Number of miles driven today: 90

Total miles driven on road trip: 7,286

Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? The Dunkin' comeback continues.

Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 20-13-2

Dunkin' Donuts' record: 13-20-2

Cheapest gas I saw today: $2.79

Number of states visited overall: 21

Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 10 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina)

Number of blue states visited overall: 11 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts)

Actual depth of graves dug by Richie Hebner while working for his dad's business in the offseason: 3 feet

Richie Hebner's favorite writer at the moment: James Patterson

Norwood, Massachusetts is like any number of small towns in New England. Democrat-leaning politically, but socially conservative. Mostly white. Blue collar. Proud. Patriotic. 

Just don't pronounce it Norwood.

​"Naaaawww-wood" is more like it.

In this town of about 30,000 15 miles outside of Boston, Richie Hebner is both the set-up and the punchline to a winning joke. All you have to do is walk around the town square, as I did today, and ask anyone over a certain age (say 50) if they've heard of Richie Hebner.

They will look at you and smile. "Richie Hebner?" they say with mock incredulity. The smile grows. 

"Of  cawwwse I know Richie Hebner," they will tell you in that inimitable accent. 

A lot of great athletes have come out of Norwood, but perhaps none is more famous than the man baseball called "The Hacker" for his free-swinging ways, both on and off the field.

I walked into the town hall, a monolithic grey tower built in 1928 that anyone would mistake for a Catholic or Episcopalian church. Historical photos of the town from the early 20th century hung from the walls, as well as a plaque informing guests that the memorial carillon at the top of the tower contains 51 bells weighting 43,076 pounds.

A young man wearing a baseball cap with a smart phone and massive keychain dangling from his work belt took notice. He was no more than 25, his face still pocked with acne.

"I can take you up to the tower if you'd like," he said. "I'm the head custodian here."

I explained the project I'm working on (he had not heard of Hebner), and his enthusiasm grew as I recounted my 7,500 miles of adventure over nearly 40 days. Before long, he had assigned himself my Norwood tour guide.

Our first stop on the tour was the office of the assistant town manager (essentially the backup mayor), Bernie Cooper, a slight man with glasses and a canary yellow dress shirt. Cooper's office looked like a hoarder's, with stacks of paper turned at angles to each other and reaching a foot tall scattered on every surface. But talking to this exacting, cautious man, I had the sense that if you asked him for something specific, he would know exactly where to find it.

"Nice filing system," I said, testing his humor.

"Thanks," he muttered, failing the test.

Bernie had gone to high school a few years ahead of Richie and didn't know him personally. But he was helpful, providing names of other contemporaries who knew Richie well and then rattling off home phone numbers from memory (!) 

"Richie came from a working class family. No pretensions," he said.

My tour guide brought me to a few more stops before it was time to meet up with Dennis Hebner, the youngest of Richie's four brothers (Richie is second youngest). 

He picked me up at a Dunkin' Donuts in a white rental car (whose alarm immediately went off when he got out--"ahh, fuck!" he said, fumbling with the keys and struggling in vain to turn it off). He wore an Army t-shirt, jeans, and a baseball hat, and had the same grey hair and light eyes as Richie. He drove me around the streets of Norwood for an hour, showing me the ballfields they played on, the houses they grew up in, and their schools. 

"Ask me anything," he told me. "My daughter tells me I talk too fuckin' much, but what the hell, right? I may say things I shouldn't, but I'll always be honest."

And talk he did. Huge swaths of the conversation were off the record, because like he said, Dennis will answer your questions.

He said he and Richie are close, and yet when we drove by Richie's house in nearby Walpole and saw two cars parked in the driveway (Richie is a minor league hitting coach and just got back home from the road), he said, "I don't wanna go down the driveway. I don't go over there too much anymore." He didn't elaborate.

"We can pahwwk the caaah over in that lot and chat some mowwh," he told me once the tour was finished. He took out a canister of dip and packed a wad into his lower lip. 

"It's the damndest thing," he told me. "This should be in Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Within 19 days in April of '06, my wife and two of my brothers' wives all died of cancer." Richie's was not one of them.

"It was kind of haaawd for awhile," he said. "I've got 4 kids, and two of them, the twins, are handicapped. They're little people. Dwahves."

He spat tobacco juice into a bottle, and I noticed his wedding ring still on his left hand. 

He retired from the family grave-digging business several years ago after taking it over from his dad, and now helps a friend pack rewards gifts at a warehouse. He's a full-time dad, having driven one of the twins to theater practice earlier in the day.

Richie headed down Route 95 later in the day to Pawtucket, where his Buffalo Bisons took on the Pawtucket Red Sox. I drove down as well. 

Later that afternoon, a security guard let me into the Visitors clubhouse at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. Once inside, I immediately saw Richie, looking casual in cargo pants and a blue long-sleeve shirt, the wisps of his remaining hair combed over and occasionally flying away. He has the air of a gravedigger--simple, gruff, humble--because, well, he was one. 

"Whaddya need," he said, shaking my hand. "I don't have much time. We can go to the dugout." 

He reached for canister of dip and packed a fat lipper. For the next hour we sat in the visitors dugout, Richie casting his light green eyes over a perfectly manicured infield, occasionally settling them back on me. He warmed up as I led him through his career, talking about Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt. 

"Sometimes I think this game is passing me by," the 67-year old said.

By the end, he seemed almost bothered that we didn't have more time, constrained as we were by the setting and circumstances.

"You should catch me on the road in the hotel. I'd talk forever," he said, leading me out.

I joined a group of autograph seekers by the clubhouse door, asking them who they were waiting for, and thought back to Dennis and his kids, just 30 miles away up Route 95.

​​For older blog entries, click here.


Day 36: Greenville, RI to Norwood, MA, 7.24.15


One Pack. No Turning Back.