BY JOHN THEALL Sports writer
VERONA — The Central New York crowd came out in full force on Tuesday night to meet and greet former Major League Baseball player Russell Earl "Bucky" Dent, who hit one of the most iconic home runs in baseball history for the New York Yankees, as he was the guest speaker for the ninth annual Legends of the Diamond dinner held at the Recovery Sports Grill in Verona.
The event is sponsored every year by the Rome Lions and Lake Delta Kiwanis Clubs.
Last year’s guest speaker was former Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant.
Dent was the sixth pick in the 1970 major league draft. By the age of 21, he was playing shortstop for the Chicago White Sox. In 1977, the White Sox traded him to the Yankees and gave him the uniform number 20.
Dent is widely remembered for hitting the unforgettable three-run homer that gave the Yankees a 3-2 advantage over the Boston Red Sox during the one-game playoff for the 1978 American League East division title at Fenway Park in Boston.
Not known as a power hitting shortstop, and batting from the ninth spot in the batting order, Dent connected off Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez and the Yankees went on to win the game and the division, 5-4.
The win also catapulted Dent and the Yankees to World Series Champions that same season, scoring a 4-2 series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Dent was named the World Series Most Valuable Player in 1978 after he batted .417 during the series.
He said he was delighted to come back to the area and to be welcomed by such a strong following of spectators on Tuesday night.
"They are wonderful people up here. They are big Yankees fans. They love, and they’re passionate about sports," he said. "The Rome Lions and Lake Delta Kiwanis Clubs also do a great job at raising money for kids, and to help be a part of these great organizations has been a lot of fun. These are two great organizations, and it’s for a great cause. I’ve been up in this area before and I love coming up here," added Dent.
Dent smiled when asked if he ever got tired of talking about the moment that changed his life forever, and said that, "Sports is a game of moments. You always dream as a kid of being in a big moment like that when you’re in the backyard. I always dreamed of being Mickey Mantle, playing for the Yankees, hitting a big home run, and I got a chance to do that. It changes your life in that the game alone seemed like the whole world stopped. To play in a game like that was the most pressure-packed game I’ve ever been in, and everything after that was very easy because you don’t always have moments like that. It changed my life because people always remember where they were, and what they were doing because those kinds of games don’t happen very often."
A three-time All-Star, Dent remained the Yankees’ shortstop until 1982, when he was traded to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Lee Mazzilli. While with the Rangers, his uniform was number 7. Dent returned to the Yankees briefly in 1984, but never played a game.
He finished his career with the Kansas City Royals that same season, and finished out his 12-year career with a .247 batting average with 423 RBIs and 40 home runs.
None were more historic than the one that sailed over the top of the Green Monster in Boston during that one-game playoff win.
Dent said he still remembers the entire sequence of events of the at-bat. He fouled a pitch off of his leg and hobbled around until he got back into the batter’s box. He then cracked his bat on another foul ball before Yankees teammate Mickey Rivers had a bat boy bring out one of his bats to Dent. On the very next pitch, Dent sent the ball over the left field wall for the three-run homer.
"I remember the at-bat like it was yesterday. You don’t ever forget that. You remember the intensity, you remember the crowd. What I remember the most is rounding third base just how quiet Fenway Park was. It was really silent, and you could just hear the Yankee fans yelling, but it got very eerie," he said.
"I also didn’t see the ball go into the net," recounted Dent.
"I saw that the ball kind of had a shadow, but it wasn’t until I rounded first base that I saw the umpire signal that it was a home run, and wow what a feeling! People always ask, ‘What were you thinking?’ And all I can remember thinking is that we were ahead at that time.
"All I kept thinking during the at-bat was that I knew I was going to be the go-ahead run, and when you hit a line drive there you don’t know if it’s going to get out or hit the wall. I actually wanted to be on second base, so I was running pretty hard to get to second and that’s why I kind of glanced back and didn’t see it go out because I was really trying to get to second base. Then I saw the signal for a home run," he added.
Dent said that the monumental blast has followed him where ever he has gone these days. It changed his life forever.
"There are always people coming up to me saying that, ‘Hey, you ruined my life as a kid’, or, ‘Hey, you made my life.’ People tell me where they were or what they were doing during that moment. Guys who were Red Sox fans have even told me that they threw their TVs out of their windows," Dent said.
"Then I went on to win the World Series MVP, and a lot of people forget about that, they remember the home run, but that moment carried over for me into the postseason. It really put me in the zone, and I was locked in. Being Most Valuable Player in the World Series was really another special moment for me because as a kid you always dream of doing something like that. It just topped the whole year off," he added.
The 60-year-old, Savannah, Ga. native earned two World Series rings in 1977 and 1978 with the Yankees, and also served as the Yankees’ manager in 1989-90 while leading the team to a 36-53 record.
Dent said he was welcomed back to Fenway Park when they installed the seats atop of the Green Monster where he deposited his home run.
He said that he didn’t get any hostility from the fans, but said that a Red Sox fan that he was sitting next to leaned over to him during the middle of the game and said, "I was ten years old when it happened", and he said they both shared a laugh afterwards.
As regarding to how Boston fans still treat him to this day he said, "It’s a love, hate relationship that we have. They’re passionate about their sports, like Yankees’ fans. They remember also, and it’s a lot of fun."
Dent said that he stays in constant contact with most of his former teammates and has kept busy over the years watching his twin children both play sports for their respective colleges along with his various business ventures. His son, Cody, plays baseball for Florida University, and his daughter, Caitlin, plays softball for North Carolina State.
Dent resides in Boynton Beach, Fla.
Past Legends of the Diamond dinner guest speakers included, Richard "Goose" Gossage, Tommy John, Joe Pepitone, Robert "Bobby" Feller, Bobby Richardson, Ken Griffey Sr., Dwight "Doc" Gooden, and Luis Tiant "El Tiante".
The Legends of the Diamond dinner is one of the events that helps the Rome Lions and Lake Delta Kiwanis clubs better serve the needs of children and adults in Rome. The clubs serve the community in many ways, including the Reading is Fundamental, Coats for Kids and Gift of Life programs, just to name a few.
The clubs also provide student scholarship programs, Christmas parties for children and seniors in need, and supporting youth recreational programs in the Greater Rome area.
To help donate to the clubs or to become a sponsor send your donations payable to the Rome Lions Club at P.O. Box 765, Rome, NY 13442.