Bostonians have mended their broken hearts, but Bucky Dent's epic 1978 home run ensures his place in history
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
When Bucky Dent confirmed that he would meet me in Boston so that I could put together a story about his finest baseball moment in the city -- and specifically the ballpark -- where it took place, I felt like I had just hit a monumental home run.
I knew exactly where I wanted to meet Dent for dinner. What better place to talk about baseball history in Boston than the Union Oyster House, America's oldest restaurant and one of the city's most iconic places.
I had conducted an interview there last summer with Olympic hockey hero Mike Eruzione, who is from the outskirts of Boston and is beloved in Beantown. From that experience, I had gotten to know Jim Malinn, the restaurant's general manager. And now, I was in the precarious situation of having to call Malinn to ask for a private room so that I could bring someone on the opposite end of the spectrum of Bostonians' emotions to the historic establishment.
I began the call by telling Malinn that I wanted to conduct another interview in the famed restaurant.
"Well as long as you're not bringing Bucky F'n Dent in here, I'd be happy to help you," he said.
I had no idea how to respond, so I didn't.
After a few seconds of silence, he realized that Dent -- who 38 years earlier had sunk the Red Sox 1978 season with a single home run -- was the guy.
"No way," he said, breaking the silence. "Bucky F'n Dent. You're going to bring Bucky F'n Dent to the Union Oyster House?"
Despite the lighthearted joking, Malinn was on board.
A few weeks later, Malinn welcomed us from the cobblestone street in front of the establishment, which opened in 1826.
As so many Bostonians do these days, Malinn was quick to tell Dent where he was on the fateful day. He told him how much the three-run home run had traumatized him and his family. But after that, there was just respect.
Not long after we sat down at our table on the second floor, the waitress brought us a round of beers from a Massachusetts brewery. The beer twas appropriately named Green Monsta IPA, a tasty tribute to the famed left-field wall in Fenway Park, to which the former ballplayer is forever linked.
"What a great way to get the weekend started," said the 64-year-old Dent as he autographed one of the bottles for Malinn.
And what a great conversation piece.
A Life-Changing Spot
"I never thought I'd say this," said Steve Corcoran, a security guard at Fenway Park for the last 40 years, "but welcome back. You look great."
Corcoran's greeting, delivered in a thick Boston accent, was uttered to Bucky Dent as the former Yankees shortstop walked through an entranceway of the old ballpark the next morning.
Dent, wearing a pair of black jeans and a leather Yankees jacket, didn't remember Corcoran, but the longtime security guard knew exactly who he was.
Dent played 12 seasons in the Bigs, but he is best known for hitting one of the most significant -- and most famous -- home runs in Yankees history. On a crisp October afternoon in 1978, the Yankees faced the Red Sox in a winner-take-all tiebreaker game to decide the American League East. The game was played after the Yankees had come back from a 14-game July deficit to tie Boston in the standings. A coin toss decided home-field advantage for the showdown against the Red Sox, and the Yankees lost.
The Yankees' improbable -- nearly impossible -- comeback was almost complete, except they found themselves trailing, 2-0, with two outs in the seventh inning. For the Red Sox -- a team that had not won the World Series since 1918 and, according to folklore, was cursed as a result of moving baseball's greatest player, Babe Ruth, to their archrivals prior to the 1920 season -- this might have been their best chance to win the Fall Classic. Led by future Hall of Famers Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, Carl Yastrzemski and Dennis Eckersley, as well as perennial All-Star Fred Lynn, many experts believed that the 1978 Red Sox also represented Boston's best chance in decades to defeat the hated Yankees -- a team that had won 21 World Series, including the 1977 championship, since acquiring Ruth -- when it mattered most.
Red Sox starter Mike Torrez, who had pitched for the Yankees in 1977, had only given up two hits and no runs going into the seventh. His Yankees counterpart, Ron Guidry, a 25-game winner and the eventual American League Cy Young Award recipient that season, was not as sharp, having allowed two runs.
But not long into the seventh, the Yankees' bats came alive. Chris Chambliss and Roy White both singled, and Dent stepped to the plate with a chance to put the Yankees on the board.
