Several years ago, before Ron Guidry had come out of retirement to become the pitching coach of the Yankees, I asked him a question that had been bothering me for years: Given the volatility of George Steinbrenner in those days, manager Billy Martin's mood swings, the constant hiring and firing, and the combustible mix of personalities in the clubhouse, was it possible that the Bronx Zoo years were less fun for the players than they were for the fans?
Guidry winced. He elbowed the nearest player, gestured at me, and then pointed his index finger at his temple and rotated it 360 degrees in the universal "Get a load of the crazy person" gesture. Making no effort to disguise the "are you kidding me?" tone in his voice, he said, "I thought that was the best time we ever had! I would have never changed anything, because believe it or not we had the best soap opera ever. All right? The best soap opera was the team we had here in the 70s. Everybody would pick up the papers […] — they couldn't wait to pick up the papers the next morning to see what was going on in New York. I thought it was the best time I've ever had."
On Saturday, the Yankees will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the 1977 championship team, gathering many of the members of the club. No doubt all present who lived through those days will look back with nostalgia, as Guidry did, and remember the positives, in the same way that veterans of the Civil War, looking back at the bombs, bullets, and bloodshed from the vantage point of middle- or old age, wrote without embarrassment about how they wished they could go back and do it all over again.
It could be, though, that Guidry was right, that it was fun, and therein is the contradiction that hobbled the franchise for almost two decades. The Yankees of the mid-1970s were a unique collection of personalities. Players such as Guidry, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Sparky Lyle, and Graig Nettles were hard in some ways, and they could take withstand the volatile atmosphere. Perhaps having come of age in the anti-authoritarian 1960s, they were able to rationalize Steinbrenner's pressure tactics as just one more thing to endure and overcome.
Later Yankees players, though, didn't share the same frame of reference, and Guidry's beloved soap opera became the end of most baseball seasons rather than a means to a championship. The teams were no longer as well constructed since Steinbrenner's best advisors had been alienated for quite some time, and the personalities on those teams no longer fit the management style. In September 1985, for instance, as the Don Mattingly-Dave Winfield-Rickey Henderson Yankees were struggling to overcome the Toronto Blue Jays, Steinbrenner came out with his "Mr. May" harangue. The team responded with an eight-game losing streak.
The tenor of the times harmed coverage of the team, emphasizing the clash of personalities and obscuring just how good a club the 1977 Yankees were. Like the 1978 team that came after it, the club required a comeback to win, though on a smaller scale: In third place and 4.5 games behind the Red Sox in mid-August, the Yankees went 36–12 the rest of the way, taking first place on August 23 and never looked back.
Although the 1978 team has been more romanticized, the 1977 club was better in every way. Martin, who was said to be in danger of firing even on the eve of the World Series, made it through the entire season. Munson was still in peak form (years of catching would take itstollin1978).Reggie Jackson was monstrous, a legitimate drink-stirring straw, putting together a .286 AVG/.375 OBA/.550 SLG season that was the equivalent of a Bondslike .292/.386/.615 today. Chris Chambliss actually hit in 1977; a year later the first baseman's bat took a turn for the Mientkiewicz and was among the main obstacles the Yankees had to overcome in order to mount their comeback.
Even Guidry, the Cy Young award winner (and nearly MVP) in 1978 was quite good in 1977, breaking through with a fine 16–7, 2.82 season. He got a few nods for the Cy Young in 1977 as well, finishing seventh in the balloting behind the winner, his teammate Sparky Lyle.
For the current Yankees, and perhaps all teams of today, it's worth noting that New York had just two relievers that mattered: Lyle and Dick Tidrow. Tidrow pitched 104.1 innings in middle relief and also went 5–0 in seven spot starts. Lyle pitched 137 innings, saving only 26 games but winning 13. Wins count in the standings, saves do not.
Fortunately, as Joe Torre realized, nor does serial drama. In 1996, he alone seemed to understand that the club needed to put the legacy of that time behind it in order to win again. Today, as sports columnists contemplate his replacement, it would pay to remember that 1977 was a fascinating time and team, but there's no going back there — nor should we want to.
Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for yesnetwork.com and is the author of "Forging Genius," a biography of Casey Stengel.