Friday, April 24, 2009

Review: A Red Sox fan and a Yankee fan look at Bill Reynolds' '78'

In honor of this weekend's Yankees-Red Sox series, here's a look at Bill Reynolds' new book '78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City. Red Sox fan - and friend of the Squawkers - Bob Ekstrom and I have both read the book. Here's Bob's review. Scroll down to read my own review of the book.

From The Fens: A Look Back At '78

By Bob Ekstrom

So, what if Bucky Dent had flied out that fateful day back in 1978?

Well, for one thing we’d be able to say his full name without any FCC-mandated bleep in the middle of it. For another, those pointless Got Rings? shirts would all have less hardware on the left side and more on the right. Then too, Bill Reynolds would have never written his new book, ’78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, And A Divided City (New York: New American Library, 2009, 320 pages, $24.95).

Upon learning of ’78, it was as if the neurons conspired in mutiny down each arm and across my palms. There is just one memory that can ever be evoked by the pairing of these two digits; one author who could reincarnate its pain even in a day when Boston has shed its racial reputation and the footprint of Loserville has been plowed under by the parades that roll down the very streets where once only epithets and gnashing of teeth could be heard.

Sure, I know many Empire subjects must think Red Sox Nation has acquired immunity to the horrors of 31 years past. Indeed, 2004 and 2007 are each ruby slippers we need only click together to be safe again. But this is Bill Reynolds at his peak as he paints a story so vivid in its portrayal of Boston as bastions of racism and loser baseball that you forget there’s a way out. As the ski instructor explained, my evasive reflexes were inhibited by my fixation on the advancing fence that ultimately put me in the snow.

Fixated on the crash that was ’78, I never did click those slippers and Reynolds put me in the snow.

I spent a weekend in freefall as a 14-game lead boiled down to a winner-take-all playoff. Reynolds sparingly delves into the regular season and only through flashback. His campaign begins on its final day. What follows is a chronicle of how the sixties’ counterculture shaped the game of the seventies and forced Boston to look hard at its racial proclivities, all built around an account of the game that would decide the American League East.

But even in this one game, Reynolds works like a modern Bob Gibson with great pace and efficiency. This helps him avoid the pitfalls of play-by-play, yet being the ace that he is Reynolds bears down in pivotal moments such as with Yastrzemski’s homer off Guidry and the classic Torrez vs. Dent confrontation, taking you into the minds of the players.

Soon enough, I was sitting at the park staring at a 5-4 deficit with two out in the ninth, wondering if the Sox would ever win it in my lifetime. A few pages later, I was again that high-strung college kid who dashed to the cafeteria as soon as Yaz’s popup landed in Nettles’ glove just so I could chew-and-screw a quick meal before the swarm of Yankees fans that infested campus could descend and spoil my appetite for a good Salisbury steak.

But this story has another vein, and if I found myself uprooted in my own regression like some farmhouse in a Kansas tornado, there were others swirling past my blown-out windows for whom 1978 means an entirely different pain. The pain of misplaced youth, of hometown shame, of innocence robbed by the busing riots of the 1970s when children were pieces shuffled across Boston’s civic chessboard. Community leaders vowing to protect their neighborhoods; blacks asking for an equal opportunity to compete; and ethnic enclaves betrayed by the white flight of two-toilet émigrés to the burbs: each had skin in court-mandated school integration, no matter its color. ’78 is as much their chronicle as it was the epitaph of my World Series dream.

I have said that Red Sox Nation could not have handled Reynolds’ account before 2004, but even the passage of so much time does not make everything digestible. I’m more keenly aware now that the perception of race, which at times can be a card of convenience dealt to a bad hand, is more than an apparition. It is grounded in some very real events that occurred not so very long ago. Nonetheless, I take comfort from The Hub’s triumph over its own narrow-mindedness, even in a day when tolerance for diversity was not what it is today.

Time is also the distance by which I can put the 1978 baseball season in perspective, and I now see this epic collapse for what it was. The Sox never were as good as their 62-28 high water mark that year, nor the Yankees as mediocre as their 48-42 record on that infamous July 19th. Talent deficiency was the real thorn in Boston’s paw then, even if the Bambino’s spirit can be blamed for twisting it a little by allowing the lead to climb to 14 games.

Similarly, Mike Torrez was never going to hold the Yankees to one hit that October day, nor was Bucky Dent going to fly out, no matter how hard Yaz pounded a fist into his glove. Torrez was too inconsistent, and the wall just too damn close. Spirits were not controlling the outcome; their fiendish hand came in providing false hope then dashing it by the most tantalizing of margins.