There wasn't a soul in Fenway Park expecting Dent, who had 22 home runs in more than 2,600 career at-bats to his name, to take Torrez deep and put the Yankees ahead. But that's exactly what the shortstop did. He hit a fastball over the iconic Green Monster, the 37-foot-high wall located just more than 310 feet from home plate, to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. The team added two insurance runs in the late innings, but closer Goose Gossage gave them both back in a rocky eighth inning. Gossage buckled down in the ninth, though, getting Yastrzemski to hit a pop fly that ended the game.
For a team that had experienced heartache after heartache, this one hurt the most.
"We felt like we had you guys right where we wanted you that season," said Corcoran, who was stationed in the visiting dugout during the one-game showdown in '78. "But then you, of all people, turned that game around. It's still hard to believe."
After entering the ballpark, Dent and his group were escorted by Red Sox senior director of corporate communications Zineb Curran through a dimly lit concourse and out to the seats. Almost as if he were seeing the ballpark for the first time, Dent's eyes lit up as he glanced at the field.
"This is pretty cool," he said. "I haven't been here in a long time. When you walk into this ballpark, the first place your eyes take you is to the Green Monster. Every time I see it, I'm in awe of its beauty. It's amazing."
Within a few minutes, the group made its way through the seats and down to the field, where Curran unlatched a small gate near the third-base dugout leading to the field.
"I remember the first time I played here as a Yankee," Dent said. "I realized the first time I stepped onto this field how big of a rivalry it was. It made an impact on me right away."
As Dent walked onto the field, he quickly glanced at the dugout.
"It's hard not to get flashbacks from that day," Dent said. "It was the same kind of cool day as it is today. There weren't any clouds in the sky. I remember walking out of that dugout and thinking how big of a moment in the game it was. Roy and Chris were on base, and I was thinking, 'I've got to get a good pitch to hit, and I've got to hit it hard some place.'"
With members of the Red Sox grounds crew moving toward the outfield, Dent was given the OK to walk from the on-deck circle to home plate, just like he had done prior to the legendary at-bat.
"You could feel the intensity as the game moved along that day," Dent said. "It was electric. You could feel the tension in this ballpark. Inning by inning, pitch by pitch, you could feel it. When I got up in the seventh inning, you could tell that the fans were counting down the number of outs until the game would be over."
As Dent approached the batter's box during his late April visit to Fenway Park, a man wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a short-sleeved Red Sox shirt approached him. A large German shepherd was walking next to the man. As the man was about to introduce himself, the dog began to bark at Dent.
"It's OK," Dent said, looking down at the dog. "No one really likes me here." With a smile, the man introduced himself.
"I'm Dave Mellor," he said. "I'm the senior director of the grounds crew for the Red Sox, and I've been a lifelong fan of the team."
"Great to meet you," Dent replied.
"It's nice to meet you, too," Mellor said. "You crushed my dreams when I was a kid."
After the two shared a laugh, Dent stepped into the batter's box and reflected on the pregame conversation he had with then-Yankees center fielder Mickey Rivers.
"Going into that game, I had been struggling," said Dent, who had collected only eight hits in his previous 51 at-bats and was hitting ninth in the lineup. "So before the game, Mickey and I were standing by the batting cage, and I said, 'Let me use your bat in batting practice.' I took his bat and started hitting, and I thought I had a pretty good batting practice. When the game started, I asked Mickey if I could use his bat during the game because it felt pretty good.
"In my first two at-bats, I popped the ball up," Dent continued. "I just missed it both times. Then when I came up in the seventh, I fouled the second pitch off my foot. I had been wearing a shin guard and a foam pad on my leg because I had gotten a blood clot earlier in the season. I wasn't wearing that stuff that day, and when I fouled the ball off my foot, it swelled up right away because of the blood clot. We didn't have any other infielders on the bench, so I knew that I had to stay in the game. I walked over to the on-deck circle, and [trainer] Gene Monahan sprayed my foot to help numb it up."
That's when fate -- and a helpful teammate -- intervened.
