Sunday, October 2, 2016

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Don Zimmer for the Red Sox Losing the 1978 American League Eastern Division Title

October 2, 1978: The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox play that famous one-game Playoff at Fenway Park, the Boston Tie Party. When the top of the 7th begins, the Sox lead 2-0, with Mike Torrez pitching a 2-hit shutout.

Think about it: Today, Torrez would probably have been told he'd pitched a great game, and let the bullpen handle it from here.

Although, to be fair, Sox fans generally don't blame Torrez for what happened next.

They blame the manager of the Sox at the time, Don Zimmer.

Zimmer leaves Torrez in. He gets Graig Nettles to fly to right, but allows singles to Chris Chambliss and Roy White. Jim Spencer pinch-hits for Brian Doyle, who was substituting at 2nd base for the injured Willie Randolph. (Fred "Chicken" Stanley took over at 2nd for the rest of the game). Spencer flies to left.

And then up comes shortstop Russell Earl "Bucky" Dent. Dent takes ball one. Then he fouls a ball off his foot for strike one. Yankee trainer Gene Monahan sprays some ethyl chloride on his foot to freeze the pain. Mickey Rivers, the on-deck batter, notices that Bucky broke his bat, then gave one of his bats, which White had lent him, to the batboy, saying, "Give this bat to Bucky. It has a home run in it." Meanwhile, Torrez, fully entitled under the rules to throw as many warmup pitches as he can fit in during the delay, throws none.

Bucky steps back into the batter's box. If you don't know what happens next, either you're under the age of 40 and you don't know your baseball history, or you're reading the wrong blog.

As Yankee broadcaster Bill White said on WPIX-Channel 11: "Deep to left, Yastrzemski will… not get it! It’s a home run! A three-run home run for Bucky Dent, and now, the Yankees lead it by a score of 3-2!"
I'd never seen this photo before. Usually, the photo we see
is the black & white photo from behind home plate.

Then Torrez walks Rivers. Only then does Zimmer take him out of the game, and bring in Bob Stanley. Mick the Quick steals 2nd. Thurman Munson doubles him home, before Stanley finally ends the rally by getting Lou Piniella to fly to right. It is 4-2, and the Yanks would win, 5-4.

On July 20, the Sox led the American League Eastern Division by 9 1/2 games. The Yankees were 14 games back. Now, the Sox have won 99 games, and they don't even make the Playoffs.

The Yankees? They go on to win their 22nd World Championship, all since the Sox won their last, 60 years ago.

To this day, even after their team has finally cheated its way to 3 World Series wins, October 2, 1978 still bothers Sox fans.

Let it.

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Don Zimmer for the Boston Red Sox Losing the 1978 American League Eastern Division Title

An obvious reason is the guy who gave up the home run, but he's, at best, a "Best of the Rest":

Mike Torrez. Torrez won 16 games that season, more than any Sox starter except for Dennis Eckersley. More than Luis Tiant. More than Bill Lee. If not for Torrez pitching as well as he did, the Sox don't get to a Game 163. And he did have that 2-hit shutout through 6 innings of the Playoff. Even at the moment he threw that pitch to Dent, he'd pitched a 4-hit shutout for 6 2/3rds innings.
If I'm going into a win-or-go-home game, at Fenway Park no less, and you tell me that my starting pitcher will pitch shutout ball for 6 2/3rds innings, with no guarantee of what will happen in pursuit of the last 7 outs, I will gladly take that chance.

If you had told George Steinbrenner on the morning of October 2, 1978 that Ron Guidry was going to do that on the afternoon, he would have taken it, given the Yankee bullpen. Indeed, for 6 innings, Mike Torrez outpitched Ron Guidry, who was only having the greatest season any pitcher has had since Lefty Grove in 1931.

You could blame Zimmer for not relieving Lee with Bob Stanley sooner. You could blame Torrez for not throwing any warmup pitches during the injury delay. And you could blame Torrez for throwing Dent a meatball.

But, as I said, Torrez was a big reason why the Sox were in the game in the 1st place. Or tied for 1st place, as it were.

Let me get another "Best of the Rest" out of the way, because it's not real:

The Curse of the Bambino. Just as the common argument for the omnipotence of God is that, "He does not need to exist in order to save us," a sports curse does not need to actually exist for it to get into a player's head and let it affect him. Maybe the Sox players believed in it.

Babe Ruth was angry with Red Sox owner Harry Frazee for being mean to him (he was an overgrown kid at age 24) and for not paying him what he thought he was worth. But he wasn't angry at Frazee for selling him to New York. Or maybe he was, but it didn't last long, when he saw how much fun he was having, and how much money he was making, in New York.

And even if he was still mad at Frazee, that was on the owner. Not on the team, or the city, or the fans. He loved Boston and its people to the end of his life, and had no particular anger toward the Red Sox organization, during the remainder of Frazee's time as owner (until 1923) or after (until his death in 1948). Ruth never cursed the Red Sox.

