A Character With Great Character

by Jon Kaufman

As a child, while sweating it out in my dentist’s waiting room, I would often read back issues of Reader’s Digest to distract myself from the blood curdling grinding sound coming from the examination room just three feet away.  My favorite Reader’s Digest feature was “My Most Unforgettable Character,” a collection of memories about a specific person in the writer’s life. Until 1986, I never really met anyone who I would tag as “unforgettable.” Then I met Mike Bucci.

Three years into my twenty seven year trip to Roanoke, I was the General Manager of the Salem Redbirds Baseball Team.  The team had just been purchased by local businessman Kelvin Bowles and recent Salem-Roanoke Hall of Fame inductee Sam Lazzaro had traveled south from Upstate New York to be my new boss and team’s vice president.  The Redbirds were affiliated with Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers franchise and a young, energetic, charismatic manager named Mike Bucci arrived to manage the ballclub.

Mike or “Bootch” as we grew to know him, had little baseball talent to work with that season, but with Bootch at the helm, the summer promised to be at the very least, interesting.

Whether he was riding on our mower cutting the outfield grass or negotiating the price of batting practice balls he re-purchased from the neighborhood kids stationed beyond the stadium walls, Bootch had his hand in everything. The fans loved his style of play, yet one regular was less than thrilled with the results.

Anyone who attended or played a baseball game in Salem during the mid 1980’s will surely remember the familiar tones of the Redbird’s number one fan Robley Stearnes.  An older gentleman, Robley was a season ticket holder of the highest magnitude, in fact, if he was not able to attend a game (which was almost never), he would call the office and let us know he would be absent so we didn’t worry.

For a very nice, sweet old man Mr. Stearns had managed to forge an infamous reputation as the Carolina League’s number one heckler. Few were safe from his prodigious badgering. Umpires, opposing players, batboys, and even the home team – no one was spared from Robley’s wrath. Struggling through a rough season, Mike Bucci became a prime target. Night after night Robley’s booming voice rained down from the stands admonishing the ‘Birds for poor play and loudly reminding the beleaguered Bootch that his team was “Snake-Bit” (Robley’s signature phrase).

One night, just prior to the game, I witnessed Bootch strolling up to the grandstand. When he reached the seating area, Mike pointed at Robley, who had begun to take his seat, and motioned for him to join him on the field. My first thought was that Bootch had finally snapped and was going to administer a thrashing to our best customer. When Bootch and Robley disappeared into the home clubhouse, I was not sure what to think. When the game started, Robley was nowhere to be found. I was nervous.

The Redbirds retired the Hagerstown Suns in order in the first inning and I was on my way down to the clubhouse to perhaps recover Robley’s body, when a roar came from the stands. Standing in front of the clubhouse, decked out in full uniform, his hands clasped and waving over his head, was old Mister Snake Bit himself, smiling ear to ear.  Slowly walking on to the field, Robley removed his hat, waived to the crowd, and took his place in the first base coach’s box! As Sam and I discussed the insurance ramifications of a man in his seventies on a minor league field, the inning quickly came to an end, as did Robley’s coaching career. From that moment Robley was Bootch’s biggest fan and not another coarse word was uttered.

Mike had encouraged his antagonist to fulfill a true moment of glory that day. For Robley, it was one of the happiest days of his life, for Mike, an insightful solution to a problem, for the rest of us, an act of splendor not to be forgotten.  My Dad would often say “Jon, strive to have character and not to be a character.” As Bootch so unforgettably proved, one can be both.

Mike and his lovely and ageless wife Leesa live in Pennsylvania, where Mike still occasionally teaches hitting in his own in-house batting cage. Bootch also has a full time position with Health and Science Center, Inc. a health industry recruiting firm and owns Home Plate Baseball, a service that works with youth baseball league coaches teaching   proper instruction techniques.  Their son Anthony founded and owns Revzilla.com a successful online distributor of motorcycle gear and accessories, and son Carmen is a 2005 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and is an Army Captain with the third Battalion 75 Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Georgia.

Character and character beget Character, I suppose.

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