"As I was walking back to the batter's box, Mickey noticed that the bat that I had been using was cracked," Dent said. "So he yelled, 'Hey, Homie, you've got the wrong bat.' But I was in so much pain that I didn't even hear him. The next thing I know, the bat boy comes up to me, takes one bat out of my hand and gives me a new bat. Apparently, he also delivered a message from Mickey, who told him to tell me that I was going to hit a home run with the new bat, but I wasn't paying attention to anything he was saying. The last thing I was thinking about was hitting a home run. I was just trying to get ready for the next pitch."
Despite having fallen to the ground moments earlier, Dent was ready.
"I knew Mike Torrez was trying to get the ball in on me," Dent said. "I thought he was going to try to throw another pitch on the inside part of the plate, and that is what he tried to do. But he missed, and the ball came in over the middle of the plate."
Dent capitalized on the location of the pitch, driving it to left field.
"I knew I hit the ball pretty good," Dent said. "But I didn't know if it was going to clear the Monster. There was a shadow on the wall, and I couldn't tell where the ball was. When I rounded first base, I saw the umpire signal that it was a home run."
After describing the at-bat, Dent and his group began to walk in the same direction that the baseball had traveled all those years ago.
As they made it out to the area near third base, Dent was reminded of the sights and sounds in the ballpark seconds after his home run sailed into a net above the Green Monster.
"As I was rounding third base, this is what it sounded like," said Dent, looking into the seats of the nearly empty ballpark. "It was silent. Then when I touched home plate, I could hear the sprinkling of a few Yankees fans who were at the game. Of course, George [Steinbrenner] was sitting right next to our dugout, and he was standing and clapping as I celebrated with my teammates."
Still taking it all in, Dent continued a slow walk out to the Monster.
When he got to the large wall, Dent pointed to one of many grooves created by baseballs crashing up against it.
"They used to refer to these as dents," he said. "But that's not a nice word around here, so now they call them dings."
As he stood a few feet in front of the Green Monster, Dent was unable to resist looking up. He then walked back toward the outfield grass and tried to gain a better perspective of the height of the wall.
"I've come back here as a player and several times as a coach, but when you're playing or coaching, you really don't have time to enjoy how great an old ballpark like this is," said Dent, who managed the Yankees for 89 games in 1989 and '90 and later served as a coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds. "I haven't had this much fun in Fenway Park since I hit the home run."
From the base of the Green Monster, the group was escorted to a door directly to the left of the wall. The door opened up to a grounds crew area with several bags of dirt and other supplies. There was also a stairway that led to a concourse high above the field. The group made its way up the stairs, and once on the concourse, they made the short walk to a seating area atop the Green Monster.
"Who would have ever thought they would have built seats up here," Dent said. "This is an amazing view. Whoever thought of putting seats up here is a genius."
Dent quickly walked down to the first row of seats. Carefully studying how far away from the foul pole he was, the former shortstop took a few steps to the right and then a step or two back to the left.
"This is where the ball went out," Dent said. "It was right here. I can tell by where the poles were. Back then, the poles held the net. We tried to get the ball out of the net afterward. My friend asked the Red Sox if they could get the ball out of the net, but after each game, they would dump all of the batting practice and home run balls onto the street below."
After Dent posed for a few portraits, Dent's friends each got in a photo with him. The youngest member of the group, an 8-year-old boy whose parents have known Dent for a few years, was the first to walk over to the former Yankee.
Dent put his arm around the boy, and the two smiled.
"Someday you're going to hit a home run over this wall," Dent told him.
When the impromptu photo shoot concluded, Dent peered over the side of the Green Monster, looking down onto the field.
"Carl Yastrzemski was playing left field that day," Dent said. "When he realized that the ball was going out, his knees buckled and he went down to the ground."
In no rush to leave what he referred to as the top of the world, Dent took a seat.
"I didn't realize it when that ball went out of here, but that home run changed my life," Dent said. "It changed my life because 38 years later, people are still talking about it. It's one of the greatest baseball games ever. It's history."
The many circumstances of that afternoon helped make the game as memorable as it was.
"Sports is all about moments," he said. "That was a big moment in sports history. Because it was a winner-take-all game between the Yankees and Red Sox, it meant so much to both cities. Because the game was played on a Jewish holiday, so many people were off from school and work and were able to watch it."
