaper strike that silenced the incendiary Big Apple tabloids, calmed the clubhouse and returned the team’s focus to baseball. Behind the superb pitching of Ron Guidry, who went 25-3 to win the Cy Young Award, the Yankees clawed back into the race, shaving 10 games off the Sox lead by the time they arrived at Fenway for a four-game series on September 7. In what would be dubbed “The Boston Massacre,” New York outscored the Red Sox, 42-9, and rapped 67 hits to sweep the series and pull into a tie for first.
The season would end with the teams deadlocked, forcing a one-game, winner-take-all playoff in Boston on Oct. 2 to determine who would win the AL East. The Sox took a 2-0 lead against Guidry, but the Yankees went ahead when Dent hit a three-run homer in the seventh.
“I wish I could erase the image, but it’s seared into my brain,’’ joked Howlett, who was sitting in the first base grandstand. “From our perspective, it looked like a pop-up. The next thing we know it’s over the Monster. Bucky Dent of all people! Not Reggie or Nettles or (Thurman) Munson, but Bucky (Bleeping) Dent!”
The Sox would narrow the gap to 5-4 and put two men on with two out in the bottom of the ninth against nasty reliever Goose Gossage. Up to the plate strode Howlett’s boy-hood hero, Carl Yastrzemski. The lifelong Sox fan remembered how he once caught a foul ball from Yaz and had the Hall of Famer sign it.
“This was before the memorabilia and autograph craze,’’ Howlett said. “The next year, when my friends and I ran out of baseballs, I went home and pulled out my Yaz ball and it wound up being hit into a nearby cornfield, never to be seen again.”
He was hoping Yaz would lose this ball, too—deep into the bleachers.
“I thought, “Here we go, we’re going to win this,’’ and my hero is going to be the hero,’’ Howlett recalled. “Instead, Yaz fouled out to Nettles. The ballpark became as silent as a funeral parlor as people trudged to the exits in stunned silence. The baseball season ended for me that day. I didn’t pay attention to the post-season.”
But that was then, and this is now. These Sox have him stoked the way they did in 2004, when David “Big Papi” Ortiz and Curt Schilling helped them win it all and end the curse.
“I think they can go the distance again,” he said. “And I hope they do because it would be such a downer not to cap such a special season with a title.”
A downer a lot like 1978.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.