I don’t know if I believe in curses, or jinxes, or anything like that. But I’ll tell you what I do believe: I believe in ghosts. And we’ve got some ghosts in this stadium.–Derek Jeter, October 17, 2003
Every day you sit in front of your locker and ask God, “What the hell is going on?”–Rick Burleson, September 17, 1978
He’d been asleep for only a second or two, the kind of restless, involuntary slumber that arrives only after you’ve stretched your work-night bedtime way too long. Through much of working-class America, millions of people were fighting a similar battle, not wanting to give in to their eyelids, certain that something unforgettable would soon fill their television screens. Clocks up and down the East Coast had just clicked to 12:15 A.M. on this morning of October 17, 2003, including the digital Armitron chronometer that dominated the center field scoreboard at Yankee Stadium, right above where the most important numbers were posted: Red Sox 5, Yankees 5, bottom of the eleventh inning, seventh and deciding game of the American League Championship Series.
It was quiet inside the eighty-year-old stadium, a spooky silence having long before seeped into the bleachers and grandstands, where 56,279 had gathered to watch these two old foes play out the final moves of their sweaty chess match. It was a duel that had ground two cities to a halt, reduced millions of fingernails to the quick, even captured the imaginations of otherwise sane citizens who spend their days blissfully unaffected by baseball. This was why so many people in so many parts of the country were trying to blink away their exhaustion as Thursday night bled into Friday morning, as Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone stepped to the plate to face a Boston knuckleball specialist named Tim Wakefield, as all those timepieces ticked over to 12:16.
The exact minute, as it happens, that Bucky Dent fell asleep.
It was the shouting that jarred him back to life.
” Marianne Dent yelped.
“Huh?” her husband sputtered.
“Look at the TV! They’re mobbing somebody! The Yankees just won the game! They won the pennant! I think someone hit a home run!”
They were showing replays, and Dent, wide awake now inside his Boynton Beach, Florida, home, watched Wakefield deliver a flat, fat knuckleball, watched Boone all but jump out of his spikes as he dove into the pitch, watched the camera follow the baseball as it sketched a beautiful white path against the black Bronx sky, watched it settle into the lower left-field stands, watched Wakefield march solemnly off the mound, watched Boone jump onto home plate with both feet, watched as the crowd, suddenly liberated from nearly four hours of unbearable tension, exploded in a giddy rush of joy.
“Look at you,” Marianne Dent said. “You’re beaming.”
It was more than that, of course. Dent’s eyes remained locked on the TV, but the moment he saw it all unfold, his soul had immediately drifted....
Suddenly, he was rounding first base on another October day, exactly twenty-five years and fifteen days before, the last time the Red Sox and Yankees had met under these circumstances, one game for a championship, only then the game was played in the middle of a glorious afternoon, in another grand old ball field called Fenway Park. Dent had greeted Mike Torrez’ fastball with the sweet spot of his borrowed Max 44 bat, and now his eyes were trained on the left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski, who was drifting back toward the left-field wall, only 310 feet from home plate. Nobody ever played that thirty-seven-foot-high wall at Fenway like Yaz, everyone knew that, so Dent waited for a sign as he started chugging into second. Did I really get enough of it?
When Yastrzemski’s knees buckled, Dent knew he had.
He looked up in time to see the ball settle softly against the net behind the wall. He thrust his right fist into the air, clapped his hands together, and floated the final 180 feet of his journey home. A 2—0 Red Sox lead had become a 3—2 Yankees lead with one swing of Dent’s bat, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Yankees would win, 5—4. It was October 2, 1978, and Bucky Dent was twenty-six years old, and if you had told him that he would ever feel the same rush that bubbled his bloodstream that day, when he staggered Old Man Yaz’ legs and broke New England’s spirit and fueled the New York Yankees on to their twenty-second world championship, he would never have believed you.
Except that’s exactly how he felt all these years later, inside his bedroom, watching mayhem tumble out of his television.
“You called it earlier, didn’t you?” Marianne asked.
