The New York Times quotes Mike Torrez, who pitched for the MFY in 1977 and then signed as a free agent with the Red Sox in 1978:
Zimmer took Bill Lee out of the rotation because they did not get along. Bill had 10 wins and 3 losses at the All-Star break. But he called Don a buffalo head and Don took him out of the rotation and put him in the bullpen. He called up Bobby Sprowl from the minors to start and he didn't win a game in seven starts. That hurt us.Torrez doesn't have his facts correct. Which is fine -- it was almost 30 years ago. But New York Times writer Joe Brescia falls down on the job, not bothering to check Torrez's memories.
Bobby Sprowl did not start seven games for the Red Sox. He started three games -- his only appearances that season -- and Boston won one of them.
Sprowl made his major league debut on September 5, 1978 in Baltimore. He pitched well, throwing six shutout innings before faltering in the 7th and into the 8th (7-5-4-3-3-5). The Red Sox lost to Jim Palmer, 4-1.
His second start is the game that anyone really remembers him for. It came in what was the fourth and final game of the Boston Massacre -- September 10 against the Yankees at Fenway.
Boston began the series with a four-game lead on the Yankees, but lost the first three games 15-3, 13-2 and 7-0. Zimmer defended starting the kid with first place on the line because, he famously said, the 22-year-old left-hander had "ice water" in his veins.
Sprowl lasted only .2 of an inning: Mickey Rivers walked and stole second. Willie Randolph walked. Thurman Munson grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, moving Rivers to third. Then Reggie Jackson singled to center, scoring Rivers, Lou Pinella walked, and Chris Chamblis walked. And that was Sprowl's day. ... Bob Stanley let two of those inherited runners score on a Graig Nettles single and the Yankees went on to win 7-4.
(Note: A 14-year-old kid from Vermont was at the game the previous day -- his third ever trip to Fenway -- watching Ron Guidry toss a two-hitter (two first-inning singles). Giving me a 0-3 record at Fenway at that point.)
Sprowl's third start for the Red Sox came in Detroit on September 18. Sprowl put up a 5-6-3-3-5 line, but did not get a decision. Boston won 5-4 in 11 innings.
On to the Spaceman.
When the 1978 All-Star game was played on July 11, Lee was 9-3. He improved his record to 10-3 four days later. That minor error is quite forgivable. However.
Looking at Lee's game log, it's obvious that he was not pulled from the rotation at that time. Indeed he made seven more starts -- every five days, like clockwork: July 20, 25, and 30, and August 4, 9, 14, and 19.
Lee lost every single one of them: 41.2 IP, 54 hits, 16 walks, only 9 strikeouts, a 5.18 ERA. Seven straight losing decisions, dropping his record to 10-10 on August 19. Lee did not start another game after that, though he did pitch in relief on August 28 and September 1, 8 and 10 (the Sprowl game).
So we learn that it was Lee who lost the seven games, not Sprowl. Zimmer hated Lee and let him rot in the pen -- putting his personal feelings ahead of trying to win ball games -- but Lee had slumped to 10-10 before he was pulled from the rotation.
Joe Brescia could have spent five minutes online double-checking Torrez's recollection. He did not bother -- and presented his readers with a distorted view of what happened in 1978.
(Also, while Lee hung the Gerbil tag on Zimmer -- "What is Billy Martin? He's a dirty rat. Then what is Don Zimmer? He's a gerbil. He has puffy cheeks and kids like him." -- I believe it was fellow pitcher Fergie Jenkins who coined the term "buffalo head".)