"When I was 13, you ruined my life."
- Red Sox fan to Bucky Dent
The 2011 season hasn’t begun very well for the Boston Red Sox, and admittedly this is not an ideal time to revisit one of the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking afternoons in the ball club’s history. On the other hand, perhaps the memories and lessons of one historic game are worth contemplating.
The game of baseball will always have disappointing starts and devastating finishes, but a team’s endings and beginnings seldom mark the end of a ball club or baseball itself, or the world, for that matter. Ballgames don't really ruin lives.
Bucky Dent’s name is permanently embedded in the minds of countless Yankee and Red Sox fans. October 1978. Boston 99-63. New York 99-63. A coin toss. A 2:30 p.m. start. Tricky angles of shadow and sunlight, recalled achingly by Jonathan Schwartz in a masterful soliloquy.
And Bucky f___ing Dent.
Don Zimmer originally coined the epithet - at least that’s how Dent himself tells the story. Let’s face it, though; anyone in Southie, Pawtucket, Revere, Portland, Weymouth, or just about anywhere in Red Sox nation might have sounded that middle name just as readily. The internal rhyme comes so naturally.
Red Sox fans continue to speak his name with genuine and mock loathing. For some, the hatred of Bucky Dent remains a visceral thing; for others, a wisecrack that numbs remembered pain. Surely Bucky is far worse than Buckner, two unlikely players sharing the unusual distinction of having entire games named especially for them. The Buckner Game. The Bucky Dent Game. Number, date, and score are no longer the identifiers. A more personal label works best, as proper names resonate through time and generation.
Buckner is one of our own, and much is now forgiven and better understood, thanks to the big championship rings of 2004 and 2007. Billy can come back home now. In fact, he very recently did just that – came home to Brockton, at least, as head coach of the indie league Rox, working and playing on a field just 22 miles from the first base bag at Fenway Park.
In the meantime, Bucky remains a Yankee and as such will always be something of an enemy, his game-changing at bat etched painfully in many memories. If you’re a loyal Red Sox fan, you’re expected to hate Bucky Dent. The more repugnance in your attitude, the better.
A few years ago, on an afternoon I wish I could forget, Bucky’s name was launched in my direction as an insult. The gentleman sat opposite me at a nicely polished conference table. Pale hands folded, legal pad untouched, stale cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to the side, arrogant demeanor and condescending smile, fluffy hair dyed to match a dull brown suit, he addressed me with a rhetorical question.
"You mean, you’re actually letting your kid go to a camp run by Bucky Dent?" He spoke the name slowly and derisively, then repeated it, this time sounding the expletive, digging in a little further and chuckling at his own display of sarcasm. He was a divorce attorney bent upon showing, I suppose, that I was a pathetic Red Sox fan, and more importantly, an irresponsible and unworthy mother.
That’s when I started to like Bucky Dent.
His middle name is Earl, if you want to know the truth. The circumstances of Bucky’s birth and early childhood might soften your attitude a bit, depending on how you feel about illegitimacy and adoption. You might even catch yourself leaning toward forgiveness.
The school’s appearance might surprise you. Located near the Atlantic Ocean in close proximity to Boca Raton, it’s not a glitzy place. The facility is situated on a dead-end street in a quiet neighborhood of modest, ranch-style homes and low-rise 1970s apartment complexes. You’d probably never even notice the ball fields were it not for an understated sign at the corner of Linton Avenue and tall banks of lights that beckon in the distance beyond the red, white, and black awnings of Steak 'n Shake.
Two army-green bunkhouses accommodate baseball teams that travel from points north and west for weeklong or weekend sessions (kids are asked to supply their own linens and pillows); a couple cages stretch behind the main building; a small concrete patio fuctions as a shaded picnic area; the generic cafeteria serves three square meals a day (the food was “terrible” a couple years ago, “much better” this past year); a colorful border of banners proudly recognizes alumni such as Chris Coghlan and Gaby Sanchez; and framed portraits of a few aging big leaguers quietly grace one wall opposite the secretary’s desk in the most unassuming front office I’ve ever seen.
