Bill Buckner, RIP: The injustice of it all

2019-05-27 BillBucknerMookieWilson
Bill Buckner with Mookie Wilson: bound by the Grounder Heard ‘Round the World, the two struck up a genuine friendship in the years that followed.

Bill Buckner tried to continue living in Massachussetts after his playing career ended. Then, playing catch with the youngest of his three children one fine day, the boy threw one back to his father and the old man missed it.

“That’s ok, Dad,” the boy is said to have told him. “I know you have trouble with grounders.”

Buckner couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Especially since the boy was born two years after Buckner’s hour of infamy in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. The kid had heard only too much about his father’s unintended mishap, and Buckner finally had enough.

An outdoorsman at heart, Buckner packed up his family and moved to Idaho, where the former first baseman dabbled in real estate, ranching, and auto dealership. He died today at 69 after a fight with Lewy body dementia, one of the most grotesque dementia variants, and long after he finally made peace with Red Sox Nation.

It was a peace he shouldn’t have had to make in the first place.

Forget that Buckner shouldn’t even have been kept in Game Six when it went to the bottom of the tenth with the Red Sox leading. Forget that the Red Sox at one point came down to one strike away from winning that Series. Forget everything except the one thing one man above all others on the field or in Shea Stadium that night remembered.

“Hey,” Buckner consoled himself as he walked off the field after Mets third baseman Ray Knight shot home with the winning run. “We get to play the seventh game of the World Series.”

And, forget for now the absolute best case scenario for the Red Sox if the ball didn’t skip past but hop into Buckner’s downward-extended mitt. Wilson had the play beaten at first. Buckner played back far enough that even on healthy ankles he couldn’t have outraced Wilson to the pad. Pitcher Bob Stanley running over to cover on the play was behind Wilson at least a full stride.

It would have been first and third and Howard Johnson—a switch hitter on the threshold of becoming one of the National League’s home run kings—coming up to bat. And the Mets might still have forced a seventh game.

Forget all that for now. As Thomas Boswell wrote indignantly enough after the eventual suicide of another 1986 postseason goat, Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore, who’d unintentionally helped the Red Sox reach that Series in the first place, “what some people are saying, and many are thinking, is that this ‘goat’ business isn’t funny anymore.”

Moore threw Dave Henderson a nasty forkball with the Angels a strike away from going to the ’86 Series. Henderson somehow sent it over the left field fence to tie a game the star-crossed Angels lost in extra innings. Buckner’s misfortune happened to be failing while doing his best with what he had in the uniform of a team even more so star-crossed, then and for years yet to remain, that Peter Gammons waxed thus in a Sports Illustrated essay, “Living and Dying with the Woe Sox,” published 3 November 1986:

[W]hen the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, 41 years of Red Sox baseball flashed in front of my eyes. In that one moment, Johnny Pesky held the ball, Joe McCarthy lifted Ellis Kinder in Yankee Stadium, Luis Aparicio fell down rounding third, Bill Lee delivered his Leephus pitch to Tony Perez, Darrell Johnson hit for Jim Willoughby, Don Zimmer chose Bobby Sprowl over Luis Tiant, and Bucky (Bleeping) Dent hit the home run.

Boswell conferred eventual absolution upon Buckner, his manager John McNamara, plus Tom Niedenfeuer, Don Denkinger, Pesky, Gene Mauch, the 1964 Phillies, the 1978 Red Sox, the 1987 Blue Jays, “and every Cub since World War II” as well as Moore:

You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.

Whomever were the unknown Red Sox fans who told Bill Buckner’s kid his old man had a little trouble with grounders probably didn’t know and couldn’t have cared less about the toll such a public failure takes on a man who’d been a solid major league player for sixteen seasons through that World Series, with 2,464 major league hits to that point, not to mention a reputation as a student of the game.

Buckner may have been crazy to even think about playing with his ankles turned to cardboard as they were that fall (commentators waxed almost daily about the special high-top shoes he wore all postseason long), but others admired his courage for even thinking about it, never mind trying. Until he ambled over trying to field Wilson’s roller up toward first, bent down, and watched in horror as the ball skipped through his feet.

