In the 1970s, when Bucky Dent played professional baseball, the world was different.
There was no MLB Network, ESPN, Fox Sports or even a Peacock. Umpires’ decisions, right or wrong, were final. Sponsorships on the pitcher’s mound, on-deck circle or team dugouts never crossed the mind of marketing types. Pete Rose was a cinch to be in Cooperstown. Doubleheaders were nine innings, not seven like today. Extra innings meant just that — play it out until you earn a win, not start with a runner in scoring position. The Red Sox hadn’t won it all in over half a century; Dent had a little something to do with that. And now even spring training games have been compromised: beginning this week the teams have discretion on how many innings they want to play.
Back in Dent’s day spring training was a calendar staple. Spirits of baseball fans, and even non-fans, were lifted when the boys of summer showed up in the dead of winter in Florida and Arizona. It indicated spring was on the way. Flowers blooming, spring break looming, temps warming, and baseballs being whacked. People were optimists. COVID wasn’t invented. Life was good.
Today, spring training is still a key calendar cog but sometimes lost amidst the NCAA basketball tournament, football free agency, 24-hour news cycles, and the hockey and basketball seasons winding down.
For the ballplayers, spring training was also different then from now.
“Back in my day when we got to the first of the year your mind and body were getting ready for spring training,” the personable Dent, now 69, said earlier in the week. “For us it was a big thing. We went to spring training to get into shape. All that has changed.
“When I was playing we had to work in the winter to make ends meet,” he continued. “It’s totally different now. The guys make so much money they have their own training headquarters at home; they have personal trainers; some even have batting cages at their house. We could never afford that stuff.”
When Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres reported to the Yankees spring complex in Tampa, FL, last week, after spending the winter getting into shape, he’ll use the six weeks of spring to refine his game. Players of Dent’s era used spring training to shed some pounds, get into playing shape and work on skills that hadn’t been used in five months.
“These guys today come to spring training and are almost ready to play nine innings,” Dent, whose 12-year big league career was split among the White Sox, Yankees, Rangers and Royals, said.
Bucky was the sixth player chosen in the first round of the 1970 amateur baseball draft by the White Sox. A year earlier the Cardinals selected Dent, still a senior at Miami’s Hialeah High School, in the ninth round. He wasn’t ready to make a commitment and didn’t feel like he was ready for pro ball. He also toyed with the idea of playing college football. As a kid Bucky wanted to be the shortstop of the New York Yankees or a running back for the University of Alabama. Maybe even both. Unbeknownst to Dent at the time, Alabama’s Bear Bryant, while in South Florida for a game against Miami in 1968, scouted him during a prep game. Dent didn’t carry the ball much that night nor leave much of an impression. Even if he did, Bryant didn’t see a future for a 5’8”, 160-pound tailback in the SEC. Ultimately that was a big win for the Yankees. After Dent turned down the Cardinals, he enrolled at Miami Dade Community College to play a year of junior college baseball. The White Sox drafted him with their first pick as a third baseman but quickly converted Bucky to shortstop recognizing they would ultimately need a successor to Luis Aparico. Dent signed for $12,000, a few shekels less than the $5.7 million paid to the number six pick last year.
After spending three years in the minors, Dent, then 21, finally reached Chicago in 1973 and became the Sox full-time shortstop the next season. He was paid $15,000. Tim Anderson, the incumbent White Sox shortstop, will earn $7,250,000 this season.
“We had no choice but to work in the off-season, $15,000 didn’t get very far,” Dent, who along with current Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames managed my Yankees Fantasy Camp team in 2014, said. “I spent some of the winters working as a salesman for the Bell Screw Company in Chicago and then driving a 40-ton crane for the Jack Epperson Crane Company in Miami. I made more money in the winter than I did playing baseball.”
At the end of his winter workday there wasn’t much time for an off-season baseball training program. “I played some racquetball and then ran at night through my neighborhood dodging dogs,” he laughed.
