Instead of their usual pregame procedure of discussing the opposing hitters with their teams, last Thursday the three American League East managers involved in the last of the red-hot divisional races simply should have told their players, "Beware the Ides of September."
The 15th got off to a bizarre beginning in New York, where just the night before journalists had declared, after a 2-0 Yankee victory over the Red Sox, that the race was over. During the day the Yanks announced the purchase of the unsigned, moody slugger Dave Kingman, who so far this season had played—or ridden the bench—for the Mets, Padres and Angels. That was followed by the disclosure that Catfish Hunter had a hernia; by 55,218 fans in Yankee Stadium booing the national anthem because it was being played by the Boston Pops; by New York bellwether Mickey Rivers spraining his ankle and the team's winningest pitcher, Mike Torrez, coming up with a stiff shoulder; by an estimated 75 fights and a stabbing in the stands that resulted in 20 arrests; and by fans pelting the Sox with everything from bananas to a loaf of bread.
Meanwhile, in rainy Toronto, the Blue Jays were leading the contending Orioles 4-0 in the fifth inning when Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver pulled his team off the field and forfeited the game. The reason was that Umpire Marty Springstead, not exactly Weaver's favorite guy, would not instruct the Exhibition Stadium ground crew to take the tarpaulin off a mound in the bullpen adjacent to the left-field line.
But while the Ides may have been highly unusual, the only immediate significance of Sept. 15 was that it was the only day last week on which the Yankees lost. This was to be the week when the ranks of the contenders began to thin out, and Boston was the key to it all with its six-game trip to New York and Baltimore. What happened to the Red Sox shouldn't happen to your mother-in-law. The Yanks and Orioles both took two out of three from them. When the week was over, Boston was 4½ games behind New York. And the Yankees had not only increased their edge over Baltimore in the loss column to three, but they also had put one more week of the schedule behind them. Time had clearly become New York's strongest ally.
September 25, 1977
The week began with the Yanks 1½ games ahead of Boston and three in front of Baltimore. As always, the Red Sox and Yankees drew big, boisterous crowds. The attendance of 164,852 was the largest for a three-game series in the major leagues since 1958. The Sox slugged drive after drive to the warning track bordering that immense expanse known as the Yankee Stadium outfield, but ended up losing 4-2 and 2-0.
In the first of those games, on Tuesday, New York lefthander Ron Guidry wrung every ounce of stamina out of his 158-pound body while holding Boston to five hits. The next evening Ed Figueroa may have pitched the shakiest shutout of the season. The Yankee offensive heroes were Rivers, who homered on Tuesday, and Reggie Jackson, who on Wednesday made two spectacular catches of fly balls he had originally misjudged before hitting a game-breaking home run in the ninth to beat the Sox 2-0. Figueroa also got plenty of help from the Sox, who stranded nine base runners. In fact, Boston players are likely to spend the winter suffering through mental reruns of two at bats in this game that may have knocked them from contention. With none out and the bases loaded in the fifth inning, Fred Lynn dribbled a grounder back to the mound that was turned into a 1-2-3 double play. New York Manager Billy Martin could not have wished for a more fortunate turn of events—unless it was what happened to the next batter, Carl Yastrzemski. He hit a sizzler through the box that Figueroa blocked with his right thigh. What seemed sure to be a two-run single was thereby turned into a groundout. After that, it hardly mattered that the Red Sox won the getaway game 7-3.
In Toronto the week had begun innocuously enough. Jim Palmer overpowered the Blue Jays 6-3 on Monday night, and on Wednesday evening the Orioles swept a doubleheader. Then came the Ides. Weaver, who is certain to win another Manager of the Year award, claimed that the tarp, which was put over the Jays' bullpen mound in the fifth inning, was a hazard to his fielders. When Springstead disagreed, Weaver pulled his team off the field—and was hit with the ninth forfeit in baseball history.
Aside from whatever concern he may have had for his players' safety, Weaver had figured that his best shot at winning the game was to finish it on another date. "We might not have gotten to bat again, it was raining so hard," he said the next day. "Their pitcher [Jim Clancy] was throwing BBs and the wind was blowing in at 30 miles per hour." Weaver was also well aware that his series against Boston would begin in 24 hours and that he faced Toronto's 11 p.m. airport curfew, after which teams must bus to Niagara Falls, N.Y. and fly out from there. Weaver later admitted he did not think he would win his appeal for a reversal of the forfeit. "A chance is all we've got," he said, "but it's a better chance than we had of winning last night. Who knows? Maybe Marty Springstead'll win us a pennant."
On Friday the Yankees were in Detroit, where Martin said of the Orioles-Sox series starting that night, "Maybe they'll knock each other out." Boston did no knocking of Palmer, who blew the Red Sox down 6-1, and made it appear for a moment as if the Orioles could suddenly make up the two games by which they trailed New York in the loss column. Baltimore's hopes were based on the score from Detroit, where the Yankees were trailing, and on the possibility of American League President Lee MacPhail's overruling the forfeit. But the Yanks rallied to win 5-4 when Rivers' replacement, Paul Blair, homered in the eighth inning. The next day MacPhail upheld the forfeit.
On Saturday, the Red Sox, like Nelson Rockefeller, chose to announce their resignation from the race on national television. While Boston failed to score any of the five runners it had in the first six innings against Dennis Martinez (14-7), the Orioles, led by rookie Eddie Murray's four hits, pounded to a huge lead and coasted to an 11-2 victory. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the Yanks also had a lot of clout. Kingman homered in his second at bat in pinstripes, Thurman Munson hit a homer, Jackson belted out two, and the Yankees rolled by a 9-4 score. "It's not just a matter of us winning," said Mark Belanger, the leader of this surprising Baltimore club. "It's also a matter of time. We've lost one game in a week and lost ground—not in the standings, but on the clock."
The next day the Orioles also dropped one in the standings, falling 10-4 to the Sox, while the Yanks survived a five-run ninth-inning Tiger rally to win 6-5.
But Weaver is not conceding anything. In fact, he has the finish of the race all figured out. The Miracle Orioles are in first place by a game over the Yankees going into the ninth inning of the last game of the season in Boston. They are ahead 6-3, but during an involved inning that Weaver describes in a Red Barber voice, the Red Sox get two on with two out and Jim Rice at bat. Palmer, trailing 3-1 in the count, delivers. "There's a long drive to left center," announces Weaver. "It looks like a homer...but no, it hits two inches below the screen. It bounces over Maddox' head and back toward center field. Doyle scores. Yastrzemski scores. Dimmel comes over to back up Maddox and picks up the ball...AND HERE COMES RICE FOR THE PLATE! Dimmel throws to Belanger...Belanger wheels and fires to the plate...Skaggs dives for Rice. HE'S OUT!
"Only, Springstead is the umpire, and he says, 'Too.' I say, 'Too what?' And he answers, 'Too close to call. I gotta phone MacPhail.' "