Sweet Lou Piniella and the 1978 New York Yankees

Here is the latest from Joe Guzzardi, a regular Wednesday and Saturday contributor here.


Lou Piniella may be remembered as the occasionally successful (winning percentage .518) 23-year term manager of the New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the unbearably pathetic Chicago Cubs.

Except for his three years at the helm of the Devil Rays from 2003-2005, Piniella led each of his teams at least once to the first playoff round. In 1990, with the Reds, Piniella swept the Oakland A’s in the World Series.

But if you are of a certain age, and especially if you lived in New York when Piniella played outfield for the Yankees, then you remember Sweet Lou as an outstanding and underrated key on the 1978 Yankees, possibly the most fascinating team in baseball history.

During the 1970s I lived in upper Manhattan, a brief subway ride to the Bronx. Late in the decade, I developed a curious relationship with the Yankees. I admired and rooted for their players individually: Thurman Munson, Chris Chambliss, Bucky Dent, Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles and pitchers Ron Guidry (25-3!), Ed Figueroa, Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage. My favorite was Piniella who, although he batted seventh, hit a solid .314.

But because of owner George Steinbrenner’s heavy-handed, dictatorial style, I never wanted the Yankees to win. For the players to excel but the team to lose was of course impossible.

In my baseball lifetime, I’ve never experienced a season as crazy as 1978 when the Yankees’ fortunes (and misfortunes) dominated the sports’ pages.

Through April and May, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox ran neck and neck. But in June, the Sox pulled away. Not only were the Sox, led by Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, Dennis Eckersley and Luis Tiant playing better baseball but the Yankees to the amazement and bewilderment of its fans and the amusement of the media, begun to self destruct.

By July 19, the Yankees were buried in fourth place 14 games behind the Red Sox.

Among the whirlwind of mid-season controversies that unglued the Yankees were Reggie unsuccessfully attempting to bunt even though manager Billy Martin through his third base coach Dick Howser had given the hit sign. With much ado, Steinbrenner sent Jackson home to California as punishment for his defiance.

Then, in dizzying sequence, Martin in an alcoholic stupor called Jackson a “born” liar and Steinbrenner a “convicted” one.

Martin, in advance of being fired, resigned. Bob Lemon replaced Martin who the Yankees promptly announced would return to the helm in 1980.

Under Lemon, the Yankees gradually chipped away at the Red Sox until on September 7th, they trailed by five games.

Then came the Fenway Park “Boston Massacre,” when the Yankees swept the Red Sox by scores of 15-3, 13-2, 7-0 and 7-4.

Piniella’s line for the four games which included three doubles and a home run: AB 16; R 8; H 10; RBIs 5

As one Boston newspaper summed up in a headline: If You Need Directions to Home Plate, Fenway Park, Ask Any Yankee; They’ve All Been There

But three weeks remained. The Yankees pushed ahead by 2.5 games before the Red Sox got healthy and tied the Bombers. And when, on the final day, the Yankees couldn’t beat the last place Cleveland Indians, game number 163 ensued. (Watch Phil Rizzuto introduce it here.)

Played in Boston on a Monday mid-afternoon, October 2, no self respecting New Yorker was anywhere except in front of his television. I can’t remember what lame excuse I offered up for not being in my office but since my boss wasn’t around either, it didn’t matter.

Normally, when the Yankees’ thrilling 5-4 victory is replayed in our memory, the kudos go to Bucky Dent who hit the three-run, seventh inning homer that put the New Yorkers ahead for good.

To me, however, the turning point was a Piniella defensive gem.

Entering his third inning of relief, Gossage was barely hanging on when Rick Burleson drew a one out walk followed by Jerry Remy’s soft liner into the glaring right field sun.

Burleson, seeing Piniella struggle to locate the ball, headed for second. Then, Piniella made a typically heady play by motioning with his glove that he was about to make the catch. That froze Burleson at second instead of trying to take third.

When the ball fell in front of Piniella for a single, Lou rifled it in to third base to hold Burleson on second.

Rice came to the plate and hit a titanic fly ball to right which would have easily scored Burleson to tie the game had he advanced to third. Without Piniella’s fake out, Red Sox could have won the game in regulation or sent it into extra innings.

Instead, Goosage got Carl Yazstremski to foul out making the Yankees American League and, eventually, World Series champions.


Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research, as well as the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

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