This year’s New York at Boston “Wild Card” game to advance in the American League baseball playoffs triggered a host of memories for Ron Guidry, the winning pitcher in the Yankees’ thrilling 5-4 victory over the Red Sox in the Oct. 2, 1978 tie-breaker game to determine the champion of the AL’s East Division.
“When it got down this year to the last couple of days in New York and Boston, and then now you got a playoff game, well, yeah, I started getting phone calls left and right about the playoffs,” said Guidry, who was in town today to sign autographs at the Legends & Stars Fall 2021 Sports Expo at Batavia Downs Gaming.
“So, yeah, it brought back some memories. The only problem is we didn't win this time.”
That moved the conversation to 1978, a season in which the Yankees rallied from a 14 ½ game deficit to the Bosox to end in a tie with 99-63 records. A one-game playoff was in order and, by virtue of a coin flip, it was to be played in Fenway Park in Boston.
Guidry, the AL’s best pitcher that season, started on the mound for the Yankees.
When it was mentioned that he started on short rest, he said, “Yeah. Maybe a day.”
The 5-9, 175-pound left-handed strikeout artist pitched into the seventh inning, leaving with a 4-2 lead.
The big blow in the contest -- as any baseball fan knows -- was a three-run homer by light-hitting Yankee shortstop Bucky Dent in the seventh inning that erased Boston’s 2-0 lead and gave Dent a nickname that lives in infamy.
“That was the only time that I really was upset with (manager) Bob Lemon because I really didn't want to come out of the game,” he said. “I really thought that I could; that I still had enough.”
He recalled that George Scott got a base hit between first and second base, prompting Lemon to call for reliever Goose Gossage.
“It was a ground ball – it wasn't like he hit a ball on the wall or a screamer. You know, he just snuck it in. And I still felt like I had some stuff. I still felt like I could have at least completed that seventh inning to where Goose only had to look at pitching to innings. Now, taking me out that early, he almost has to go three innings. And it was pretty hot that day. But, it worked out.”
When asked if it was more nerve-wracking for him after he came out of the game, Guidry said he never got nervous.
“People always ask me that and this is what I tell them,” he said. “You either do the job or you don't. There's no in-between, I do a good job or don't, we win or we lose, that’s it.”
Guidry said his “goal” was to put his team in a position to win that game.
“So, when I come out of that, when I came out of that game, we were winning 4-2. And then then very next inning, you know, Reggie (Jackson) hit a home run to make it 5-2. Now, we got a little cushion but no cushion is safe in Boston, in Fenway Park.”
He said that while Dent’s homer is remembered as the big hit, Guidry said the game-saving play was made by Yankee right fielder Lou Piniella in the ninth inning with the score 5-4.
Boston’s Jerry Remy hit a line drive that Piniella could not see due to the late afternoon sun. As the ball hit the turf and almost bounced by him, Piniella stabbed at it and it landed in his glove. That prevented the baserunner, Rick Burleson, from advancing from first to third base. A deep fly out by Jim Rice, the next batter, could only move Burleson to third – instead of being a sacrifice fly.
With two outs and two on, Gossage got Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski on a foul pop to third baseman Graig Nettles for the game’s final out.
“If Piniella doesn't cut that ball off Burleson goes third, and he might have even scored,” Guidry reasoned. “But you know, he cuts it off. And I think he just saw it at the last second.”
He credited the Yankees’ outfielders for knowing where to position themselves for certain hitters.
“Those guys were so intelligent. Because we didn't have an outfield that had blistering speed or anything like that. You know? They were just good ballplayers. (Mickey) Rivers was the only one who had speed,” he said. “But the most amazing thing was you didn't have to worry about them being out of position. They knew where to play guys.”
The 1978 Yankees went on to beat the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series for their 22nd championship. Guidry posted three more victories in the playoffs and World Series, finishing with a 28-3 mark.
For his regular season success (25-3, 1.74 earned run average), Guidry was named the league’s Cy Young Award winner and finished second to Rice in the Most Valuable Player voting.
Guidry retired following the 1988 season with a 170-91 won-loss record, 3.29 ERA and 1,778 strikeouts.
The Lafayette, La. native (and resident) shared his thoughts on a few other topics:
On this year’s Yankees vs. Red Sox playoff game:
“I didn’t like going back to Boston for that because, looking at the whole thing, the first time (1978), we did it, but it gets much harder to do it again. So now, each team has won one. If it ever happens again, that’s going to be a great story."
On infield shifting in today’s game:
“No, we didn’t have that. I mean you shifted certain guys, because you know, a lot of guys just hit the ball in certain areas,” he said. “If I'm going to pitch and know that I'm going to be throwing a guy a certain way, then I might tell my infielders or outfielders to shift this way or that way.
“Now, with all the analytical stuff, sometimes it helps them and sometimes it hurts. You watch teams that know how to hit the ball behind runners and stuff like that? Even though they’re left or right handed, when they start shifting, you can drive a battleship between first and second, or second and third because there’s only one guy playing somewhere around there. You just hope it don't hurt at the worst possible moment.”
On his nicknames – Gator and Louisiana Lightning:
“My teammates gave me the nickname, Gator,” he said. “When I got called up in 1975, the Yankees were playing at Shea Stadium as the old (Yankee) stadium was being refurbished. And when I got there, you know, I got off the plane and I went to Shea Stadium, got dressed and they were already playing because we had a doubleheader against Boston.
“I walked in and met the manager and he told me to go to the bullpen. And when I walked in the bullpen, of course, I met Sparky Lyle and Dick Tidrow and a couple of other guys, and they started talking to you about where you’re from. And they asked me what we had a lot of in Louisiana and I told them, we got mosquitoes and snakes and alligators.
“And, I don't remember who it was; it was either Sparky or Dick Tidrow and they said, ‘We’re just going to call you Gator because we can't pronounce that last name. So, you know, that's the nickname that was given to you by your teammates. So, that's the one that you treasure the most.”
Regarding Louisiana Lightning, he said that was given to him by longtime Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto during Guidry’s 18-strikeout performance against the California Angels on June 17, 1978.
“It’s a catchy thing, but it’s tough to sign when you’ve got to sign a lot of it,” he said.
Photo at top: New York Yankees pitching great Ron Guidry talks with Dino Labbate of Rochester as he autographs baseball memorabilia at today's Legends & Stars 2021 Fall Sports Expo at Batavia Downs Gaming. Photo at bottom: Guidry and Hall of Fame infielder/designated hitter Paul Molitor, who faced Guidry while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1978-1992. Photos by Mike Pettinella.