NOTE: A tip of the cap to Fairleigh Dickinson for their upset win over Purdue.
WHITESTONE, NY – In my twenty years as a NYC Corrections Officer on Rikers Island, I came across a ton of society’s misfits. It was a revolving door as the menaces of society would make their beds on the other side of that bridge, which was located in East Elmhurst, Queens.
Every now and then a known name would transform into an inmate, as they would quickly find out that the law abides to them too. Names like Tupac Shakur, Ol Dirty Bastard, David Crosby, Richie Adams and Fly Williams would wind up spending time behind bars as they try to prove their innocence.
One of those inmates that came to mind was NY Yankees folk hero Joe Pepitone. It was 1985 when Brooklyn’s own claimed he hitched a ride in a vehicle that contained illegal drugs and firearms. There wasn’t much evidence to back up his claim that he was just an innocent passenger so he wound up with a sweetheart sentence. Six months of work release.
Pepitone spent his time on Rikers on a ferry named after a deceased warden, Vernon Bain. Joe along with his toupee, made his bed in a dorm like setting along with other sentenced inmates. The ex-Yankees first baseman would be awakened at 5 AM and was off the ferry by 6. He would report to his “job” at his old workplace in the Bronx, Yankee Stadium. The Boss, George Steinbrenner, created a position for Pepitone as it was always his way to look out for down and out Yankees.
By 11 PM Pepitione would report back to Rikers Island and he would display to the officers the true character that he was. Every inmate upon return, even ex-Yankees, would be subject to a strip search. Pepitone would strip down, even taking his toupee off his bald head. During this process, Pepitione would be in a jolly mood. He would ask the officers how their day went, he’d share stories of his lunch that day, he’d even sign a few baseball cards that an officer would hand him.
Once in a while Pepitione would go into his bragging mode by telling the officers he had cable TV connections and he could hook them up with the luxury station called HBO. Another time he would let it be known that he was good friends with Bill Fugazy, and if they ever needed a limousine he’d call Bill and provide one.
Now technically those offers would be considered bribes, but the way Joe would blab his mouth, it came out more comical. The officers would laugh it off as this one-time power hitter was just another con on the island.
Pepitone’s death the other day produced a smile. The smile was from the memories he left me. There was one time when he came back from that work release job, and during the strip down a one-hundred-dollar bill was discovered in his toupee. It was folded up with a bobby pin. Joe denied it was his, even though it was hidden on top of his head. The contraband was transferred to his prison commissary account. The officers let it slide by not writing him up, which would have led to “bing time.” A guy like the Jolly Joe didn’t belong in solitary confinement for a minor infraction.
After his release I ran into the ex-inmate at a baseball card signing show. I came face to face with him and said, “Yo, remember me? Rikers Island!” Pepitone stared at me with a stunned look and muttered, “Jesus Christ, I can’t get away from you guys.”