For decades, Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson were the most prominent pitcher/hitter combination on the nostalgia circuit, forever recounting the 1951 National League playoff game in which the latter famously homered over the former.
But Branca and Thomson both are gone now, as are many of the fans old enough to recall Thomson’s home run in the Giants’ pennant-clinching victory over the Dodgers on Oct. 3, 1951.
Today, the mantle – homonym intended – has passed to representatives of another storied rivalry that once featured an epic tiebreaker.
So there were Mike Torrez and Bucky Dent on Monday night, together again, this time promoting an SI TV documentary, “14 Back,” about the 1978 American League East pennant race between the Red Sox and Yankees.
Dent – born a month after Thomson’s homer - and Torrez, 72, not only are friends now, but also were then. Dent was on the field when Torrez caught Lee Lacy’s pop-up bunt to end the 1977 World Series won by the Yankees over the Dodgers.
The fact that Torrez switched sides that offseason, and was quoted at the time saying disparaging things about his former teammates, has faded well into a new century. (Torrez joked those long-ago quotes were “fake news.”)
“It’s just sports, you know?” Dent said during a Q&A after a screening of the two-hour film, which premieres on Sept 20. “He was the pitcher. I was the hitter. We played in one of the greatest games that ever was played, nothing but history . . . We feel like Bobby Thomson and Branca. I told him the other day . . . ‘We have to make 50 [years] now.’”
Said Torrez, “If anyone hit the home run, I’m happy it was Bucky. Bucky’s been great about it. We’ve done a lot of things together on that one. Forty years. It’s gone really fast.”
The film covers far more territory than the Oct. 2, 1978, game at Fenway Park, which the Yankees won, 5-4, largely on the strength of Dent’s improbable three-run homer in the seventh inning.
The title, “14 Back,” refers to the Yankees’ late-season rally after an awful start. But it begins long before 1978 with – what else? – the Yankees’ acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox before the 1920 season.
The journalist Mike Barnicle is there to provide the woe-is-me Red Sox fan perspective, which offers a few funny lines but has lost much of its punch after the events of 2004, 2007 and 2013 – not to mention the 2018 regular season.
The core of it is a long list of colorful talking heads who were on the field, and who four decades after the fact are able to find some humor in those tense times.
A partial list of standouts includes Bill Lee, Fred Lynn, Luis Tiant, Carlton Fisk and Dennis Eckersley from the Boston side and Sparkly Lyle, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella and Willie Randolph from the Yankees.
Producer Jonathan Hock said it was a labor of love for a guy who was 14 when it all went down.
“What we tried to do in the film is make everybody feel a little bit of something we felt when we were 14 and 15, watching you guys do your thing,” he said, turning to Torrez and Dent. “So thank you for that; 40 years later, thank you.”
The film is narrated by Ray Romano, whose most famous role was playing a fictional Newsday sports columnist on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
It recounts the memorable developments leading up to the playoff, including two that Dent said were pivotal: the firing of the mercurial manager Billy Martin in favor of Bob Lemon and a New York newspaper strike late that season that blunted the circus atmosphere fostered by owner George Steinbrenner.
“Everybody relaxed,” Dent said. “We didn’t read anything bad in the papers, and Bob Lemon just sits there and lets you play the game, and all the other stuff kind of went away.”
Dent was the MVP of the World Series that year, which has become a footnote in his career compared with what happened on that one pitch from Torrez.
“Mickey Mantle was my hero,” Dent said. “I always wanted to play for the Yankees, and all those things came true. It’s like an out-of-body experience when you can play in a game the magnitude of that ’78 one-game playoff.”
Said Torrez, “I couldn’t believe it, but hey, that’s part of the game. You take the good with the bad.”
Before the screening, a smiling Dent posed for pictures with Torrez, Mickey Rivers – whose bat he used to hit the big home run – and a Yankee from a later generation, Bernie Williams.
“I tell you what, it went quick,” Dent told Newsday. “It doesn’t seem like 40 years. The thing that’s so unique about it, it’s such a great game, a classic game. I don’t know if there’ll be another game like it because of the wild card.
“Boston-New York, one-game playoff. It’s something that as a kid you dream of and then when you get a chance to be a part of it, it’s special.”
Does he ever get tired of talking about it?
“Oh, I love it,” he said. “Red Sox fans hate me, and Yankees fans love me.”