The always-humble Dent then shared his thoughts on the final innings of the classic battle.
"If we hadn't won the game, my home run wouldn't have meant anything," Dent said. "I was happy that we were winning after I hit the home run, but I knew how good the Red Sox were, and I knew that anything could happen.
"I remember when Yastrzemski came up with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and with a guy on third," Dent said. "I'm sitting at shortstop thinking, 'Here it is. Goose against Yaz for all the marbles.' On that last pitch, it was almost as if Goose reached back and actually threw the ball a little harder than he had been. Yaz just missed driving that pitch, but luckily, he popped it up."
As thrilling as it was when third baseman Graig Nettles caught the final out to secure the 5-4 win, it was also a strange few minutes for Dent.
"When Yaz popped the ball up, I felt something go down my shirt," Dent said. "I thought it was a bug, but when I looked down, I realized that the chain I was wearing had broken, and my metal was somewhere in my shirt. So I'm watching Nettles get under the ball while pulling the chain out of my sleeve. When he caught the ball, I was looking for my metal on the ground, and that's why I'm not in any of the photos from right after the final out."
After a few more stories, the group left the top of the Monster and headed to the Red Sox's front office. There they were set to visit team president Sam Kennedy, the executive who set up the behind-the-scenes tour and photo shoot for Dent at the request of Yankees chief operating officer and general counsel Lonn Trost.
"I never thought I'd be here," Dent said as the group walked through a hallway leading to Kennedy's office.
When they arrived at the office overlooking Yawkey Way, Kennedy offered a warm greeting. He and Dent shared memories of the many games between the two teams, and near the end of the 10-minute visit, Kennedy gave his view on the current state of the competition.
"We need to get this rivalry going again," Kennedy said. "It's got to be more intense and heated."
Kennedy then invited the group to the office break room for coffee.
With a few members of the Boston front office meandering in and out of the room, Dent poured a cup of coffee into a Red Sox cup and sat at the head of a long table. None of the employees seemed to notice who was in their inner sanctum, and if they had, they didn't seem to care.
"OK," Dent said. "The rivalry is dead."
A City of Memories
With some time to kill before the Yankees' tilt against the Red Sox later that night, Dent and his friends took advantage of the good weather and walked to their next destination, the Sheraton hotel.
Dent led the group from Yawkey Way to Boylston Street, a historic thoroughfare that crosses through Fenway Victory Gardens and Muddy River in Boston's Fenway neighborhood.
"This is the same route we would always take back from the ballpark," Dent said.
About a half-mile from Fenway Park, Dent turned right into a tiny alley just past the Massachusetts Turnpike. As he took his first steps on St. Cecilia Street, Dent pointed ahead at the Sheraton hotel.
"I remember everything about this town," he said. "I knew we would end up in this alley."
Minutes later, the group walked through a revolving door into the sprawling lobby of the Sheraton, where the Yankees stayed in the late '70s. The lobby was packed with guests, but as proof of how much time has passed, Dent made his way through the crowded area without drawing any attention.
"We used to get mobbed by autograph seekers in here," Dent said. "I couldn't get to this escalator without having to sign 20 baseballs."
Dent's choice for lunch was less historic than the dinner spot the night before. At noon, the former Yankees shortstop and his group of friends sat down at P.F. Chang's in a mall connected to the hotel.
As the group settled in, Dent took off his Yankees jacket and proudly showed off a baseball-themed sweater that his late wife, Marianne, had given him.
Then he began to reminisce about the celebration in the visiting clubhouse after the epic win.
"It was wild," he said. "I wound up going into the training room because it was less crowded in there. We were dousing each other in champagne, and then someone knocked on the door. I opened the door, and it was George [Steinbrenner]. He said, 'I told you this was going to be your day.' And I said, 'Yeah, and if I struck out, you would have traded my rear end.'"
As lunch wound down, the boy in the group mustered up the courage to give Dent a gift his parents had been holding onto all day. He walked around the table and handed Dent a Babe Ruth bobblehead.