Day camp, rookie camp, men’s fantasy camp, youth tournaments, birthday parties, private lessons, coaching clinics. The website’s diction seems a bit inflated - "the most well-respected school … in the nation … the complex is unparalleled" - once you glimpse the surroundings in person. An immense holding tank borders the small parking lot. Three ball fields expand the property off to the side, their outfields running parallel to train tracks just a few steps beyond the chain link fence. Day and night, weary freight trains slowly rumble and creak past the youth complex, the monotonous clatter of their cargo drowning out the sounds of baseball and often lasting a good half inning or longer.
The crown jewel at Bucky Dent’s Baseball School is an incongruous sight to behold. The well-maintained venue called Field #1 is a faithful replica of Fenway Park. Its dimensions down the left and right field lines are accurate, as are the proportions and hues of the outfield walls, the imitation Green Monster, and the scoreboard itself. The numbers on that board, however, have nothing to do with today’s game; instead, time appears to have stopped.
Top of the seventh, 2 outs, New York leads Boston, 3-2. Those numbers will remain painted on the board forever – in Delray Beach, at least, and in the mind of Bucky Dent.
I've described this scene once before in a previous post: “a large replica of Fenway's beautiful scoreboard has been erected by a former Yankee player who's preserving baseball history for all to see: the score is frozen in time at 3-2 in the middle of the seventh in a gigantic monument to self, rooted beside the swaying coconut palms.”
Words penned a few months ago now strike me as inaccurate and unkind. I no longer view Bucky Dent’s scoreboard as a “gigantic monument to self” erected by an egomaniac. A few things have lately conspired to change my mind.
When I arrived in south Florida three weeks ago, a cheerful Enterprise hostess at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport walked me through a dimly lit garage to my economy car. A Massachusetts native, former D-1 softball player, University of Florida grad with long blonde hair, long tan legs, shimmery blue eyes, and perfect teeth, she was quick to ask if spring training was my destination. Yes, how did you know? I'm heading up to Port St. Lucie, then over to the west coast, but I’m also here to watch my son whose high school team is training at Bucky Dent’s baseball camp.
I expected to hear the usual groan or perhaps indifference from a girl so young, but she surprised me by saying “Bucky Dent? Ohmygosh, he’s the nicest man ever! I live right around the corner from him, they are such a great family, they’re just real normal people, you know, very down to earth, I used to play softball with his daughter!” She never even paused to take a breath.
The more I watched our New England boys on Bucky’s fields - tightening the laces on their cleats, shagging balls in the Florida sunshine, rounding the bases at dusk, delighting in the camaraderie of being together and back in the game - the more my attitude softened. My “mentality” was changing, even as my own son approached me in the parking lot and announced that he had just learned how to throw a slider and was feeling pretty good about it.
Bucky Dent is surprisingly humble and soft-spoken. He’s not the annoying, self-aggrandizing, self-congratulatory individual I once imagined. How do I know this? One week before stepping onto his fields in Delray, I enjoyed the fascinating conversation he shared with Lou Piniella, Bob Costas and Tom Verducci on MLB Network. Together they celebrated the October 2, 1978 match-up as one of the “20 Greatest Games” in baseball history. Bucky’s game was number eleven.
During the highly entertaining ninety-minute segment, Bucky does a lot of nodding and chuckling while former Yankee right fielder Piniella, unsurprisingly, takes care of most of the talking. Not once does Dent look back upon the legendary win as if it belonged exclusively to him. He’s self-deprecating when describing his individual performance and warm in his praise of others - conceding with good humor that Reggie Jackson has a better home run trot; acknowledging that Boston’s reliever Andy Hassler had “good stuff;” and remembering Sparky Lyle as a “tremendous teammate” who “kept everybody loose.” His baseball talk is all about the strengths of teammates and opponents – never, curiously, about himself.
When describing the crucial turning point in the seventh inning, Dent focuses meticulously on mechanics and minutiae, not on his own heroics: “I was lookin’ for somethin’ inside that I could hit hard, you know. And I fouled the ball off my foot. I didn’t wear my guard that day. Usually I wear a guard, because I had a blood clot in spring training. I didn't wear my guard that day, because it was a one-game playoff."
Two men on. Two out.
