Yankee greats say '78 proves comeback possible

By Larry Fine
Reuters
Monday, July 9, 2007; 4:39 AM

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Yankees go into the All-Star break 10 games behind the AL East division-leading Boston Red Sox and with their string of 12 successive seasons in the playoffs in jeopardy.

If the 2007 edition of the Bronx Bombers needed inspiration for a second-half push they did not have to look far.

Down the corridor from their clubhouse last weekend were alumni from the fabled 1978 Yankees who battled back from a 14-game deficit in July to overtake the Boston Red Sox and win a World Series.

Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers and heroic sub Brian Doyle were among those who participated in the annual Old-Timers' Day game at Yankee Stadium.

Nettles, a slugging third baseman on the team, told Reuters: "They are way down in the standings like we were. We proved it can be done. They can turn it around but they've got to start playing better.

"We weren't going to panic. We knew it was a long season."

That was a common theme voiced by the old timers, many of whom had also been on the 1977 team that won the World Series the season before the comeback year.

"You just got to keep believing," said Bucky Dent, a light-hitting shortstop, whose three-run homer in the 1978 playoff game against the Red Sox in Boston was a crucial blow and made him known in Beantown as Bucky "Bleepin"' Dent.

"We'd won the World Series the year before," he said.

"We were experienced, confident in what we were doing. Your players got to believe the season is not over and you have to keep grinding."

The Yankees, who have 77 games remaining, need to make a charge after returning to action on Thursday. Their first 29 games after the All-Star break come against teams with losing records.

INJURY WOES

"This has been ugly," said Hall of Fame slugger Jackson, who is a consultant for the Yankees.

"They know they should have a better record than they have. We have not done well. We are playing bad. We all have egg on our face."

Early season injuries have hurt the 2007 Yankees, just as they slowed down the 1978 Yanks. As that season wore on, New York got healthier and Boston began suffering injury woes of their own.

Cliff Johnson, a right-handed slugger, said the '78 Yanks had a psychological edge on the Red Sox.

"The way we came back was we started winning games in groups," he said.

"Boston started looking back and that was it. Boston was always afraid of us. We got to rolling, got to rolling downhill, out of control and right over Boston's ass."

The Bombers finally caught the Red Sox with an emphatic four-game sweep at Fenway Park in September, outscoring them 42-9 in what came to be known as the 'Boston Massacre'.

Boston dispelled any fatalistic fear they might have had of a Yankees franchise that has won a record 26 World Series with their historic comeback over New York in 2004, sweeping the last four after trailing 0-3 in the AL Championship Series and going on to claim their first World Series in 86 years.

Some old timers wondered if this New York team has the players to get the job done.

"Until they get their pitching staff doing the job they're supposed to do they don't have a chance," said Paul Blair, the great defensive centerfielder.

"They have to sustain long winning streaks. They don't have the staff to do it."

"We had better pitching," acknowledged Jackson.

"We had great players and we were tough, but we had better pitching. We had (Goose) Gossage and (Sparky) Lyle. We had a man who was 25-3 with a 1.74 (earned run average) and 248 strikeouts," he said about lefty ace Ron Guidry, the current Yankee pitching coach.

© 2007 Reuters