Never mind that after rain delayed Game Seven by a day, Red Sox lefthander Bruce Hurst continued his mastery of the Mets until the middle of the game, when—after Sid Fernandez worked two and a third relief innings and shut the Red Sox down cold in those innings—Keith Hernandez shot a pair of runs home and Gary Carter sent the tying run home to end the night for Hurst who finally ran out of fuel.

Never mind Ray Knight leading off the bottom of the seventh with a line homer and two more coming in. Never mind the Red Sox clawing back to within a run before Darryl Strawberry provided a much-needed insurance run with a leadoff skyrocket in the bottom of the eighth, or Jesse Orosco’s faked bunt sending a six-hop single up the middle to send home the eighth and final Met run. Or Orosco striking out Marty Barrett to end the Series.

For years to come it was all Buckner’s fault. Well, maybe it was manager McNamara’s fault, for letting sentiment overrule baseball and letting Buckner go back out to the field to have his warrior there when the Red Sox won it, instead of making his usual move and sending Dave Stapleton out for defense.

Almost three decades later a Mets manager, Terry Collins, let sentiment overrule baseball and let a gassed Matt Harvey go out to try to finish the Game Five shutout he’d started in the 2015 World Series. It cost the Mets a chance to send a World Series to a sixth game. But Collins owned the mistake, and still does. McNamara didn’t own it in 1986, and he still may not own it now.

Buckner once watched history made on his dime, sort of, being in left field for the Dodgers and running futilely to the track when Henry Aaron sent Al Downing’s service into the left field bullpen to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. In the 1986 World Series Buckner made the kind of history nobody wants to make and nobody tries to make.

If it happened in another uniform (except maybe the Cubs’, and possibly the Phillies’), he probably wouldn’t have suffered a sliver of the slings and arrows fired his way afterward. “When that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, “hundreds of thousands of people did not just view that as an error, they viewed that as something he had done to them personally.”

Buckner couldn’t bring himself to be part of the festivities when the Red Sox chose to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1986 pennant winner. But on Opening Day 2008, after the Red Sox won the second of their (so far) four 21st Century World Series, there was Buckner, walking out from under a huge American flag hanging over the Green Monster.

He had tears in his eyes when he walked to the mound and threw out a ceremonial first pitch to his old Red Sox teammate Dwight Evans. “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner told reporters later. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Not long before that, Buckner paid a visit to Shea Stadium. He spotted Mookie Wilson, then a Mets coach, on the field and hailed him. “Mookie,” Buckner called out puckishly, “what do you say you hit me some grounders?” Wilson, the human antidepressant, laughed heartily. Buckner’s face split into a mischievous grin. That must have been the same grin Buckner must been tempted to flash when he hit his final major league home run against the Angels, in Fenway Park as a returning Red Sox, on 25 April 1990.

It was an inside-the-park homer.

When Ralph Branca threw the pitch Bobby Thomson hit into the lower deck to win a pennant for the tainted (we now know) 1951 Giants at the end of a contentious three-game playoff, his family priest told the inconsolable Branca that God chose him to carry the burden because He knew Branca was made of stronger stuff. And he was.

“I lost a ballgame but I gained a friend,” Branca once said of Thomson and the friendship that would be soiled only when it was finally revealed, and proven, that Giants manager Leo Durocher did indeed implement a technological sign-stealing scheme to help the Giants deliver their staggering 1951 pennant race comeback.

Buckner and Wilson forged such a friendship, too, even as the pair frequently signed copies of photographs showing the ill-fated play, signings that are said to have been as therapeutic to Buckner as was moving to Idaho. They proved better men than the fools who wanted to make Buckner baseball’s Cain.

“Bill and I have become very, very close,” Wilson told a Philadelphia radio station a few years ago. “We’re really the best of friends. As good a friend as you can have . . . I think I’ve learned more about Bill since both of us have gotten out of the game . . . He is a great, great person. We enjoy each other’s company and we have a lot in common, a lot more than you would think. And it’s just been great.”

Someone should have told Buckner what Branca’s priest once told him. It might have given Buckner a little extra armour against the worst elements of Red Sox Nation and other baseball fans, and even writers. May the Lord accept Buckner into His embrace and grant him in the Elysian Fields the peace he wasn’t always allowed after the grounder heard ’round the world.

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