Spirit of ’77, Part I: Grand Entries and Royal Exits

I’m pleased to announce that today marks the beginning of an extended series of correspondences with Alex Belth of Bronx Banter that will be unfolding over the next several weeks as we discuss The New York Yankees: 1977 World Series Collector’s Edition DVD Set recently released by A&E TV (list price: $69.95). The format of our discussion was inspired by Slate.com’s Sopranos exchanges. In addition to the correspondences, we will be holding trivia contests to give away additional sets provided by the folks at A&E.

This also marks exactly the 1000th post of the Futility Infielder blog, a milestone I’m quite proud to note.

• • •

Dear Alex,

As I broke the shrinkwrap on this seven-DVD Dodger and Yankee World Series film collections we reviewed last year — I couldn’t help but think, this is where it all began. I was seven years old in 1977, and to me, baseball was still a game of catch or whiffle ball in the back yard, and an occasional TV show Dad watched. I knew vaguely of the Dodgers because an old pennant — as red-white-and-blue as the American flag — had hung in my bedroom from the time I moved to Salt Lake City around age four, but the comprehension of baseball as a professional sport whose players had discernible personalities, and whose comings and goings were as accessible as the morning paper, hadn’t reached me yet.

Fast-forward a year later, when the Dodgers and Yankees would meet again in the World Series. By the 1978 Fall Classic, I was collecting baseball cards (that delightful Topps set with the script and the event-by-event game on the back), knew how to read a box score, and followed the pennant races in the daily standings. Somewhere in between those two World Series, the switch flipped, and as fast as you could say Lopes-Russell-Smith-Garvey-Cey-Baker-Monday-Yeager-Sutton, I knew what the hell was going on, from the Steve Garvey-Don Sutton dustup to Bucky Dent’s home run.

At the center of my newfound baseball consciousness wasn’t a Dodger but a Yankee, Reggie Jackson. While I’m sure I saw bits of the World Series games contained in this set, I must have been safely tucked in by the time Jackson’s three-homer game applied the coup de grâce to the Dodgers. Obviously, Reggie made a big impression on my father, himself a second-generation Dodger fan who had no truck with the pinstripes. Via him, Reggie gained larger-than-life status in my eyes. When we played catch, occasionally Dad would toss me one that would sting my hand or glance off my glove. If I complained, he’d shout, “Don’t hit ‘em so hard, Reggie!” In other words, don’t bellyache, and don’t expect your opponent to cut you any slack.

Jackson had come to the Yanks prior to the 1977 season, and while the previous year had seen the reopening of Yankee Stadium and the team’s return to the World Series after a decade of dry seasons, this was the year that gets remembered. That probably has something to do with the championship halo; we remember teams that won it all better than the ones that didn’t. But as I’ve come to appreciate as an adult resident of the Big Apple, it was also a major year for New York City, which was still emerging from its Sucking in the Seventies nadir, its brush with bankruptcy. The blackout, the Son of Sam murders, the advent of Studio 54, and the mayoral race that serves as a backdrop in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, which I’ve only just begun reading — all of that and more lent the city an edge while casting a long shadow on the events that follow right up until this day. And the Yankees were at the center of it, with Jackson the self-proclaimed Straw That Stirred the Drink. Aside from the special features on this set — and I’ll wager some of the commentary from the broadcast crew — Jackson’s fussing and feuding with Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner, and Thurman Munson is on the periphery here. His bat and his magnetic smile are the stars of this show.

And then there are the Dodgers, who had reached their own critical moment in history. The 1977 team was Tommy Lasorda‘s first at the helm after 23 years of Walt Alston. Aside from a trip to the World Series in 1974, it had been a dry stretch for the Dodgers since the days of Sandy Koufax. Anchored by their longest-running infield (Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, a homegrown unit who had played together since 1973), they got off to a 17-3 start that buried the Big Red Machine that had reigned over the NL in 1975-1976.

At the same time, and I know this from having already watched the 1977 World Series film from the Yankees set, celluloid consigns these Dodgers to patsy status. Particularly in their road greys, as the imperial Jackson goes deep off Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa, and Charlie Hough in the decisive Game Six, the Dodgers give off a stoop-shouldered, already-defeated vibe. That they’d lose the next series as well, blowing a 2-0 lead to the Yankees, put them well on their way to Brooklyn Bum status even in the eyes of a kid who didn’t yet know his team’s colorful and occasionally heartbreaking past. As Roger Kahn wrote of dem Bums in The Boys of Summer “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”

I know these are themes you and I have talked about a million times in our conversations and explored some of them at our respective blogs and beyond. Given that the 1977 season occupies a similarly key moment in your life and your burgeoning baseball consciousness, I thought this set would be the perfect vehicle for the two of us to collaborate via an extended dialogue, something more than a perfunctory review that says, “I liked it more than Cats.”

So I’ll start it off by taking a quick physical measure of this set. From a design standpoint, it’s most impressive. The individual discs are housed in thin cases that wrap with a cover page of tidbits — line score, starting pitchers, attendance, temperature — and trivia, a Retrosheet-quality play-by-play on the inside, and the game’s full box score on the back. All in all, a very efficient delivery of information. As much as I wanted to see the Dodgers, my Dodgers, I refrained from skipping over the set’s bonus disc, the deciding game of the League Championship Series with the Royals. In some ways, that KC team mirrors the Dodgers, with a similarly stable cast of stars — George Brett, Frank White, Hal McRae, Darrell Porter, Amos Otis — who carried them through multiple battles with King George’s minions, sometimes successfully.

It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I could even remotely consider pulling for the Yankees, so the sympathy and nostalgia for the guys in Royal blue that I felt while watching this disc was accompanied by amusement that by the bottom of the first inning of the LCS, about 10 minutes into the disc, bedlam has already broken out. With one out and McRae on first base, Brett triples over centerfielder Mickey Rivers’ head. He goes into third hard, and overslides the bag. As he’s popping up, his right shoulder gets tangled up with Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles. Interpreting it as an act of aggression, Nettles kicks Brett. To the surprise of no one who’s viewed the Pine Tar Incident that would happen a few years later, Brett comes up swinging. With his left hand he grabs Nettles by the collar, and with his right he clocks him with a haymaker. Yankee starter Ron Guidry risks life and limb to separate the two as players from both sides, including Munson, jump into the fray. Miraculously, nobody is ejected, but I think you have to go to the Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura “brawl” to find a fight as satisfying as this one. How did I not know about this?

It’s pretty much all downhill for the Royals from there, despite their knocking out Guidry in the third (fallout from intervening in the fight?). Paul Splittorf, who like Guidry was working on three days’ rest, gives K.C. seven good innings, but then Whitey Herzog La Russas himself to death, chasing platoon matchups through five more pitchers as the Yanks mount a late rally with a flurry of singles. Reggie nearly steals the show with a key eighth-inning pinch-single that cuts the lead to 3-2. He flattens Royals shortstop Freddie Patek on a force out — great diving stop by Frank White, who could really pick it — and the inning ends with Jackson cutting short an argument with the second base ump to sheepishly acknowledge the havoc he’s wrought on the 5’5″ Patek, who’s writhing on the ground in agony. It’s not the last time we’ll be hearing from him.

Anyway, I’m sure you’ve got plenty to add here, so I’ll refrain from mooching all the good stuff from this disc, including the generous selection of interviews and special features.

Have at it, hoss…


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