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Don Zimmer's Time in Boston Historic For All the Wrong Reasons


Bucky F. Dent. Mike Torrez. Don Zimmer.

Those three names were considered unspeakable throughout New England after the Red Sox' at-the-time-all-time-worst-franchise-season collapse in 1978. Zimmer was the manager of the Red Sox when Torrez gave up a three-run homer to Dent, giving the Yankees the lead for good in the the 1978 Red Sox-Yankees "playoff game" that actually counted as part of the regular season.

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Things got so bad for Zimmer in Boston that one of his pitchers would call him a "gerbil." The most-popular and influential sports-talk radio show in Boston at the time, the Sunday Night "Sports Huddle" on WHDH, got under Zimmer's skin so badly that he demanded that his name not be used on their show.

The three hosts, Eddie Andelman, Mark Witkin and Jim McCarthy, responded by giving Zimmer perhaps the best nonsensical nickname in baseball history: "Chiang Kai Shek." Chiang was the leader of Nationalist China [Taiwan] at the time.

During that gut-wrenching season 36 years ago, the Red Sox won 99 games and nothing at the same time. There was no ALDS. There was no first wild card. There was no second wild card. There were two divisions in each league. The Milwaukee Brewers played in the American League East. The Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves played in the National League West.

Crazy times indeed.

Disco was king. Many of your parents and grandparents wore bell-bottom jeans, lots of polyester and sported Afros. The only Brady of note in Boston was the "Brady Bunch," which aired seemingly 10 times a day on Channel 56. [BTW RIP Ann B. Davis]. The Red Sox games were carried on "Channel 40 Minus 2" over the air for free. Saturdays and Sundays on Channel 38 often included "The Three Stooges" as pre- and post-game fare. The only NESN in New England was J.J. Nissen bread, who would eventually boast Ted Williams as a pitchman on TV. [More on that later in the week.]

Zimmer died at age 83 on Wednesday after more than 60 years as a baseball player, field coach, bench manager and wore 14 different major-league uniforms in his career.

One of his stints as a manager was with the Red Sox from 1976-80. He took over the Red Sox in the middle of the immensely disappointing '76 season after serving as Boston's third-base coach.

The '76 Red Sox were defending American League champions. They began with sky-high hopes and stocked with talent, at least according to what was written in the Globe and Herald-American at the time. Boston had come within an inning of beating the Cincinnati Reds in what was generally considered at time the greatest World Series ever played .

Like 2014, 1976 was hyped as a season where the future was taking shape at Fenway Park. Young outfielders Jim Rice and Fred Lynn had limitless upside, entering their second full season as members of the Red Sox. Remember, Rice had missed the '75 posteason, which was all of 10 games back then, because Verne Ruhl plunked Rice on the hand in the first inning on Sept. 21 when the Red Sox were playing Detroit. Rice stayed in the game but his hand was broken and season was finished.

Dwight Evans owned right field at the time. Carl Yastrzemski and Cecil Cooper split time between first base and the DH role. Carlton Fisk was secure behind home plate, with second baseman Denny Doyle, shortstop Rick Burleson and the third-baseman of the future, Butch Hobson, who would take over the position full-time from Rico Petrocelli by mid-summer.

Luis Tiant anchored the pitching staff, which also featured Fergie Jenkins, Rick Wise, Reggie Cleveland and Lee.

Lee was the baseball and personal antithesis of Zimmer. Lee would lead the "Buffalo Heads" in non-violent revolution against Zimmer. A former infielder for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and four other teams, Zimmer was old-school and conservative, even in the 1970s. School was out with Lee, who spoke favorably of Chairman Mao and joked about using marijuana. The "Spaceman" was classic baseball counter-culture. Zim chewed wad after wad of tobacco. Meanwhile, tobacco was probably the only plant Lee didn't smoke.

Those 1976 Red Sox began the season with Darrell Johnson as their manager. But Johnson was mercifully fired in July with the team stuck at 41-45. "In my opinion, it was time for a change," Johnson said after his firing. Like this year's Red Sox, that team also lost 10-straight [mostly] in the month of May. Under Zimmer as "interim" manager, the Red Sox finished the season above .500 at 42-24.

Zimmer's first full season as manager was a template season during the era of "My Father's Red Sox." The talent-laden 1977 Red Sox entered the final weekend of the season three games behind the Yankees with three to play. Boston beat Baltimore that Friday night at Fenway Park, cutting New York's lead to two games with two to play. The season ended on Saturday, as the Red Sox lost 8-7. The Yankees would lose that day as well, just to add injury to insult.

The following day, Fenway Park was soaked in an October afternoon monsoon. The Red Sox game would be cancelled, since it would not matter. Rick Dempsey of the Orioles put on a rain-delay display that we watched from the third-base stands before the game was called. He would replicate it many times throughout his career.

The 1977 Red Sox won 97 games, the same number of games they won in 2013. But this team tied for second place with Baltimore and failed to reach the postseason. The Yankees won the seven-team A.L. East with 99 wins that season.

The Red Sox had four future Hall of Famers on their roster every year Zimmer managed the team. Dennis Eckersley came to Boston from Cleveland a week before the 1978 season. The others were Yaz, Rice, Fisk and Jenkins, who was traded by Boston after the '77 season.

