When asked how the Yankees could get past the Boston Red Sox in a wild-card game that could extend or end a season that has had countless ups and downs, Bucky Dent had some tongue-in-cheek advice: “Use Mickey Rivers’s bat.”
That move worked for Dent 43 years ago; who’s to say it wouldn’t for a Yankee on Tuesday night?
Like the present team, one measly game at Fenway Park determined whether Dent and the 1978 Yankees would continue their season. That time it wasn’t a playoff game, but rather a 163rd regular season game as a tiebreaker made necessary after the Yankees erased Boston’s 14-game division lead down the stretch. There were no wild cards back then, and yet the Yankees and the Red Sox found themselves in a do-or-die situation on Oct. 2.
Ultimately, the Red Sox drew the short straw. Dent’s seventh-inning, two-out, three-run homer off Mike Torrez — launched with Rivers’s lent lumber — was at the center of Boston’s demise. The Green Monster-clearing blast put the Yankees up by 3-2 and silenced the home crowd.
“It felt great,” said Dent, admitting that he didn’t realize the ball was gone until the umpires gave a signal. “I remember running toward home and I could hear the sprinkling of Yankee fans cheering.”
The Yankees won the game, 5-4. Dent’s homer inspired Red Sox Manager Don Zimmer to coin an unprintable nickname for Dent, giving him a new middle name for baseball fans in New England. All these years removed, Dent still considers the obscene moniker a “badge of honor.”
But he was not the only Yankee central to their foes’ downfall. Reggie Jackson provided insurance with a homer, and Ron Guidry dealt six and a third innings of two-run ball after demanding to start on three days’ rest. Rich “Goose” Gossage allowed two earned runs over two and two-thirds innings of relief, but he held the line and induced a Carl Yastrzemski pop fly to end the game and complete Boston’s epic collapse.
Fast forward to 2021, and the Yankees are about to play another win-or-go-home game at Fenway. The situation is not exactly the same as it was in 1978, but Dent sees the similarities and knows what the modern Yankees are in for.
Dent remembers the seriousness of Game 163. Players tried to stay loose during batting practice, but a heightened intensity level could be felt as the game progressed. “It was one of the greatest games I ever played. It’s the most pressure game that I’ve ever been in in my entire athletic career,” Dent said. And yet, he insisted he felt no jitters during his most famous at-bat.
“I wasn’t nervous. You have that adrenaline, and you know it’s a big moment, but you just kind of block all that stuff out and focus on what you’re trying to do to get a base hit,” Dent said. “I didn’t really think about negative things.”
Guidry, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 1978, reflected on the tiebreaker with similar bravado — and was sure most of his teammates would, too.
“I never got nervous,” he said bluntly. “You have to understand the characters that we had on that team.”
Now Gerrit Cole is the Yankees’ ace with a Cy Young case. He will toe the rubber in Boston, opposite Nathan Eovaldi. Cole has pitched to mixed results against the Red Sox this year, but his performance Tuesday will be the only one anyone remembers.
Guidry said the Yankees’ current No. 1 starter needs to go “out there with that mentality of, ‘I’m Gerrit Cole, come get me if you want me.’ And then you let the chips fall where they may.”
“Look, you either do it or you don’t,” Guidry said when asked if he thought about the stakes at hand in 1978. “No. If you start thinking about that, then yeah, you’ll bring pressure on yourself. But my job was to keep the game close. That’s all I tried to convince myself to do. You keep the game close, somebody gets a big hit, it should work out. And if you don’t, then you gave it your best. That’s all. Like I said, I do it or I don’t. There’s no in between.”
With Dent’s homer and Guidry’s left arm leading the way, that plan went as smoothly as the Yankees could have hoped. After vanquishing their archrivals, the 1978 Yankees defeated the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, with Dent being named the most valuable player of the World Series.
“If we wouldn’t have won everything, then probably all of these things I accomplished wouldn’t have meant as much,” Guidry said.
The postseason is a crapshoot, and this Yankees season has been a relentless roller coaster. The ride could screech to a halt Tuesday in Boston, or it could end with a parade down the Canyon of Heroes in a few weeks’ time.
However long it may be, Guidry and Dent plan to follow along. And as for the latter’s real advice? Don’t lose sight of the task at hand in enemy territory.
“You just gotta be locked in,” Dent said. “You gotta be in the moment the whole game. Any time you’re playing in a game like that, you can’t drift off.
“Any mistake can cost you the game. That’s the way our team went about their business.”