Bucky Dent and Mike Torrez are linked by history and a friendship forged when they were teammates on the world champion 1977 Yankees. Torrez pitched for the Red Sox the following year, and in the 163rd game of the season, the lives of both players changed forever.
The heated rivalry peaked in 1978 when the Yankees — who had trailed by 14 games in July — were tied with the Red Sox after the last regular-season game, forcing a one-game tiebreaker at Fenway Park for the AL East title.
A Yankees franchise steeped in dramatic home runs received its most fabled one on that Monday afternoon in October when Dent’s three-run homer off Torrez with two outs in the seventh ignited a 5-4 comeback victory.
The 2018 Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 10 1⁄2 games before play on Saturday, but in the era of the wild card, “they don’t have to win the division like back when we did in 1978,’’ Dent, 66, said Tuesday from Lake Worth, Florida. “Now they got the luxury of the wild card and all they have to do is like last year — get in.”
The 1978 team trailed Boston by 10 games on July 24 when manager Billy Martin resigned under pressure after a protracted feud with owner George Steinbrenner and slugger Reggie Jackson. Martin’s “one’s a born liar, the other’s convicted’’ comment sealed his fate.
Bob Lemon was named manager. The Yankees went from 53-43 to 86-56, tying the Red Sox on Sept. 10 after a four-game sweep in Boston.
“Bob Lemon came in and kind of said, ‘Hey, you guys were world champions last year. You could do it again. Just relax and play the game,’ ’’ Dent said. “Everybody got locked in.’’
Meanwhile, Torrez said, the Red Sox started pressing — literally. “The press in Boston kept writing ‘how are they going to lose it this year?’ ” Torrez, 71, said from White Plains. “Apparently it stuck, because we ended up losing that big lead.’’
The Yankees had a one-game lead on the last day of the season but lost at home to Cleveland. The Red Sox won their last eight to finish tied at 99-63.
A coin toss gave Boston home-field advantage. “It was the most intense, pressurized game I’ve ever played in my life,’’ Dent said. Ron Guidry gave up a solo home run by Carl Yastrzemski in the second inning and Jim Rice drove in a run in the sixth for a 2-0 lead. Torrez entered the seventh with a two-hit shutout.
“The pressure was starting to build, but we thrived on that,’’ Dent said.
In the seventh, Torrez got Graig Nettles on a flyout to right before yielding consecutive singles by Chris Chambliss and Roy White. Jim Spencer flied to left for the second out. That brought up Dent, who was batting ninth. He had hit four home runs in his 122 games that season.
“I just wanted to hit the ball somewhere, extend the inning, get a run in,’’ Dent said.
Dent fouled the 1-and-0 pitch off his left foot. As trainer Gene Monahan sprayed ethyl chloride to dull the pain, Dent said teammate Mickey Rivers noticed a crack near the handle of Dent’s bat, one that Rivers had given him. Rivers told the batboy to give Dent a new bat, also one used by Rivers.
Dent belted the next pitch into history, clearing the Green Monster in leftfield. The ball landed in the netting but was never recovered and, Dent said, the bat just went back into the rack, so two collectibles were lost.
“He got it down. I was a pretty good low-ball hitter,’’ Dent said. “I didn’t know if it was high enough, I didn’t know if it was going to go out. The umpire signals ‘homer.’ I saw Yastrzemski was kind of buckled over. I remember when I was rounding third base how quiet Fenway was except for the sprinkle of Yankee fans. People always ask me, ‘What were you thinking?’ Hey, we’re ahead, finally, but we got three more innings to go.’’
Said Torrez, “I looked up and I said, ‘Gosh darn it.’ I didn’t realize I should have just kept the ball away from him. Maybe a taller guy would have grounded it out. Bucky was the right size for that particular pitch. A taller guy, that ball would have been down below his knees.
“That’s history. You gotta take the good with the bad. Life’s not always going to be great to you. If you can’t accept defeat, you’ll never be successful. We had so many chances when we had that big [regular-season] lead. We just blew it. I learned to accept it and move on.’’
With two on in the ninth and the Yankees ahead by a run, reliever Rich Gossage got Yastrzemski on a pop-up to third to end the game. The Yankees went on to beat the Royals in the ALCS and the Dodgers in the World Series.
Said Dent, “There’s not too many days that go by that I don’t run into somebody at the airport, the grocery store. The Red Sox fans say you ruined my life; Yankees fans say you made my life. As a kid, I loved the Yankees and Mickey Mantle, playing in the backyard, dreaming of hitting a big home run. That’s the kind of flashbacks that I got that day. All those dreams as a kid, they came true.’’