Wednesday, July 4, 2018

This Day in Yankee History (Righetti Lights Up Bosox in No-Hitter)

July 4, 1983—With temperatures climbing to 94 degrees, heat was in the air, but it was nothing like the heat dealt by New York Yankee pitcher Dave Righetti to the Boston Red Sox. Midway through a season in which, as has happened so often in their history, the two clubs were neck-and-neck in their division, the Yankee southpaw tossed a no-hitter, sparking his team to a 4-0 victory before more than 41,000 fans at Yankee Stadium. 

Besides occurring on Independence Day and against a hated rival, Righetti’s gem was special for several other reasons:

*It happened on the birthday of George Steinbrenner, the best kind of present that win-win-win Yankee owner could ask for;

*It was the first Yankee regular-season no-hitter since Allie Reynolds’—also against the Red Sox—on September 28, 1951.

*It was the first Yankee no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

*It was only the fourth no-hitter ever pitched in the major leagues or their equivalent on July 4. The others were by the New York Giants’ George “Hooks” Wiltse (1908), the Detroit Tigers’ George Mullin (1912), and, in the Negro Leagues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords’ Satchel Paige (1934).

Righetti had great motivation to want to shut down the Red Sox on this day: Not only had they been punishing opposing pitchers recently (38 hits in the three prior games against the Yankees and 12 homers in their last four games), but, after 6 2/3 innings, they had broken up his prior flirtation with a no-hitter the year before. And he had an additional edge: despite a 9-3 record, he’d been passed over for the All-Star Game.

But first, the lefthander had to overcome some issues—starting with himself.

Since coming to the Yankees in a November 1978 trade involving former Bronx Bomber reliever and Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle, Righetti had been stuck with the “promising” tag while moving beyond it only fitfully. True, he had earned Rookie of the Year honors and been a key cog in their 1981 pennant drive, but the following season he had yielded more walks than anyone else in the American League.

His control was not pinpoint on this day, either—Righetti would walk four by the time he was done—but the Yankees neutralized the Bosox’ opportunities with sparkling defense (notably, nifty plays by outfielders Dave Winfield and Steve Kemp), and Righetti was aggressive, not just throwing fast but putting the Sox’ batters off-balance by checking locations. 

His final, ninth out came against Boston’s toughest batter: Wade Boggs. The future Hall of Famer would bat .361 that season and strike out only 36 times. 

With tension mounting on the field (Glenn Hoffman stood at second because the Yanks’ Andre Robertson had thrown wide to first base) and in the Yankee dugout (manager Billy Martin claimed later it was the only time he’d ever prayed in a baseball game), Boggs got a chance to break up both Righetti’s no-hitter and shutout in one stroke when umpire Steve Palermo called a down-and-away pitch a ball on a 1-and-2 count.

But one chance was the only one Boggs got. Unlike Larsen’s perfect game, which concluded on a called third strike, there was not the slightest dispute on the next pitch. Boggs guessed wrong on the timing and location of Righetti’s nasty slider, swung and missed. For a second, Righetti stood stunned and amazed at how his 132-pitch performance had ended, then hugged his exuberant catcher Butch Wynegar. 

The trajectories of both Righetti and the Yankees would change following that game and season. The team finished the year in third place in the AL East behind the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers. (What little consolation they took away was that the Red Sox ended up 13 games back of them, in sixth place—a far cry from their epic season-long battle five years before.) They couldn’t imagine that it would take 12 years to get back to the post-season and not until 1996 before they would win another pennant and World Series.

During much of this era of instability, Righetti would be one of the few constants in the Bronx clubhouse, though not in the role that he and management originally projected. With Goose Gossage and George Frazier departing in the offseason, Righetti was moved over to plug the gaping hole left in the bullpen. Righetti accepted and adapted to the change, even though agent Bill Goodstein complained, in an April 1990 article on his client in Sports Illustrated, “He could probably have been a 20-game winner for five or six years and made twice as much money."

The high point in Righetti’s Yankee bullpen tenure came in 1986, when he recorded 46 saves—a high-water franchise mark for the entire pre-Rivera era. But for all his excellence, it is an open question whether the Yankees made the correct decision in converting this deeply loyal player from his starting role. 

I remember at the time that management justified this by noting that his effectiveness declined after the seventh inning, so he was better if used sooner. But this has the whiff of a move made less for sound statistical reasons than out of necessity. Starting pitching remained the Achilles’ heel of the Bombers in their lost decade out of the money. (In 1986, for instance, Dennis Rasmussen led the rotation with 18 victories, but no other starter recorded more than nine.)

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