As Baltimore gnaws away at what was once an 11-game New York Yankee league lead, the inevitable comparison is made of 1978 when the Bosox blew a 14-game lead to the Yanks.
That comparison, so far at least, is grossly unfair to this Yankee team.
Already, from New York to Baltimore to Washington, the instant sages of the press box are dragging out the word "choke" and accusing New York of quitting under pressure.
Anyone who saw all seven of the head-to-head contests between the Red Sox and Yankees in September 1978 and who has seen all four meetings between the Orioles and Yankees this August should know both the similarities, and the vastly greater differences, between the two races.
Those Red Sox, plagued by injuries of varying severity to five regulars were in a total state of distress and humiliation. If possible, they would have called in sick.
When the Sox and Yanks first met on Sept. 7, Boston had a four-game lead. Just 10 days later, the disgraced Red Sox were 3 1/2 games behind, thanks to six consecutive New York victories by an aggregate score of 49-11 in which the Yanks outhit the Carmine Hose, 84-29.
Those were not baseball games; they were public drawing and quarterings. Boston lost the first two games, 15-3 and 13-2, and, in the second game, made seven errors.
The Sox had extenuating circumstances, but not that extenuating. When decent, if mediocre, play would have salvaged a pennant, they lost 14 of 17 games in September.
The strong similarity between the '78 and '80 pennant races is the classic play of the defending champion while making its comeback. The '78 Yanks reached their nadir on July 19, then finished the season 53-21 (.716), including a 20-3 streak from Aug. 25 to Sept. 15 in which they gained 11 games on Boston in 22 days.
The '80 Orioles reached bottom on July 14. The difference between the two clubs is that this year's Birds actually woke up a month before that -- on June 15. That's why Baltimore has caught the Yankees in mid-August with plenty of time still to play, while the '78 Yankees didn't start knocking on Boston's door until mid-September when a short string of wins or losses could mean pennant-race life or death.
Baltimore has virtually duplicated the Yankee stretch run of '78, going 38-17 (.691), and putting together a 17-4 streak.
The great difference between the Boston Massacre and this season's New York Apple (as in "Yanks Take Apple"), is that while the floundering Red Sox were pathetic and at times almost nauseating, the current Yankees have, in the midst of mounting disorder, tried gamely to cut their losses.
The O's swept the first four of these head-to-head affairs, and thus may have reached the point where a mere 2 1/2-game deficit come Monday night will be sufficient to ensure that they can complete their comeback at their leisure.
Nevertheless, in those four games, which Baltimore won by a total score of 21-10, the Yankees did not make a single error. They missed a bushel of fly balls, but no errors.
The Yanks, who have played 15.16 ball over the last month -- their toughest scheduling period of the season -- may have had the score doubled on them in this vital period, but they have been close in every game.
Last Friday in Yankee Stadium, they led, 2-1, with just four Oriole outs to go. On Saturday, they were tied, 2-2, with one out in the Birds' eighth. On Sunday, they led, 5-4, with Baltimore down to its last strike in the ninth. And Thursday in Baltimore, they trailed just 2-1 going into the bottom of the sixth.
Some, of course, will say that these sorts of defeats are the most devastating because major league teams themselves believe that tight games are true tests, while laughters are flukes. If that is the case, the Yanks may yet react to their present difficulties like a boxer who has a delayed reaction to a punch in the solar plexus. Once confidence is eroded, it is rebuilt slowly.
The Red Sox of '78 deserved pity for the carnivorous way their own fans and followers berated them. But, to tell the truth, they disgraced themselves with dozens of misplays that would embarass any AAA professional. t
The Yankees of '80 do not, yet, need any tears shed over them, nor do they deserve any impugning of their character. They are not close to the Yankee champions of '77-'78 in talent and should not be judged as though they were. They are a fourth-place club of a season ago, rebuilt in a great hurry by checkbook alone.
The Orioles of '80 deserve the same praise for gumption as the Yankees of '78. But to lump these gamey struggling Yankees with the limp Red Sox of '78 is to show a willful ignorance of history.