"This is awesome," Dent said as he hugged the boy. "So we've got The Babe and Bucky sitting here. Now all we need is Aaron Boone and Bill Buckner."
With the bobblehead in his hand, Dent was asked for his thoughts on the Curse of the Bambino.
"For the older generation of Red Sox fans who never experienced winning, it was always something hanging over their heads," Dent said. "They didn't know what it was, but they always felt something bad was going to happen. I think winning a few World Series has eased the pain of what happened before that, especially for the younger generation of fans up here."
Even Dent was mindful that the perception of him has changed over the last decade.
"People still yell 'Bucky F'n Dent' at me from time to time in Boston," he said. "But people have mellowed quite a bit. They still remember 1978, but I get more respect and less hate than I used to."
Reveling in the Rivalry
A few hours later -- after Dent and his group went to their hotel near the Boston Common for a little rest -- they headed back to Fenway Park for that night's game between the Yankees and the Red Sox.
The group was dropped off at the ballpark in front of the players' parking area. When they got out of a black SUV, three members of the Yankees traveling security detail were there to meet and escort them to the field for batting practice.
As Dent walked briskly through the lower concourse, a few fans noticed him.One of them yelled his first and last name, and another shouted his first, last and official Beantown middle name. Dent graciously waved and smiled.
When he got to the field, Dent watched the Yankees take batting practice while also visiting with Yankees pitcher turned YES Network broadcaster David Cone and head athletic trainer Steve Donohue.
Unlike when he was standing in nearly the same spot earlier that morning, Fenway was now buzzing with players, fans and media, all of whom were anxiously awaiting the start of the late April three-game series.
"Being down here, you can feel the electricity," Dent said. "Regardless of where the Yankees or Red Sox are in the standings, people get excited when they face each other. Maybe the rivalry isn't dead after all."
After the Yankees finished batting practice, Dent and his group were guided to their seats, next to the Yankees dugout.
"Wow, this is the same box that George sat in when I hit the home run," Dent said.
In addition to Dent and his six friends, a member of the Red Sox security team sat with him in the owner's box seats.
With about 45 minutes before first pitch, Dent decided to do something he had never done in Fenway Park: walk up to a concessions stand and purchase a beer.
With a few of his friends and the Red Sox security official, Dent walked up the steps to the concourse and got in a short line at a Narragansett beer stand.
When he got to the front of the line, Dent ordered a round of beers. The middle-aged man serving the beer asked for Dent's ID (as he is required to do for every fan regardless of their age). Dent pulled out his driver's license and handed it to the man.
The man looked down at the license. Then looked up at Dent with a smile.
"How are you doing, Bucky?" the man asked.
"Great," Dent said. "I love being here."
On the way back to the seats, a few people wearing Red Sox shirts and hats noticed Dent, and two teenagers asked him for his autograph. Dent signed a baseball for one and a ticket stub for the other.
Once back in his seat, Dent leaned back and took a deep breath.
"It's nice to just sit back and reflect," Dent said. "I played on some great teams, and I'm really lucky to have played in such a big game in this incredible ballpark."
Moments after the game began, Yankees manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Rob Thomson popped out of the dugout. When Girardi looked a few feet to his right, he immediately noticed Dent.
"Hey, Bucky," Girardi said. "How are you? If you need anything, please let me know. A cup of coffee or anything."
As the game rolled along, the temperature dropped. By the second inning, Dent had finished his beer and a few ballpark snacks, and he was sipping hot chocolate from a souvenir Red Sox cup.
At around the same time, modern-day Red Sox nemesis Alex Rodriguez, who nearly joined Boston before coming to the Yankees in 2004, hit a towering home run.
As he rounded the bases, the Yankees designated hitter was showered in boos, not unlike most every other time he has hit a longball in Fenway Park.
"It's funny how differently I'm treated here now," Dent said. "I always understood why they didn't like me, but as time went on, I think they began to respect me as an athlete who just played hard."
Six innings later, Red Sox slugger David Ortiz hit a go-ahead home run, and Dent decided to head out of Fenway before the rush of the crowd.
"You win some, and you lose some," Dent said as he walked to the player's parking lot at the start of the ninth inning. "But we won the biggest one."
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.