Dent laughed. It was true. Before he’d even washed the champagne from his hair that afternoon a quarter century earlier, Dent acquired an instant appreciation for the link he’d just crafted for himself within the long chain connecting the Yankees and the Red Sox. He quickly embraced the humbling reality that a twelve-year career that included two World Series rings and three trips to the All-Star Game would forever be reduced to and remembered for that singular trip to the plate, one of 4,512 official at-bats he would accrue as a major leaguer. That was fine with him. Dent had been born in Savannah, Georgia, and raised in Florida, but he had rooted for the Yankees as a kid. He knew all about the Yankee mystique before he ever added to it. He believed in the almost mystical way the Red Sox taunt the Yankees, and the Yankees haunt the Red Sox, how they’ve stubbornly refused to exit each other’s shadow from the first time they encountered each other, on May 7, 1903, a 6—2 Boston victory.
Hell, how could he not
By 1983, Dent had been traded away to the Texas Rangers, though he still owned a house in Wyckoff, New Jersey, which he rented out during the season. That year, the lease belonged to the man who’d recently been hired as the Yankees’ third-base coach, a baseball lifer named Don Zimmer, the same man who’d been the Red Sox manager on October 2, 1978, and whose professional fate was irreversibly sealed with that one swing of Dent’s bat.
“First time I go in there,” Zimmer recalled years later, during his second tour of duty on the Yankees coaching staff, “I notice a picture on the wall, and guess what? It’s a picture of that son of a bitch hitting that home run. I go into the next room–same thing, another picture. And the next. And the next. Every fucking room. You know what I did? I turned ’em all around. Then I called him up on the phone and I told him I’d turned ’em all around.”
So Dent, having done as much as any one man could to stir the Red Sox—Yankees embers, understood better than anyone that something different was bound to happen in this game, eventually. He had become something of a student of the Red Sox’ tortured history, one whose unholy trinity of infamy involved three separate incidents–the selling of Babe Ruth, the Bucky Dent home run, and the fabled ground ball that leaked through Bill Buckner’s legs in game six of the 1986 World Series–with one notable thing in common.
“As the game is building up,” Dent would say a few months later, “I’m going, ‘OK, who’s going to do something? Who’s got a B
in their name–Bernie [Williams] or [Aaron] Boone–to keep the B
’s going?’ And then after I dozed off for a second, then woke up, I said, ‘God dang, somebody hit a home run!’ They showed Boone had hit it, and I was like, ‘Oh, right!’ Yeah, I was thinking to myself, ‘Who’s got a B
in their name that’s going to keep Babe, Bucky, Buckner alive?’ It was Boone.”
No further explanation is needed for why this man, who entered the world as Russell Earl Dent on November 25,1951, had at least once on every New England day that passed from October 2,1978, through that early morning hour of October 17, 2003, in every precinct of Red Sox Nation, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Concord, New Hampshire, from Winooski, Vermont, to Waterville, Maine, been referred to by his more common name.Bucky Fucking Dent...
The joy was not limited to Bucky Dent’s bedroom in South Florida. Back at Yankee Stadium, in the South Bronx, nobody wanted to leave, nobody wanted to let go of the night, nobody wanted to walk away from the latest installment of this most remarkable baseball passion play. On the field, Boone was mobbed by his teammates, by television microphones, by his manager, Joe Torre. “What I want to know,” Boone would gush, “is this: What are all these people doing in my dream?” Mariano Rivera, the peerless Yankees relief pitcher who’d thrown three brilliant innings, “waiting the whole time for one of our guys to make a ball disappear,” as Torre described it, had collapsed at the pitcher’s mound, far apart from the joyous pile forming around home plate, and it took a two-man tandem of coaches Lee Mazzilli and Willie Randolph to finally pry him from the dirt. The public address system blared “New York, New York” fourteen straight times, and with every replay, 56,279 voices joined an old Dodgers fan named Sinatra when he stretched out the words “Ayyyy-num-berrrrr-oooooone ...”
The clubhouse was delirious, incorporating all the restraint and dignity of a Delta House rush party. Baby-faced Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who could easily be mistaken for a freshman pledge, doused everyone he could find with gleeful two-fisted vengeance, and when he spoke of it a few months later he would call it “the happiest room I’ve ever seen in my life.” Later, the party would spill out of Yankee Stadium and cross the Macombs Dam Bridge into Manhattan, to Scores and the China Club and Jay-Z’s new place, the 40-40 Club, all the late-night palaces where these princes ofNew York City were always welcomed. Being a New York Yankee means always being on the right side of life’s velvet rope, never more so than now, in the first few hours of their reign as American League champions.