“We trained ourselves,” Dent, born Russell but tabbed Bucky as a kid in his native Sylvania, Georgia, said. “We certainly didn’t have the facilities they have now and back in my day baseball wasn’t sure about the benefit of weight training, so we tended to stay away from it. Nautilus machines had just arrived in the gyms but was still a big question mark for baseball players.”
Dent needed about three weeks once he got to spring training to get into shape. “I took about 50 to 75 ground balls a day once I got to camp and then worked my way to over 100,” he remembered. “I would move left, move right and work on my double play timing with Willie Randolph. My back and legs got stiff pretty quickly in the early days of training. Coming in without any conditioning, it wears you down.”
Things changed drastically for Dent’s off-season routine after he was traded from the White Sox to the Yankees.
In his first full year as a White Sox, 1974, Bucky finished second in ‘Rookie of the Year’ voting behind Mike Hargrove and in front of George Brett. In ‘75 he was an American League All-Star and in 1976 he played 158 of the 162-game schedule, hitting .246 with a .976 fielding percentage. Chicago paid him a below market $35,000. Dent held out for $60,000 in 1977. Frugal Sox owner Bill Veeck made sure he didn’t stay a White Sox.
On April 5, 1977, two days before Chicago’s regular season opener, Dent got a phone call. “I answered the phone and the guy on the other end said, ’Bucky, this is George Steinbrenner.’ I said ‘Yeah, sure, what do you want’ and I’ll be a son of a gun if it wasn’t really Mr. Steinbrenner,” he laughed.
The Yankees needed a full-time shortstop; platooning Fred Stanley and Jim Mason wasn’t the answer. Steinbrenner needed to be sure Dent wanted to be a Yankee and would sign if they traded for him.
“Nick Buonoconti (the late NFL Hall of Fame linebacker) was my agent. He and Mr. Steinbrenner worked out a three-year deal paying me $125,000, $135,000 and $145,000 a year,” he remembered. “My days of working in the winter were over.”
For Veeck it was a good deal. The Yankees shipped Oscar Gamble, LaMarr Hoyt and a check for $200,000 to Chicago. In return, Steinbrenner and the Yankees got a pennant-winning caliber shortstop.
Nighttime running became daytime running. There was more time for racquetball. Maybe some behind-the-scenes Nautilus training, too. And not having to work during the day and spending the winter in South Florida, Dent would find himself on baseball fields to do some throwing and stretching before reporting to camp.
“What a difference that made,” he said. “When I got to spring training I was so much further along; I could concentrate on fundamentals instead of having to work so hard just to get into shape.”
Being a Yankee, especially a 1977 and 1978 World Champion Yankee, also paid off-season dividends. Instead of selling screws and driving cranes, Dent made extra money eating tough chicken.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “We called the banquet circuit, the rubber chicken circuit. It was amazing how many opportunities there were to speak at winter banquets and make a few extra dollars. It was also a lot of fun.”
Dent, who over the last few months moved from his longtime home on the Southeast coast of Florida over to Bradenton on the West coast, also got to experience a portion of his career as a spring training manager.
The Yankees promoted Bucky, then 37, from his AAA managerial stool in Columbus, Ohio, to the Bronx when they fired Dallas Green with 40 games left in the 1989 season. The Yankees finished 18-22 under Dent. He was originally hired to be a bridge so Steinbrenner could bring back Billy Martin for the sixth time in 1990. All that changed when Martin was killed on Christmas Day in 1989 in a traffic accident. Steinbrenner was forced to open the ‘90 season with Dent which meant Bucky got to run his first, and only, major league spring training camp.
“I had a lot more autonomy back then than exists today,” Dent, who grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle, said. “There wasn’t as much media attention. I ran the team the way I wanted to. I got to look at some of the youngsters but primarily we got our team ready to play.
“Spring training today has become big business: there is a different kind of pressure on the manager and coaching staff,” he continued. “Today, it’s a money maker for the team so you tend to do things differently to keep the media and fans engaged. We used to play ‘B’ team games on a back field, and nobody cared. You can’t do that anymore without media coverage and maybe opening the gates for ticket revenue. It’s just different.”
