The Greatest Game

These days, Bucky Dent's three-run homer that propelled the New York Yankees past the Boston Red Sox in a 1978 playoff game seems stilted and grainy on film. But certainly at the time, it was a riveting drama that was life or death for fans of both teams.

The Oct. 2, 1978, game at Fenway Park, pitted the two ancient rivals in a playoff to decide the American League East title. The Yankees' dramatic 5-4 victory was a game to be celebrated, regardless of the outcome.

That's what Richard Bradley does so vividly in his book, "The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of '78" (Free Press, $25). Bradley is the former executive editor of George magazine, and has written "American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr." and "Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University." This is his first baseball book, and Bradley trains a passionate, yet impartial eye on a game that was a microcosm of the 1978 season. With plenty of interviews, perspective and detail, Bradley breathes new life into a subject we all thought was beaten to death over the past 30 years.

There are chapters devoted to each inning, alternating with a month-by-month recap of both teams' season - Boston's hot start that put the Red Sox 14 games ahead of New York during the summer, and the Yankees' turbulent season as owner George Steinbrenner, slugger Reggie Jackson and Manager Billy Martin waged their own personal wars.

 Martin was gone as manager by the time the postseason rolled around, replaced by the taciturn Bob Lemon. It made a difference.

Dent's three-run homer in the seventh inning was the game-changing event for the Yankees (indeed, Bradley's clever title for Chapter 17 -- "B.F.D." --  will resonate with Yankee fans, while old-time Red Sox fans will wince). But Bradley goes deeper, setting the scene from all angles and perspectives. He also delves into Dent's history, and his fascinating search for his birth father and their uneasy reunion.

An unlikely hero in the game was right fielder Lou Piniella, now the manager of the Chicago Cubs. Piniella, never noted for his outfield skills, made two memorable plays during the playoff game. Inexplicably playing Fred Lynn to pull against Ron Guidry, Piniella made an outstanding catch of Fred Lynn's drive at the warning track in the right-field corner to end the sixth inning.

Piniella also used his baseball savvy in the ninth to fool Rick Burleson into thinking he was making a routine catch of Jerry Remy's line drive, when in fact, he had lost the ball in the sun. The decoy kept Burleson on second; the next batter, Jim Rice, flew out, and while Burleson tagged up, he surely would have scored the tying run had he been on third.

Bradley revisits each play, frame by frame, to the moment Goose Gossage forces Carl Yastrzemski pop out to Graig Nettles to end the game. The Yankees would go on to defeat Kansas City for the American League pennant and then would beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a six-game World Series, sweeping four games after losing the first two.

Bradley makes some mistakes in the book, but very few. The most glaring is a reference to Tiant as "Louis." There is another reference about Bob Lemon and Al Rosen being teammates (which is correct), "most notably" on the 1948 Cleveland Indians squad that beat Boston in the first AL playoff game (which is pushing it -- while Lemon won 20 games in '48, Rosen had just five at-bats in five games that season, spending most of 1948 in the minors. The 1954 pennant winners from Cleveland is a better analogy, although there was no playoff that season.).

Bradley presents a sharp focus, rich with detail and full of insight from the participants' perspective. You don't have to be a Yankees fan (or a Red Sox fan, for that matter) to appreciate Bradley's effort.

The Greatest Game
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