Saturday, June 9, 2018

Meeting Bucky Dent in My Hometown Shop-Rite

Faithful Reader, if you did a double-take when you read that headline, you can imagine my surprise this morning. Picking up fruits in the supermarket in my hometown in Northern New Jersey, the quickest I could so I could beat the usual interminable weekend lines and get home at a human hour, I heard the manager’s voice booming over the address system, the first two words annoying me the way it always did, but the third word making me forget every single thing I was doing:

“Attention, Shoppers! Bucky Dent of the 1978 New York Yankees will be signing pictures by the Produce Department!”

For fans of a certain age like me, no explanation after “Bucky Dent” was necessary; for others not lucky enough to watch TV on that early October afternoon in 1978 when the team’s shortstop slugged his way into Yankee lore, no other explanation was possible.

Jim Bouton had cut across my path years ago. But at the time, I was attending a library convention where the knuckleballer and Ball Four author was promoting a new book. And I had unexpectedly met Roy White at a great friend’s home in eastern Pennsylvania some years ago. But that likewise was not beyond the realm of possibility: after all, my friend was (and remains) an autograph dealer whose work has put him in contact with many baseball players, past and present.

But Russell (Bucky) Dent in a ShopRite? And not just any ShopRite but the one just down the street from where I live in Englewood, NJ? And there for a single hour, and in the few minutes when I just happened to be in the store?

No, I’m sorry, it was a lot more likely that Elvis Presley had left some Piggly-Wiggly or Winn-Dixie in the Memphis area, as diehard acolytes of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll have claimed over the years.

 Even Mike Torrez couldn’t have been so surprised when this shortstop known more for his steady fielding than his batting prowess lifted a home run over the Green Monster in Fenway Park to cap the epic season-long slugfest between the Bronx Bombers and the rival Bosox.

Let me be blunt about this: You might catch sight of Dent at an Old Timers’ Game, carrying luggage in an airport, or signing a photo, bat or book at some cavernous, climate-controlled convention center. But you don’t see him autographing photos at your local supermarket, okay?

Uncomprehending, blinking, I moved toward the back, not wanting to gawk. At a table set up for the purpose sat a fellow in sunglasses, with both a white cap and striped shirt bearing the New York Yankees logo. The cap was pulled down tight on his forehead, so I did not know till later that the onetime heartthrob of New York baseball-loving teen girls now had solidly gray hair. 

But whenever he looked up to see a new fan, the easy, genial smile he flashed let everyone know it was the same old, unflappable middle infielder who had stayed calm in the Bronx Zoo of Steinbrenner, Martin and Jackson.

I heard the store manager urge those milling about to line up. As they started to do so, I surveyed the length of the line and soberly assessed my chances of getting to the front in reasonable time. Slim to none, I thought. Sighing, I walked away, picking up more groceries. 

A few minutes later, I heard the manager again: “Anyone who’d like to see Yankee star and manager Bucky Dent, the line is open now.” I rushed back. Sure enough, there was no nobody there. 

I cursed the fact that I had neither a pocket camera nor smartphone to record my encounter with history. But sometimes, even a short face-to-face is worth what you mentally carry away from it. 

After being assured by a store employee that Dent could simply sign one of the small piles of photos next to him and that it was free, I asked the three-time Yankee All-Star to autograph the picture for a close male relative (and big-time Yankee fan) of mine. Perhaps he had had a tough time with some of the previous people on line, because he chuckled and said, “Thank God it’s a short name!”

All the while, I felt like asking what had brought him here. (It wasn’t till later that I found out that the renovation of the Englewood Shop-Rite—which had seemed to last longer than the Hundred Years War between England and France—had now been completed, that the supermarket was in the mood to celebrate, and that the visit was made possible by Kingsford Charcoal, the official charcoal of the New York Yankees. I repeat: the official charcoal of the New York Yankees. You can't make this stuff up!)

At the same time, all kinds of other questions came to mind, like how he had managed to keep his head in the George-Bill-Reggie psychodrama; what had gone through his mind just before he slammed Mike Torrez’s fastball over the left-field wall for a three-run homer that put the Yankees ahead of the Red Sox for good in their 1978 confrontation in Fenway Park; and how, after this moment of triumph, he had reacted to getting fired by Steinbrenner back in Fenway 13 years later.

I could sense his time was short (in fact, less than 15 minutes left), and I didn’t want to waste it with a bunch of open-ended questions. But I wanted to express something more. So after he was done with the autograph, I confined myself to one sentence as I shook his hand: “Thanks for creating all those great memories.”

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