Nor did "the baseball gods" (whoever and whatever you might think those are, or were) curse the Red Sox for selling Ruth to the Yankees. The sale was bad for the Sox, but great for baseball as a whole. If there are baseball gods, they would have approved.
Now, on to the real reasons:

5. Fenway Park. And I don't just mean that the Green Monster, the 37-foot-high left field wall that Sox fans usually call simply "The Wall," was too close, turning what would have been a popup by Dent in any other ballpark into a cheap home run.

I'm talking about the shifting wind that was a major feature of the park, before the 1988 addition of that big press box/luxury box area behind home plate, and later the roof boxes down the lines, literally changed the climate at the little green pinball machine in the Back Bay.
Fenway Park, sometime between 1976 and 1987

In the bottom of the 2nd inning, the wind was blowing from left field to right field. This enabled Carl Yastrzemski to pull the ball down the right field line and curl it around Pesky's Pole for a home run that was every bit as cheap as Dent's. Yes, Yaz was a Hall-of-Famer who was still going strong at age 39, but he was still a 39-year-old lefthanded hitter batting against a lefthanded pitcher having the greatest season any pitcher had had since Herbert Hoover was President. (Lefty Grove in 1931. Even Dizzy Dean in 1934, Hal Newhouser in 1944, Whitey Ford in 1961, Sandy Koufax in 1965 and 1966, and Bob Gibson and Denny McLain in 1968, weren't as good in the years in question.)

Don't forget: While it's 380 feet to straightaway right field at Fenway, the pole is 302 feet away, the shortest distance in all of Major League Baseball since the renovation of the old Yankee Stadium in 1973 took away the old right field distance of 296 feet. While the marker at the bottom of the Green Monster was then labeled at 315 feet, and has since been changed to 310 feet, the field dimensions of Fenway have not changed at all in the intervening 38 years.

Still, to hit one out to right field at Fenway, you need at least 1 of 4 things: The ability to pull the ball right down the line (Yaz had it), extraordinary power (Yaz had that, too), a strong wind blowing in that direction (Yaz had that, as well), or steroids (which explains why David Ortiz has 540 home runs, instead of about half that, which he should have had, but as far as I know, Yaz didn't use steroids). Yaz hit that home run, with his considerable power and ability, but also with the help of the wind.

But by the 6th inning, the wind had shifted, going from right field to left field. This not only pushed Dent's lazy fly over The Wall, but also kept 2 balls that could have gone out inside the yard, enabling Lou Piniella to make key catches in right field, 1 in the 6th inning, 1 in the 9th.

4. Bill Lee. Legend has it that, on September 10, 1978, before the 4th game of the series that became known as the Boston Massacre, Yaz, as team captain, went into Zim's office, and begged him to start Lee against the Yankees.

Lee, a 31-year-old native of the Los Angeles suburbs, part pitching ace and part mad philosopher, was known as the Spaceman. He used a sinking fastball to go 12-5 vs. the Yankees in his career. And he was a lefthander, and, thanks to the Kansas City Royals in the previous year's AL Championship Series, the word had gotten around that, "The Yankees can't hit lefthanded pitching."
It was also suggested that Luis Tiant, also with with a good record against the Yankees, start, but he was 37, and would have been on 3 days' rest.

Zim refused to start Lee, and, to explain why, reached into his desk, and showed Yaz a bunch of newspaper clippings he had saved, in which Lee had insulted him, calling him things like "the Designated Gerbil." Zim said he was sticking with his established choice for the game, Bobby Sprowl, a 22-year-old from Sandusky, Ohio with 1 major league game (7 innings) under his belt. To be fair, Sprowl was a lefthander. Zim said he was told by Sox scouts that Sprowl "has icewater in his veins."

Sprowl got knocked out of the box in the 1st inning, and the Yankees won 7-4, and completed the sweep and tied the Sox for 1st. Sprowl made 1 more appearance for the Sox in '78, was traded to the Houston Astros, made 3 major league appearances for them in '79, 1 more in '80, and 15 more in '81, spent the next 3 seasons in the minor leagues, and threw his last professional pitch before turning 30. A graduate of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, he is back in that city, as the head coach at Shelton State Community College.
Still... Icewater?

So did Zimmer really keep Lee out of the starting rotation, and cost the team at least a Division title, maybe their 1st World Championship in 60 years, out of spite? It sounds like the sort of thing that Donald Trump would do. And it's become accepted Red Sox lore that Zimmer did this. It's also become accepted Red Sox lore that, if he'd started Lee instead, Lee would have beaten the Yankees.

As Trump himself would say, "Wrong." Or, "Fake news." The truth? Red Sox fans, in the immortal words of Yankee Fan Jack Nicholson, You can't handle the truth! Rather than being the answer to the hole in the rotation that Bobby Sprowl couldn't fill, Lee was the hole in the rotation.