Steinbrenner was never convinced Dent was the answer to his managerial carousel and fired Bucky 49 games into the 1990 season with a 18-31 record. He was replaced by Stump Merrill.
“I knew the team wasn’t very good, but you didn’t turn down a chance to manage the New York Yankees,” he said without an ounce of bitterness. “I knew I would get fired when I got hired. I never really had much of a chance especially when the team changes general managers four times in six months. The bottom line was I enjoyed playing and managing for Mr. Steinbrenner because there was no gray area. Working for him you knew you had to win.”
Back on the field, statistically at least, Dent’s best year as a player was in 1980 when the Yankees shortstop was chosen an American League All-Star for the second time among three such career honors. He hit a lifetime best .262, with 52 RBI, pretty solid numbers for the number nine hitter in the line-up.
However, without question, Dent’s glory year was 1978.
“I’m not sure I saw that coming,” he chuckled. “I had a rough go of things to get started that season.”
In a spring training game in Fort Lauderdale he fouled a ball off his lower left leg, causing blood clots, needing surgical repair and forcing him to miss the balance of the spring. “After that injury I started wearing a shin guard,” he said.
Back in the lineup for opening day, all was good until June 9 when he went up the middle against the Angels to field a Don Baylor smash and popped a hammy. He was sidelined the next 50 games, not returning until July 31.
Fred Stanley filled in capably, but the Yankees were 14 games behind Boston for first place in the American League East when Dent returned. His defensive consistency helped fuel a tenacious late summer rally and the Yankees and Boston ended the season tied for the top spot in the American League East. A one game playoff on October 2 in Boston would send the winner to Kansas City to play the Royals in the ALCS.
Top of the seventh: Roy White on first, Chris Chambliss on second, two out and the BoSox leading 2-1 as the light hitting Dent comes to the plate. Bucky wrote the Foreword for my 2017 literary classic, Big League Dream (bigleaguedream.com), and we’ll let him tell the story as he did in the book.
“I batted ninth in the order, so all of Boston must have breathed a sigh of relief with me coming to bat,” he recalled. “I fouled a ball off my left foot. I’m not sure why I didn’t wear my shin guard that day, but I didn’t. It hurt like heck. I started hopping around, so I tried to walk it off for a few seconds.
“I finally got some feeling back and then realized my bat was cracked,” he continued. “Mickey Rivers was on deck. I used his bat in batting practice that day and hit the ball really well. Rivers gave his bat to the bat boy to run over to me, so I used it.”
Mike Torrez, his Yankee teammate the year before, was on the mound for Boston and served up the next pitch, a fastball, that met the borrowed bat and sailed over the Green Monster putting the Yankees ahead for good. The Pinstripes held on for a 5-4 division clinching win. An hour later, ‘Bucky Fu*king Dent’ t-shirts were on sale in the Back Bay.
The Yankees beat the Royals in the ALCS and then the Dodgers in the ‘78 World Series in six games. As good as Dent’s Boston moment was, the World Series was even better. He was 10-24 at the plate, hitting .417 and had seven RBI. All with the borrowed Rivers’ bat. He was flawless in the field and the guy who couldn’t finish spring training and missed 50 regular season games, became the World Series MVP.
“I always dreamed of playing and winning a World Series, but the MVP was the icing,” he beamed. “Everyone always talks about the Boston home run; the World Series MVP becomes secondary in people’s minds. Most don’t even remember I won the award.”
So, Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres, short of selling screws and operating a crane, are you listening to the recipe for Yankees’ success? Go ahead and get injured this spring. It’s also okay if you miss a third of the season. Make sure while you’re out that your teammates, a roster loaded with stars, do enough to be in playoff position when you return. There have been two Yankees shortstops in World Series history to be the MVP: the first was Dent in ‘78 and then some guy named Jeter in 2000.
Yankees fans believe it’s time for a third.