Jason Giambi, the Yankees first baseman who’d hit two home runs off Pedro Martinez that night to keep his team close, pointed at Boone and smiled. Not only had Boone just hit a home run for the ages, but his wife, Laura Cover–also known to readers of Playboy
magazine as Miss October 1998–had just entered the clubhouse to congratulate her husband on his heroics.
“That lucky son of a bitch,” Giambi said, “should head straight to Vegas.”
It was a feeling shared by most New Yorkers, even those not married to centerfolds. “What a great night to be a Yankees fan!” a longtime Yankees booster observed as he entered the clubhouse, before he was engulfed by a two-armed Joe Torre hug. Rudolph Giuliani, formerly New York City’s mayor, forever its highest-profile Yankees fan, accepted a brand-new cap and exclaimed, “There’s nothing sweeter than beating the Red Sox! Nothing!”
A hundred steps down the hallway, past the photographs of bygone Yankee immortals and bygone Yankee celebrations, through the narrow blue-walled corridor that leads to the third-base side of the stadium, there couldn’t have been a more jarring juxtaposition. Inside the visitors’ clubhouse, grown men still clad in their Red Sox vestments were openly weeping, not caring who saw them, oblivious to the cameras clicking away, recording their pain for posterity. Professional locker rooms never look this way, or feel this way, or sound this way.
“It was like we were all back in high school, like we’d just gotten beat in the state playoffs, and everyone was gonna graduate, and we weren’t ever gonna see each other again,” is the way Kevin Millar, the Boston first baseman, would describe it. “When you’re a teenager and you lose the big football game, that’s when you see guys cry uncontrollably. You don’t see that much at this level.”
The cramped room was solemn and funereal, no music, no television, no chatter that rose above a hoarse whisper. The Boston Red Sox had been five outs away from winning this game, winning this series, sending all of New England into a spin cycle of glee that would have lasted forever, suffocating once and forever the relentless talk of jinxes, hexes, poxes, and curses. They’d had a three-run lead with the best pitcher in baseball, Pedro Martinez, on the mound and the hottest bullpen in the playoffs warmed up and ready to go. Five outs to go, three runs to protect. And they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t beat the Yankees.
“I let us down,” said Wakefield, who’d pitched so brilliantly in the series but would forever be remembered as the man who served up Boone’s game-winner. His voice, reduced to a rasp, was barely audible, even in the silence of the room. “All I can say is, I’m sorry.”
There was exactly one man in the country who could understand what Wakefield was feeling, the specific emotions at war within his heart. At that exact moment, he was sitting on a sofa in his living room in Naperville, Illinois, watching ESPN as it replayed the home run again and again. Half an hour earlier, he’d been in the same exact spot, a fresh soft drink in his hand, a queasy sense of inevitability swirling in his stomach, as if he knew exactly what was coming. It hadn’t taken long. Wakefield’s first pitch had made him cringe, even before Boone stepped into it. Too flat. Too straight. Too inviting.
“Jesus,” Mike Torrez said. “Not again.”
All this time later, Torrez laughed as he remembered the ball he threw to Bucky Dent, laughed as he said, “I thought I’d gotten the ball in plenty enough, I really did. I’d gotten him out on almost the same exact pitch two innings earlier.” Ah, but the vagaries of baseball are sometimes measured by the width of a hair. A pitch that yields a harmless pop-up to the shortstop in the fifth inning can bear a home run in the seventh. All it takes is one less mile per hour in velocity, or a centimeter’s tail toward the fat part of the plate, or a generous gust of wind properly timed. Torrez had owned Dent his whole career. Wakefield? He’d gotten Boone out easily five times in this series, three weak fly balls and two strikeouts. He’d made Boone look utterly foolish. Right up to the last pitch.
“Sometimes,” Mike Torrez said, “you just have to understand and accept that the other guy beat you. That’s what baseball is. One guy wins, one guy loses. It’s a little trickier when you factor in all the feelings and all the emotions, of course. And with the Red Sox and the Yankees, shit ...”
He laughed a little louder.
“When those two get together, it makes a holy war seem like a cocktail party.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Emperors and Idiots by Mike Vaccaro. Copyright © 2005 by Mike Vaccaro. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.