On July 15, 1978, Lee was 10-3, and a big reason why the Sox had a big Division lead. From then until September 7, the start of the Boston Massacre series, he'd made 9 appearances, 48 1/3rd innings. He was 0-7. His ERA was 5.96 -- and that doesn't count 5 unearned runs during that stretch.

In those 9 appearances, there were 6 in which he didn't get out of the 6th inning, 4 in which he didn't get out of the 5th, 3 in which he didn't get out of the 4th, 2 in which he didn't get out of the 3rd, 1 in which he didn't even get out of the 1st. He lost 3 games to Milwaukee, and 1 each to Minnesota, Kansas City, Cleveland and Oakland. The only game in which he appeared that Boston won during that stretch, a 10-9 home win over 2nd-year expansion Seattle on August 28, Lee did not get out of the 5th, and was not the winning pitcher.

And 3 of those losses were by 1 or 2 runs. Had Lee been just a little bit better in any one of those games, there never would have been a Bucky Dent Game.

And if Zim was keeping Lee out of games due to spite, why would he have brought him in to relieve in Game 2 of the Massacre series, the 13-2 Yankee win? He went 7 innings, and allowed only 1 earned run -- although he allowed 4 others that were charged to starter Jim Wright.

Now, think about that: If you had a must-win game, would you trust the start to a guy who pitched 7 innings only 2 days ago, no matter how good he was? I wouldn't. Don Zimmer didn't.

The truth is not only that Lee was terrible that Summer, but also that he wasn't fresh enough to pitch on September 10, 1978.

By the way, Zim did bring Lee in during that September 10 game. He pitched 2 1/3rd innings, allowing no runs -- but the game was already lost. And pitching 2 1/3rd innings effectively isn't the same as pitching 7 or more. There's no guarantee that Lee would have been the right choice to start. So, obviously, Zim was willing to put his personal feelings about Lee aside.

And let's not forget that, in the biggest game of his career, Game 7 of the 1975 World Series, Lee blew a 3-0 lead by deciding to clown around with a blooper pitch that Tony Perez deposited onto the Mass Pike, and the Sox lost.

3. The Media. The Boston media is among the most vicious in the country when a team, or an individual player, isn't going well. So is the New York media. But the New York newspapers were on strike from August 9 until November 5. The Boston papers were not. The Yankees had fewer reporters hounding them, while the Sox faced questions about "choking" from late July onward.
"'Choke' is not in my vocabulary," said Zim,
at far left in this photo. "'Slump' is."

A newspaper strike, which ended up killing The Pittsburgh Press, is also often credited with helping the Pittsburgh Penguins successfully defend the Stanley Cup in 1992.

2. Red Sox Management. The Yankees had key injuries in the 1st half of the season, but had the bench to outlast them. The Red Sox had key injuries in the 2nd half of the season, but did not have enough quality in their reserves.

That's on their general managers: Dick O'Connell, who held the job from 1965 until October 1977, and Haywood Sullivan, who held it thereafter until 1984. It's also on the team's owner: Jean Yawkey, who fired O'Connell at a time when he should have been able to use his considerable clout in baseball to get better players.
Dick O'Connell

O'Connell built the teams that won the "Impossible Dream" Pennant of 1967 and the Pennant of 1975. But 1976 was a transition year, and he failed to recognize that. Would he have gotten 1 player that could have made the difference in 1978? He certainly tried to find that player for 1977, signing Bill Campbell as a free agent. Campbell was sensational in 1977, but gained 0.95 on his ERA and 0.33 on his WHIP in 1978. Bob Stanley became the Sox bullpen stopper for the next several years -- including, to New Englanders' dismay, 1986.

O'Connell is one of the most important figures in Sox history, but by 1978, he wasn't the man for the job anymore.

And, as I said, Sox fans can't handle the truth. Reason Number 1 is the truth:

1. The Yankees Were Better.

Yes, they were. From 1976 to 1981, only in 1979 -- a year even more loaded with injuries than '78 -- did the Sox have a better record. The Sox won 97 games in 1977 and 99 in 1978, and didn't make the Playoffs. Today, they would have gotten in through the Wild Card. But under the format in place in 1978, they were out of luck.

Did the Sox not have enough talent? Did they not have enough desire? Did they not have enough character? Whatever they did have, the Yankees had more of it, winning 5 Division titles, 4 Pennants and 2 World Series in 6 years.

Blaming Zimmer for that has some merit. After all, you still gotta play the hand you're dealt. But there were many more factors at work.

VERDICT: Not Guilty.

If you want to talk about guilt, let's discuss what Pedro Martinez did to Zimmer 25 years later, when Zimmer was on the Light Side of the Force.

No comments: