Name: Russell Earl “Bucky” Dent
Born: November 25, 1951
Yankee Years: 1977-82
Primary number: 20
Yankee statistics: 695 G, .239/.295/.324, 81 2B, 27 HR, 4 SB, 74 wRC+, 12.5 rWAR, 11.8 fWAR
Sports fans live for the big moment. Even more than that, they live for the narratives attached to those moments, and what they say about us and the people playing the game itself. Narrative is, in great part, what makes sports great: No matter who someone is, or what they do with the rest of their careers and lives, all it takes is a flash of brilliance at the proper moment, and an entire legacy can be made in the memory of millions. Sports pave the way for unlikely heroes, and there’s nothing that our good ol’ bootstrap-oriented American culture loves more than an unlikely hero. When it comes to baseball, it’s hard to find someone fitting the definition better than Bucky Dent: a consummate glove-man, nine-hole-hitter extraordinaire, and someone who found a power stroke at perhaps the single moment of his career that he most needed it.
It might be easy to look at the spreadsheet of Bucky Dent’s career — four years in Chicago, five-and-a-half in the Bronx, then brief stints in Texas and Kansas City to close out a 12-year career — and see little that’s remarkable. By OPS+ and wRC+, he was a below-average hitter every year of his career, unless you want to count that 10-AB cameo for KC at the very end. He had a reputation as a fielding wizard for sure, but his fielding percentage, while good, wasn’t head-and-shoulders above his performance. Even accounting for the holistic accomplishments that we’ll get to soon enough, it’s easy enough to see why he might not have merited a list made in 2013.
But Bucky Dent was much more than the sum of his counting and rate stats. He stayed in the game after his playing days, coaching in the Yankees system for nearly a decade and then elsewhere in the majors for two more thereafter. His movie-star aesthetic and presence in some of the most visible and eclectic moments and teams of his time elevates him just beyond remember-some-guys status and into someone worthy if not of a statue, then of a place on a list like this. It would be hard for him to be a star today. But he played shortstop for the Yankees amid the last moments that baseball may have truly been America’s Pastime — before the excitement of prime time football and Jordan, Magic, and Bird began to claim their own market share — and he made the most of it.
Born in Savannah, Georgia in November, 1951, just a few weeks after the Yankees secured their 14th title, Russell Earl Dent was raised by his aunt and uncle, receiving the moniker “Bucky” from his grandmother at a young age. (Funny how that kind of thing will stick for life, isn’t it?) He spent his adolescence in Hialeah, Florida, where he was a star in both football and basketball while leading Hialeah High School to the 1969 Division 2A state championship. Baseball-Reference lists him as 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds well into in his adult life, so needless to say, in spite of his excellence elsewhere, Dent’s future was always on the diamond.
His high school stardom was enough to get him popped in the ninth round of the ‘69 draft, an opportunity he chose to pass over in favor of a year at Miami-Dade College, a baseball powerhouse to this day, which catapulted him into the first round when the Cardinals again selected him in the January 1970 Draft, this time sixth overall. But Dent rejected the idea of a life in St. Louis once again, and after a spring at Miami-Dade finally embarked on a pro career after once again going at number six, but this time to the Chicago White Sox.
Into the Show
Dent spent three-and-a-half years working his way up through the White Sox minor league system before making his debut midway through the 1973 season. Then a middling franchise after a successful 1960s, the Sox nonetheless had a tradition of elite defenders at shortstop, stretching from Luke Appling through Venezuelan pioneers Chico Carrasquel and Luis Aparicio, and the lesser-known Ron Hansen. Chicago had gone through four shortstops in four years after Hansen’s departure, and Dent’s arrival on the South Side was highly anticipated. A minor league All-Star in ‘73, he took over the starting shortstop role on August 18th — going 2-for-3 against Mike Cuellar — and held onto it for the next three years, slashing .274/.316/.347 in his first season and finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting to Mike Hargrove, and one place ahead of some guy named George Brett.
Dent possessed few elite traits, but looking at things qualitatively, he was more or less everything a team was asking for out of a shortstop in the 1970s. His .260 batting average and .325 slugging with the White Sox might look horrifying to the modern eye, but in a period in which shortstops league-wide hit around .245 with a .315 slugging as a whole, his bat was more than adequate. He rarely struck out, rarely made errors, and with a gap in star power following Dick Allen’s departure in 1974, a face to be envious of made him an easy fan favorite.
A 1979 profile of Dent by no less than Tony Kornheiser opens with an assertion that “The first thing you notice about Bucky Dent is that he is handsome.” My own mother, who spent some summers of her teenage years utilizing the groundskeepers’ entrance as a free ticket into the lower reaches of Comiskey Park, once recalled a deep blush at getting a wave from the shortstop while gawking down the left-field line.
Move to the Bronx
An All-Star in 1975, it soon became apparent that the advent of free agency would spell the end of Dent’s time in Chicago. The White Sox were in dire financial straits upon Bill Veeck’s second purchase of the team, and after rejecting Chicago’s offer post-1976, a trade was a foregone conclusion. As was the M.O. of the post-illegal-campaign-donation-suspension Steinbrenner Yankees, they came out with the top offer for who the New York Times dubbed “another expensive star,” trading slugging outfielder Oscar Gamble and future Cy Young winner LaMarr Hoyt in exchange for Dent and the right to sign him to a three-year, $600,000 contract, nearly two-and-a-half times league salary. In modern terms, a guy with an 85 wRC+ was getting DJ LeMahieu money, and personally, I love that for him.
Dent joined the Yankees just in time for what was, of course, one of the most memorable seasons in Yankees history, and perhaps in league history overall. The shortstop was a complete afterthought in the shadow of the real marquee acquisition of that offseason, and the addition of Reggie Jackson to an already-formidable heart of a lineup that included Thurman Munson and Graig Nettles gave Dent the opportunity to serve as a perfectly prototypical “second leadoff man” at the bottom of the order. With such dangerous hitters behind him, Dent struck out less than ever, and posted a .247/.300/.352 line consistent with his numbers in Chicago. Playing next to another elite defender in Nettles, his play at shortstop reached another level, with the limited data available to modern defensive metrics rating him as perhaps the best six-man in the game not named Ozzie Smith.
Dent’s steady presence and performance helped balance a volatile team — he retrospectively shrugged off 1977’s infamous dugout confrontation between Jackson and Billy Martin with a “We did what we needed to do on the field.” Jackson, Munson, and Mike Torrez stole the show in the World Series, but Dent’s 5-for-19 line, along with an RBI in a key 4-2 Game 5 win, didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, it wasn’t until the subsequent year that the legend of Bucky fuckin’ Dent was really made.
A paragon of consistency, Dent’s play in 1978 was much the same as it was before. He was a 2-3 win player, his batting average (remember, that’s what they cared about!) was good enough for a shortstop, and his lack of power was an afterthought in his role as the ninth hitter, which was to not strike out an play defense, a perfectly fine concept for a league barely a half-decade removed from pitchers hitting at the bottom of the order.
But Dent was struggling deeply down the stretch of the 1978 season, even as the Yankees finished the year on a torrid 41-17 run to cap an epic nine-game collapse from the Red Sox, forcing the one-game playoff he’d become famous for. In the 19 games ending the season prior to the playoff, Dent batted just .130, though his elite defense kept him penciled in the lineup.
As he had for his entire Yankees tenure to that point, Dent batted ninth on October 2, 1978 at Fenway Park. Mike Torrez, now pitching for Boston, had retired Dent twice en route to six shutout innings. Having been spotted two runs by the Red Sox offense, the Yankees were nine outs away from seeing their season end with 99 wins. Then, with one out in the seventh, Chris Chambliss singled. Then Roy White singled. Then Bucky Dent came to the plate.
The heroics didn’t stop there. Dent drove in the opening run of the ALCS against the Royals, paving the way for an easy series win and showdown with the Dodgers in the World Series. There, Dent’s sluggish end to the season was practically forgotten. Bucky went buck-wild with 10 hits in 24 at bats, and though just one of them went for extra bases, the timeliness could not have been better, and he wound up with seven RBI for the series — and World Series MVP honors. He drove in what technically wound up as the game-winning run in the Yankees’ 5-1 Game 3 win, the first step in the sixth 2-0 comeback in World Series history.
The real star turn came in Game 5, when Dent knocked three hits, drove in one, and scored two in a 12-2 rout. The RBI train didn’t stop there. Dent was the star of the show in Game 6 as well, breaking a 1-1 tie in the third inning with a two-run single to support a struggling Catfish Hunter, and opening the floodgates for a 7-1 win that gave the Yankees their 22nd championship.
Dent rode the wave of his star turn, making himself as visible as a Yankee can in the year following his savior activities. Unfortunately, the end of the regular season was more indicative of his future than his playoff run, as he followed it up with the worst offensive year of his career in 1979 and saw his OPS drop all the way down to .573, though his defense remained elite. With his already-solid name recognition, he rebounded to the tune of 5.7 rWAR and back-to-back All-Star appearances in 1980 and 81.
Unfortunately, he missed the last month of the 1981 season — including the playoffs — with a torn ligament in his throwing hand, and age began to take its toll thereafter. In retrospect, modern defensive numbers saw a significant drop-off in performance at shortstop, and after hitting just .159 through 59 games in 1982, Dent was traded to the Texas Rangers in exchange for future manager Lee Mazzili. He didn’t perform much better in Arlington, and after another replacement-level season for a mediocre Rangers club in 1983, his time in the majors was more or less at an end. He was released by the Rangers at the end of the 1974 season, and while he latched on with the Yankees once again in June, playing 17 games for Triple-A Columbus, he was later able to secure his release and latch on with the AL West champion Royals for the final 11 games of his career, in which he ironically produced a 106 OPS+, the highest of his life.
After his playing days were through, Dent almost immediately dove into coaching, joining the Yankees system and spending the rest of the 1980s on the steady ascent up the minor league ladder. By 1986, he was managing Triple-A Columbus instead of playing there, and when the ever-mercurial Steinbrenner’s rocky relationship with Dallas Green necessitated the team’s 17th managerial change in 17 seasons, Dent was the one who got the call, taking over a sixth-place team and guiding them to an 18-22 record down the stretch.
That was enough to earn him a shot at improving the team in 1990, but George is always gonna George: after guaranteeing his job through the ‘90 season, all it took was an 18-31 start for him to have seen enough. Bucky’s final tenure with the Yankees ended after 89 games — but not before he reportedly helped engineer the trade of longtime stalwart Dave Winfield. I suppose the Yankees of the late nineties couldn’t have existed without the Yankees of the early nineties, right?
Dent bounced around the coaching ranks for another decade and a half following his only big league managerial stint, coaching in the Cardinals organization, returning to the Royals to manage Triple-A Omaha, and serving as the bench coach for the Cincinnati Reds under Jerry Narron. Dent left the Reds along with Narron midway through the 2007 season, and he has since enjoyed retirement, currently residing in Bradenton, Florida.
Dent remains a presence in the baseball world, making regular appearances at Yankees Old-Timers’ Day — even once recreating his legendary blast with his former teammate (and victim) Torrez — and he’s also the namesake and traditional first-pitch-thrower of the “Bucky Dent Classic,” an ESPN softball tournament held in Central Park. His son, Cody, played baseball at the University of Florida, and his daughter Caitlin played softball at North Carolina State. Worthy of recognition beyond a fleeting moment of ultra-fame, Bucky Dent led a baseball life that was more than the sum of its parts, if nothing else.
Staff rank: 88
Community rank: 91
Stats rank: N/A
2013 rank: N/A
Krell, David SABR
New York Times: