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Before we take a cautious look forward with the Yankees, let’s take a quick look backwards. Set your watch for July 15, 1978, 43 years ago, another summer when the Yankees were pursuing the Red Sox. Things looked so glum then that Reggie Jackson, noted horse player, had already mused, “Not even Affirmed can catch Boston,” referring to the freshly throned Triple Crown thoroughbred.
Anyway, there has lately been a lot of hand-wringing by Yankees fans and the ever-helpful refrain of “If Only The Boss Were Still Alive …” to accompany the angst, and it seems helpful to recount that on July 15, 43 years ago, with the Yankees sitting 11 ½ games behind the Sox, in third place, this was what George Steinbrenner, very much alive, did on that one day alone:
• He demoted Reggie Jackson, the team’s leading RBI man, from everyday right-fielder to part-time DH against right-handers. This was done for no apparent reason.
• He made Thurman Munson’s periodic appearances in right field permanent (or at least temporarily permanent). Munson, the perennial All-Star catcher, would’ve looked more comfortable playing goalie for the Rangers.
• He declared Mike Heath (lifetime OPS-plus: 88) and Gary Thomasson (lifetime batting average: .249) would be regulars. Lou Piniella and Roy White all but vanished from the lineup (again, temporarily permanently).
• He asked Billy Martin if he’d like to retire. Martin declined.
“I ain’t no bleepin’ quitter,” Martin declared.
That was one day. Around the Yankees, in the summer of 1978, that was considered “Thursday.” That was what life was like when The Boss was alive. And that doesn’t account for what happened in the next few weeks …
(Reggie bunts, against orders, versus the Royals at the Stadium, is told to stop it, bunts again despite getting a green light to swing, is suspended for a week. … Billy has a few too many at an O’Hare Airport saloon, adds “One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted” into “Bartlett’s Famous Quotations,” resigns. … The Yankees fall to fourth place, 14 games behind the Sox on July 17 (their record: 47-42). … Billy is brought back on Old-Timers’ Day, two weeks after quitting, and is declared manager for 1980. …)
Oh, yeah. If only The Boss were still alive.
Of course, we all know what happened next: The Yankees staged one of the great comebacks in baseball history, one of the signature chapters in the 86-year trance they held over the Red Sox. You know what’s kind of overlooked, though, in the telling and retelling of that summer? There were no magic tricks involved. There was no pixie dust. There was certainly no magic wand waved by the principal owner.
The Yankees did the most simple thing you can do in baseball.
They started to win. A lot. Almost every day, in fact. They started to play better baseball. They got better pitching in the second half than they’d gotten in the first. They started hitting in the clutch better. The Red Sox cooled down, sure, but they still won 99 games. They didn’t exactly go in the full tuck position.
The Yankees just heated up, starting at 47-42. They went 52-21 from there, then won a playoff game.
It is worth noting that the Yankees, as of this moment, are 46-43, only a game worse than the ’78 team at the same time. They trail the Sox, who visit Yankee Stadium for four days beginning Thursday night, by eight games (so, if you are an optimist, they are already six games to the good from 43 years ago).
Now, yes: Those Yankees had a winning pedigree and were, in fact, defending champions. But it is also worth remembering that the last two times this core of Yankees played a full 162, they went 203-121. There is winning in their DNA, too, even if it has been hard to detect sometimes this year.
Want more? Yankees fans nearly revolted in ’78 when Martin — fiery, angry, headstrong Billy — was replaced by cool, calm, collected Bob Lemon. Yankees fans in 2021 sometimes sound ready to hold a séance to restore Billy to the manager’s office in order to fix the path crafted by Aaron Boone — cool, calm, collected Aaron Boone.
Maybe this really is a lost cause. Maybe 46-43 isn’t an outlier. Maybe the Sox really are uncatchable, the Yankees irredeemable. But there’s sure an awful lot of season left. There are still a lot of games left against baseball piñatas like the Orioles and Twins and Rangers. And there still are so many games left with the Sox and the Rays.
Better: Hal Steinbrenner is unlikely to walk into the Yankees clubhouse Thursday and rearrange the lineup for kicks and giggles. That’s the kind of thing his old man used to do, back in the ’70s, thinking it was a good idea. Of course, a lot of people in 1978 thought bell-bottoms and leisure suits were a good idea, too.
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