Boston and New York, two bitter and sometimes bellicose baseball rivals, staged a four-part drama in Yankee Stadium last week that was out of character for the usually tranquil month of May. Despite the early date, the crowds were large, the tempers short and the performances extraordinary. There was a battle royal in Game 1, an unlikely hero in Game 2, a brilliant pitchers' duel in Game 3 and a see-saw struggle in Game 4. And there was good reason for it all—the American League champion Red Sox had fallen far behind in the Eastern Division race, and New York was beginning to look like Boston's successor. Under such conditions, it was hardly surprising that neither side was taking any prisoners.
The showdown was critically important for the Red Sox. Despite seven victories in their last eight games before arriving in New York, they had been unable to overcome the damaging effects of an earlier 10-game losing streak, their worst in 16 years. They were three games below .500, six behind the division-leading Yankees and, according to wise old Carl Yastrzemski, desperate for a good showing. "If we do worse than break even, we might never catch up," he said. "I know it's early, but eight or 10 games is a lot of ground to cover. The Orioles fell way behind like that last year, and it killed them."
New York's prospects were infinitely brighter. A new, aggressive playing style had propelled the Yankees to their best start since 1958. Under Manager Billy Martin, the Bronx Bombers had become the Bronx Burglars, their pinstripes blurring in the slipstream as they sped around the bases. And thanks to Owner George Steinbrenner's ukase against long hair, the Yankees even had a sleek look to complement their racy attack.
New York stole into first place the opening week of the season and has remained there by never losing more than two consecutive games. But to finish on top, which the Yankees have not done in 12 years, they know they must beat the Red Sox. Boston had not lost a season series between the two since 1971. Last June the Red Sox rushed past the Yankees into first place by taking three of four in Fenway Park. They were never out of the lead thereafter. "Fortunately, we have a lot of new players who don't remember all of our losses to Boston," says Third Baseman Graig Nettles. "It shouldn't be a hangup anymore."
May 30, 1976
New York has so few players who were developed in its farm system that the Yankee locker room resembles a bus depot. Two of the most recent arrivals were obtained within 2½ hours of each other last winter: Centerfielder Mickey Rivers (from California) and Second Baseman Willie Randolph (Pittsburgh). Rivers, who led the league with 70 stolen bases last year, and Randolph, a native New Yorker who is the only rookie on the All-Star ballot, are speedsters perfectly suited to the Yanks' all-out style. And with batting averages above .300, they get plenty of chances to show their fancy footwork. They are tied for the division lead in steals with 14 apiece.
Daring and aggressiveness have always characterized Martin, both as a player and a manager. "Players like to do things that are exciting," he says. "It's risky, but we're successful more often than we fail. The other team never knows what we are going to do next. And this extra pressure forces mistakes."
When Martin moved from Texas to New York late last season, he had neither the time nor the personnel to institute his favorite style of play. But the trades for Rivers and Randolph and a thorough teaching job in spring training got his system firmly implanted. "I told them they would never be criticized for making a mistake because of over-aggressiveness," Martin says. "I didn't want anybody holding back."
No one has. With Martin directing traffic from the dugout, Rivers and Randolph have become the pilferingest pair in the East. Nettles has five steals, one more than his total for the last four seasons, and Catcher Thurman Munson has six, equaling his career high for a season. Leftfielder Roy White, who was frequently miscast as a cleanup man for five years, is now batting second where he can hit and run and lay down bunts. "Some guys complain when they bat behind a base-stealer like Rivers," says White. "But I like it. His running opens holes in the infield. He's given us a whole new dimension."
Since childhood, John Milton Rivers has been called "Mickey" after his old Yankee hero, Mantle. That is about the closest connection the new Yanks have with their long-gone, long-ball past. In fact, to obtain Rivers, a small, Rod Carew-style batter, the Yankees gave up their leading power hitter, Bobby Bonds. Now New York has its runningest team ever, twice as larcenous as, for example, the Go Go White Sox of 1959.
"I like our style just the way it is," says Sparky Lyle, the flaky bullpen ace who has four wins and seven saves. "It's nice to have those power hitters, but you can't always count on them to come through." The Yankee pitching staff has learned to count on an attack that includes five .300 batters. One of them, Designated Hitter Lou Piniella, says, "We know how to handle the bat. We don't strike out much, and we can go to the opposite field. Of course, we'll hit some home runs, but home runs don't win championships."
Piniella is dead right. In only one season since 1970 has a team led the American League in homers and won its division. Three base-stealing leaders have doubled as champions of their divisions.
It will take plenty of fast feet to hold off the Red Sox. Boston was a heavy favorite to repeat as division champion this year, and none of the Red Sox disagreed with that prediction. "If anything, we are stronger," Manager Darrell Johnson said in spring training.
But the Red Sox started slowly, then came completely unraveled during their losing streak. When Boston bottomed out at 6-15, its team batting average was .256 and its staff ERA was 4.60. Pitcher Luis Tiant (3-2) and Centerfielder Fred Lynn (.419) had played well, but two batting stars of last season, Leftfielder Jim Rice and Second Baseman Denny Doyle, were benched. They hit a combined .221 during Boston's swoon. And the Sox who remained on the field seemed to be infected with a malaise of the mind. "We've already made more mental mistakes than we made all last year," says Coach Don Zimmer. There was also the problem of salary disputes involving Lynn, Catcher Carlton Fisk and Shortstop Rick Burleson. There even have been rumors that Lynn, last season's MVP, may be traded to the Angels if he does not sign soon.