“I never saw the ball go out . . . When I rounded first, because of the shadow, I lost it. And the second base umpire signaled it was a home run. As I rounded third, is when I really, like, Fenway was just, like, dead quiet. I mean, you could hear the Yankee fans, you know, and the guys come out of the dugout, but other than that, it was dead quiet."
Vintage film shows Bucky crossing home plate and taking a joyful little skip step toward the Yankee dugout like a kid on the playground at recess, while an incredulous Carl Yastzremski remains limp in left field, his knees having collapsed a few seconds earlier.
Bucky Dent’s improbable, game-changing contribution came well before the contest officially ended. His perspective on the game’s final half inning is also intriguing, if only because the memories are so ordinary and so human.
Bottom of the ninth. Men on first and third. Two out. Yaz is the last hope for the Sox. Yaz has a good history against Gossage.
“And I’m not comfortable in the infield,” Dent recalls. “I’m sweatin’ right now. I had the perfect view. And I’m just sayin’ to myself, Goose, get this guy out. Ball, don’t take a bad hop.”
Many years later, Bucky Dent’s vivid personal recollections don’t include a victory celebration. His thoughts aren't really about a dramatic seventh inning, the final out, a post-game interview, or a souvenir ball. He had other things on his mind as the game ended:
“You know what’s interesting about that play right there? . . . Nettles didn’t really like to catch pop-ups. So when it goes up, I'm looking and I felt something go down my arm. And I looked real quick and I saw him catch the ball and I looked down and I thought a bug was in my shirt. So I looked down and my medal had broke, and the chain was runnin' down my shirt, so I started pulling the chain out. And I see he catches it and then I start lookin’ around on the ground, and then I run over there. And we go in the clubhouse and everybody's jumping on each other. I went back out on the field, 'cause I couldn't find it. I’m walkin’ around at shortstop lookin’ for my medal . . . ."
"Did you find it?" asks Costas.
"Yeah, it had fallen down in my cup . . . . It didn’t really dawn on me to look to get the baseball.”
A game-changing moment. A ball to claim as his own. An historic game named in his honor. Yet what does Bucky remember most clearly at the finish? His medal and his cup.
Dent acknowledges, when prompted, that the game did in fact change his life: “That was a moment that I think every kid dreams of when you’re playin’ in the back yard and you’re sayin’ you’re Mickey Mantle and you want to hit a big home run to win a game. That happened to me. Everything came true. I got to play on a team I always wanted to play on, I got to win a world championship . . . I got to hit a big home run.”
Mike Torrez chooses to remember it this way: "It's one of the biggest moments in baseball history, so I'm kind of tickled pink that I gave it up. What the hell. He got lucky, but that's all part of the game."
From far away, “Fenway Park” at Bucky Dent’s Baseball School bears a remarkable resemblance to the real thing. But walk up real close, and you realize the scoreboard is made of simple plywood. It’s not perfect. The hand-painted lines are a bit crooked, the wood starting to split. It’s a hometown sort of replica, not “a gigantic monument to self,” though the numbers remain frozen in time. Today's score will be kept in the heads of kids and fans and on a clipboard, not a scoreboard.
Local teams use Bucky’s fields year-round. Some kids come from far away. Kids of all ages, shapes, skin colors, and sizes. They don’t have fancy uniforms. They show a range of human temperaments. Their language is familiar, and they speak words I understand: “Here we go, boys. Let’s play ball!”
When I walked Bucky’s field on a warm evening in spring, the moon was rising and a game was about to begin. While the home team gathered near the backstop at dusk, I opened the gate near the first base line, walked across the shallow outfield and over toward the scoreboard. There’s a sign on the gate that says, Authorized Practices and Games Only. Not for Personal Use. But I ignored that sign and trespassed on the field moments before the first pitch. And I got real close to the scoreboard.
As I left the field under the lights and the rising moon, a youth coach called out to me: “You must be a Yankee fan!” Happily, I sang back: “Nope, I’m actually a Red Sox fan!”
One could do worse than hit a game-changing, season-ending home run. One could do worse than make youth baseball available to all kinds of kids, including New England boys who ache to feel the warmth of spring and yearn to travel far from home. You could do worse than remember one of the happiest and most important moments of your life by building a field where young kids can dream their dreams just as you once did. Everything came true. One could do much, much worse.
Please click here to view my B. F. Dent Baseball School album.