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Don Zimmer appeared on the cover of the Red Sox program sold at Fenway Park on Oct. 2, 1978. [OBF Photo]

Boston amassed 99 victories in 1978 but had one big problem. The Yankees also finished with 99 wins after crumbling in the last two weeks of the season. New York blew a 3 1/2-game lead with 14 to play and allowed Boston to catch it on the final day of the season. Tiant and Boston shut out Toronto 5-0 on that grey day at Fenway while the Yankees stumbled against Cleveland.

Of course, few recall the furious Red Sox comeback in the last two weeks of that season. What is remembered most about that year is how the Red Sox held a 10-game lead over then second-place Milwaukee as late as July 8 and how the Yankees were once 14 games out as late as July 17.

Boston lost Game 163 to the Yankees 5-4 on Monday, Oct. 2, in historically-crushing fashion. Yaz got jammed by Rich Gossage and popped up to end the game with Jerry Remy at first and Rick Burleson at third to end it. By then, my two brothers and I had slipped down from Section 21 to the fifth row off the field between the Red Sox dugout and home plate. The sounds of the Yankees yelling on the field echoing through an otherwise deadly-silent Fenway Park rang in my ears until I jumped in my swimming pool fully-clad after Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS.

The Red Sox won 97, 99 and 91 games while they were managed by Zimmer from 1977-79 but would never reach the postseason during his reign. No one has managed more than 400 games with the Red Sox and finished with a higher winning percentage than Zimmer. His 411-304 record left Zip with a .57482 winning percentage as Red Sox manager. That's a higher winning percentage than Terry Francona [.54707] had during his eight seasons in Boston.

Of course, Francona's teams won two World Series titles and never lost a game in the Fall Classic. Zimmer's reign in Boston is noted for one of the team's all-time classic falls, lowlighted by this signature moment:

Kids, that's where "Bucky F. Dent" and everyone with an "F." in the middle of their name comes from. The game was far more complex than just Dent's home run. There was Lou Piniella's "look-what-I-found" stab of Remy's single to right in the ninth, Reggie Jackson's bomb off Stanley in the eighth and Bob Bailey's moment of infamy as a pinch-hitter in the seventh. One wild pitch and three strikes.

"Won't you stay home Bob Bailey?"

As the Red Sox slowly eroded in late July, throughout August and into the middle of September, Zimmer became the focus of the fans' ire and the scapegoat of the press and players.

Perhaps Zimmer's most fateful decision among many disastrous calls concerned young phenom Bobby Sprowl. Whenever the Sabermetricians laud the next, great Red Sox pitcher or player of the future, Sprowl remains my historic default position.

He came to the Red Sox out of the University of Alabama and compiled a 9-3 record at Class AA New Britain. It was infamously said he had "ice water in his veins."

He was the 1978 version of pitcher Henry Owens or outfielder Mookie Betts, that being the latest, greatest can't-miss kid.

Zimmer and Lee were barely on speaking terms as the '78 season regressed. Eventually, Lee would enter into full rebellion against "the gerbil." But Lee forgot one important point in their battle, Zimmer was the boss.

Zimmer subbed Lee for Sprowl in his second start, Sept. 10, against the Yankees. Lee would go 12-5 against the Bronx Bombers in 21 career starts. Sprowl's start would end up as the fourth day of what the press termed "The Boston Massacre." Boston suffered Four straight losses to the Yankees at Fenway Park. The Red Sox would be outscored 41-9 that weekend.

Sprowl [who finished 0-2 with a 6.39 ERA during his brief career in Boston] did not finish the first inning that afternoon. He walked four batters around a double play by Thurman Munson and gave up a base hit and a run. Bob Stanley would come in for relief.

The Red Sox never would recover from that '78 collapse in time to save Zimmer. While the team won 91 games in '79, it was never in first place after May 18 and would finish 11.5 games back of Baltimore. Zimmer was eventually let go near the end of the 1980 season with Boston floundering in third place at 82-73. The Red Sox were never in contention that season after falling out of first place for good on Patriots' Day. Johnny Pesky finished out the year as Zimmer's interim replacement for five games.

Zimmer's baseball legacy extends far beyond Boston. It was somehow poetic that his career would bring him back to New York as Joe Torre's bench coach. He always had plenty of fight, as evidenced by his charging Pedro Martinez at age 72 during the infamous brawl between the Yankees and Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. Zimmer swung and missed, ending up on the Fenway turf. Ironically, that clip was featured in this space Tuesday.

Zimmer would get one last laugh on the Red Sox and Boston.

On the amazing and agonizing baseball night that was Sept. 29, 2011, Zimmer left Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., when his Rays were trailing the Yankees 7-0. Zimmer returned, according to the New York Times, because he had forgotten to say "good-bye" to some of the players. The Rays would eventually rally to win that game 8-7 as the Red Sox withered and lost after a rain delay in Baltimore. Tampa Bay clinched the wildcard.

The Red Sox, after completing the largest playoff collapse in September baseball history, soon became awash in "chicken and beer" and Bobby Valentine.

Zimmer ended up celebrating with the Rays until 2 a.m.

Probably way past his bed time.

"I'm 80 years old and I thought I was playing," he told The Charlotte Sun of Port Charlotte, Fla., on the morning of Sept. 30. "This matches everything. It's crazy, it's beautiful, it's baseball."

RIP, "Popeye."

Bucky, Pedro, Popeye's and all.

God bless. The OBF Column is written by award-winning journalist, Bay State native and Boston.Com columnist Bill Speros. Got a news tip, want to let him know directly what you think, have a complaint or compliment about his "aggressively relevant" content or hate people who speak about themselves in the third person, hit him up on his Obnoxious Boston Fan Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or hit him on at his
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