The Sox corrected their on-field difficulties after a self-proclaimed Salem witch "examined their auras." Improved pitching and hitting did not hurt, either. The bullpen, bolstered by former Brave Tom House, picked up two wins and two saves during the recovery, and Ferguson Jenkins, obtained from Texas in the Sox' only other major trade during the off-season, pitched two victories. The hitters went on a .293 tear led by reserve Outfielder Rick Miller, who got a chance in centerfield when Lynn was injured.
The Red Sox agreed that a four-game sweep in New York would put them back in the race. Overstatement became the order of the day as one player after another measured "the electricity in the air" and made comparisons with the playoffs. But Burleson had to laugh when he said, "Playing the Yankees here is like playing the World Series." That was going too far.
What could not be overstated was the heated rivalry between the two teams. That became apparent during the first game on Thursday night. The Yankees tried to stretch a 1-0 lead with two out in the sixth by sending Piniella, one of the few lead-footed New Yorkers, home from second on a single to right field. Dwight Evans, who has a cannon arm and had cut down another runner at the plate in the third inning, caught Piniella with a perfect strike. When Piniella tried to jostle the ball out of Fisk's grasp, the fight was on.
As the umpires watched from a safe distance, players streamed onto the field from both dugouts and the center-field bullpens. Rivers, a flyweight, engaged in guerrilla tactics on the perimeter, but the main event involved Pitcher Bill Lee, Boston's only left-handed starter, and Nettles. Lee got much the worst of it—a black eye and a torn ligament in his shoulder that is likely to keep him out of action for six weeks. Other casualties included Yaz (bruised thigh), Piniella (swollen finger) and Rivers (injured toe). Even the bat boy was hit by debris thrown from the stands.
After the Yankees won the fight, the Red Sox came back to take the game, exploding for eight runs in the last three innings for an 8-2 victory. "The fight is what did it," said Yastrzemski, who smacked his fourth and fifth homers in the two days since he had borrowed Evans' bat and resumed his familiar raised-arm stance. "After that we had a will to win I hadn't seen since the World Series. I wasn't just congratulated after the home runs, I was mobbed."
The injuries left New York with a makeshift lineup for the second game. Munson moved to left so that White could replace Rivers in center, and Carlos May, acquired from the White Sox only the day before, replaced Piniella as the DH. In desperate need of a reserve outfielder, the Yankees called minor-leaguer Kerry Dineen at 6 p.m. and told him to hightail it in from Syracuse. As for the Red Sox, Lee looked like a man who had welshed on a loan, and Yaz could barely walk. But he had to stay at first because two other teammates were disabled by earlier injuries.
The highlights of the second game were provided mainly by the substitutes. Randolph's stolen base and a nicely executed hit-and-run by First Baseman Chris Chambliss helped the Yankees to a 2-0 first-inning lead. Then Munson, a Gold Glove catcher but an iron glove leftfielder, misjudged one fly ball and dropped another as Boston came back with four runs in the second.
New York rallied to tie the score at 5-5 in the ninth on a pinch double by Otto Velez and two sacrifice flies. Three innings later Boston's Doyle, who is gaining a reputation for ill-timed mistakes, committed a two-out error on a grounder by May. Nettles and Dineen followed with back-to-back singles, and the Yankees won 6-5.
Dineen, who had arrived at the Stadium (by airplane and Steinbrenner's chauffeured limousine) in the fifth inning, was the unlikeliest of heroes. The high point of his previous major league tour, a seven-game stint last season during which he batted an impressive .364, was a fan letter from Mrs. Babe Ruth.
There was more excitement on Saturday, when the teams again battled into extra innings. Yankee ace Catfish Huntter, who was 0-3 against Boston last year and a slow-starting 3-5 against the league before this game, won it 1-0 with a three-hit, 11-inning masterpiece.
Randolph got two of the five hits allowed by starter Dick Pole and House. He was unable to score on either of them, although he twice reached second base, the first time on a wild pickoff throw, then on White's bunt. But Boston let the rookie on once too often by walking him to open the 11th inning. Again White sacrificed him to second. After Munson was walked intentionally and Chambliss flied out, up came May, who won the game by slashing a single past the diving Doyle. "That's the kind of game we always lost to Boston in the past," said White. Manager Johnson, again seven games behind the Yanks, called the second straight extra-inning defeat "brutal."
A third loss on Sunday would have been more than brutal for Boston, but the Red Sox rebounded with a 7-6 victory. It was a tense classic of another sort—there were two ties and four lead changes—even if it was mucked up by the Yankees, who had an error, two passed balls and a wild pitch and walked in the winning run in the ninth.
The Yanks also suffered from their aggressiveness, running themselves out of two scoring opportunities. After Boston had gone ahead for the second time on Rice's two-run homer in the seventh, Dineen was caught stealing with two out in the eighth. Then, with one out in the ninth and the Yanks trailing 7-5, Randolph got his third hit of the day. Seconds later he scored on Whiten's drive into the left-field corner, but White was thrown out at third on a fine relay from Miller to Burleson to Third Baseman Rico Petrocelli. Munson's weak pop-up ended the game.
More than 160,000 fans had watched the two rivals divide the series. And even though the standings were not affected, the early-season tranquillity most certainly was.