It seemed only fitting that the bottom of the ninth – much like the bottom of the eighth - should find Boston putting the tying and winning runs on base with only one away and soon-to-be MVP Jim Rice stepping up. But Reynolds masterfully captures the entire season – indeed, the franchise to that point – with Rice’s swing:

He sent a drive to right center, out to where Piniella had been fighting the sun all afternoon, but this time Piniella saw it all the way, and it nestled into his glove right in front of the warning track. It had been a ball that seemed to have a chance to go out when it had left Rice’s bat, as though aided along by the thunderous roar of the crowd, until it simply didn’t have enough legs. And in many ways it would come to define Rice’s career with the Red Sox, as unfair as that is. Great players come and go, eventually slip away into the mists of time. Great moments get remembered forever. This had been one of those chances. But it hadn’t happened.

Two outs.

Yaz coming to the plate.

Just the thought of that still makes me crave a good Salisbury steak. I thank you for that memory, Mr. Reynolds.

* * *

From NYC: Remembering '78 also brings up memories of '04

By Lisa Swan

For my Red Sox friend, Bob Ekstrom, '78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City' reminded him of heartbreaking times rooting for his team. For myself, it reminded me of a time when the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry may have been heated, and the teams may have battled, but the Yankees invariably triumphed. Good times for Yankee fans, not so good times for Sox fans.

"78" is like a Boston version of "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning" combined with Richard Bradley's "The Greatest Game." And it helped me understand what was going on in and around Fenway Park during those years.

You get the big picture of what was happening in Boston during that era, and how the busing battle had torn the city apart. Although I've never been to Boston, I felt I understood the city's history better after reading "78." Reynolds also does a good job of showing that 1978 season from the Sox's perspective.

We'll most likely never see a game like that again, due to the wild card system, which also adds to the legend of the Bucky Dent game.

"78" may have brought back teeth-grinding memories of Red Sox heartbreak for my Red Sox friend, but at least he could be comforted by positive thoughts of Boston's triumphs in this decade. For me - not so much.

Everything is reversed now - the Sox has the fans telling their Yankee counterparts to "count the rings," while the Yankee fans are still bitter about 2004 and chanting "Boston Sucks" when they're not even playing that team.

And reading about the way Don Zimmer mismanaged the '78 Red Sox down the stretch, most notably by burying Bill Lee due to personal animosity, reminded me of the way Joe Torre mismanaged the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.

But at least the Sox players didn't seem to go into that one-game playoff expecting to lose, the way the Yanks did for the 2004 ALCS Game 7, according to Joe Torre's "The Yankee Years."

One of the things that struck me in "78" was a photo of George Steinbrenner, the picture of magnanimity in triumph, going into the Red Sox clubhouse to shake Carlton Fisk's hand. Reggie Jackson also went into the Boston clubhouse that day after the game, and told the Sox, "We should both be champions." Carl Yastrzemski told him to "Win it all." You really get the sense how much the two teams respected each other.

The postgame Yankee-Red Sox contacts after the 2004 ALCS don't have the same resonance. The Yankees let the Red Sox celebrate on their field for what seemed like hours. Then, instead of Terry Francona or one of the Red Sox owners approaching the Yanks, Joe Torre called Francona and Tim Wakefield to congratulate them.

In '78, after the Yanks won that game, Don Zimmer cried for the first time in his baseball life. Most of his team did as well. That game haunted every Red Sox. When Zimmer drove to his Florida home that off-season, he spent the ride second-guessing himself not just for that game, but for the season.

In '04, Joe Torre told George Steinbrenner after his team suffered the worst collapse in baseball history, "Boss, I feel bad, I'm sorry it happened. But you can't lose any sleep over this. I wish I could sit there and tell you I wish I had done something different."

"78" ends on this note. Thirty years after the 1978 season, nine members of the '78 Yankees and nine members of the '78 Red Sox faced off in a baseball game in Scranton, PA. Bill Reynolds' description of the game made me sad I missed seeing it.

But it made me wonder if, in 2034, we will see the '04 Sox and the '04 Yankees face off? If so, I hope the Yanks decide to bunt on Curt Schilling this time around.

What do you think? Leave us a comment!


Anonymous said...

wow lisa, that is a whole lot of writing! are you having grandpa mike write your posts for you now?

Uncle Mike said...

Get. This. Book. I did. It's very non-linear, going back and forth between October 2, 1978 and various points in the past, but if you can handle that, the writing is great and the story -- the story of the city of Boston from 1967 to 1978, basically the era the built the Red Sox we grew up with and so much more happened -- is phenomenal. You might as well call it "The Back Bay Is Burning."

KM: If Lisa is having me write her posts for her, then I'm really underpaid.

Paul from Boston said...

Very suiting post as we kick off yet another season of 18 of the longest games to be played in MLB.

No predictions Lisa?

Heading out now to the local where they've got nice big open windows - great weather, great matchups, the weekend is here!!!

My opinion - based on pitching alone game 1 is a toss-up and games 2 & 3 are edge NY starters...edge Boston once they get to the pens.

-Joba doesn't throw at anyone
-Neither Papi nor ARod hit a HR
-Jon Miller & Co. annoy all of us

Cheers everyone!

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