Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Best of Times: A Dynasty Thwarted

14 Back: Hate, Fate, and the Summer of 78 (2018) takes us back to the 1978 World Series.

After four championships this century, explaining the angst of the 1970s Boston Red Sox fan is difficult. After all, Nirvana – World Series championships for Boston in 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2018 – has been attained four times. But this neglected documentary, 14 Back: Hate, Fate, and the Summer of 78 (2018), from filmmaker Jonathan Hock, might do the trick.

The movie is about the 1978 Boston Red Sox’ failure to deliver a championship after one of the most promising World Series in history – 1975, in which catcher Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning HR in Game Six became an iconic image. The game was on national TV. During an exciting series with the Cincinnati Reds, with the game tied and the Sox facing elimination, Fisk sent a ball deep into the night. Jumping and directing the ball fair with his arms, he headed toward first. The ball hit the netting on the left-field foul pole above Fenway Park’s famous Wall. The win sent the series to a deciding Game 7 and pandemonium broke out across New England. 

That the Red Sox lost Game 7 and the Reds became champions didn’t seem to matter. They had so much talent and personality on their roster that a dynasty with Fisk and outfielders Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Carl Yastrzemski leading the way seemed inevitable. Until it wasn’t. 

For many baseball fans, the 1970s represents the apex of the sport. Free agency began halfway through the decade, and it took teams, players, and agents years to figure out the impact that the vanishing of the reserve clause (whereby a team retained the rights to a player for life) would have on the game. At the same time, the playoff system in place allowed the regular season to mean much more than it does now. There were no wild card teams.

Only two teams from each league – winners of the American League East and West and National League East and West – made the playoffs. The AL East was the most talented of the four divisions. In 1978, the Red Sox and the New York Yankees finished with identical records, 99-63. This made a one-game playoff, Game 163, a necessity.  One game, with the two best teams in baseball facing each other.

Hock is a prolific documentarian, with over 20 films to his credit. Blessed with resources from ESPN's 30 for 30 series, he favors telling stories of underdogs and losers. In The Best That Never Was (2010), he profiles Marcus Dupree, a superstar high-school running back gifted with such incredible talent that he ran through defenses and scored touchdowns with ease. Dupree had a failed college career, floundering for a year and a half under Coach Barry Switzer at the University of Oklahoma. He then tried to make his mark in the USFL, signing a $5 million contract with the New Orleans Breakers. He was hurt shortly into that stint and never made it big. He eventually settled back home in Mississippi and became a truck driver. 

In Of Miracles and Men (2015), Hock focuses on the losing side of the 1980 miracle on ice hockey story at Lake Placid. He profiles the Russian national team, which the American amateur team with Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig vanquished to win the Olympic gold medal. Most fans remember Coach Herb Brooks’ speech before the game – made famous by Kurt Russell in the Disney movie Miracle (2004) – which contains the phrase, “You were born to be hockey players.” Not many know that the Olympic village at Lake Placid was built to eventually become a minimum security prison. Russian team members recall being woken up at night by clanging doors. Fewer still remember that the Russian team twice challenged NHL Canadian all-stars in exhibition series, displaying their mettle and unique teamwork style to the best players in the world. Hock leaves no stone unturned in his storytelling, even uncovering the source of Russians’ unorthodox play by recounting the tale of the godfather of Russian hockey, Anatoly Tarasov, appointed by Stalin's son to recruit and coach the team. This at a time when the country was too poor even to make ice during Moscow’s summer months.

Reggie Jackson after hitting his game-winning HR in Game 163 of the 1978 season as his teammate Thurman Munson looks on.

Hock’s willingness to go deep gives 14 Back its drive. He divides the documentary into three sections. Part 1 focuses on Boston’s Super Team – a sobriquet applied by The Boston Herald – and the lead over NY it built up in the season’s first half. Hock uses recollections of Boston Globe sports reporters – Bob Ryan, Peter Gammons, and Dan Shaughnessy – to provide background on the supposed curse that for decades let the team get close but never close enough to win it all.

Globe Metro columnist Mike Barnicle, never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, opines on the Curse of the Bambino. The curse allegedly happened in the early 1920s when Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance a musical called No, No, Nanette. Ever since, various miscues have prevented victory. Meanwhile, the Yankees compiled 21 championships. “They killed my dad,” says Barnicle. “Now they’re killing me.”

Part 2 tells why the Yankees had such a poor first half: internecine warfare between owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin, and superstar slugger Reggie Jackson. The soap opera played out daily in the New York newspapers. At one point in July, the Yanks are 14 games back. The Sox have built a seemingly insurmountable lead. But the firing of Martin and a NY newspaper strike give the Yankees the reprieve they need to begin focusing on baseball again. Eventually they catch and surpass the Sox in the standings. But the Sox roar back and tie the Yankees’ record on the season’s last day, forcing the tiebreaking game.  

Part 3 – a full third of the movie – is a recounting of Game 163. Ray Romano’s bland narration is augmented by the players’ recall of events. The setting at Fenway is a sunny fall Monday in which fans played hookey to watch the afternoon game. Reticent Bob Lemon is in charge of the Yanks’ dugout and round-faced Don Zimmer is the Sox manager. “The town, it’s Monday, no one’s workin’,” remembered Lynn. “. . . everybody’s watchin’, probably everyone in the country.”

Most articulate are Yankee players Graig Nettles, Bucky Dent, Lou Piniella, and Goose Gossage. Piniella recounts two outfield plays he made in which the ball bounced his way both times. Luis Tiant, Bill Lee, Fisk, Jerry Remy, Dennis Eckersley, and Lynn recall details of the game that along with the footage bring the past to life. 

What we fans tend to forget is how young most players were. “I have never been more nervous for a game in my life, ever,” Eckersley, who was 23 at the time, recalled. “Never ever since. And I didn’t even pitch.” Gossage, the premier relief pitcher of the day, echoes him. It's only when he finally relaxes that Gossage is able to throw his best pitches. In the game’s last at-bat, he’s on the mound versus 39-year-old Yaz. 

Remarkably, the game lived up to its hype. Fans and players hung on every pitch. “I was 25 years old then,” Shaughnessy said. “If I had thought about it, I would have said, ‘Nothin’ this great is gonna happen again.’”

It’s enough to make players misty-eyed. “I get emotional when I think of those years . . . it was a heck of a time in our lives,” Piniella recalls, “I remember every player on the team, I really do.” The movie allows us to do the same.

The film is currently available for the first time on YouTube for free. Commissioned and released in 2018 by the now defunct Sports Illustrated TV network, the movie has been unavailable either streaming or on DVD for most of the past four years. The YouTube cut is faded and lacks some of the clarity and polish that most Hock films have. Maybe ESPN can see its way to purchasing and restoring it.

Jim Daly is a former Patriot Ledger reporter and has also written for The Boston Globe. A Boston native, he studied English at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He works as a commercial real estate appraiser.

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