Bill Buckner died today at the age of 69. He had been battling dementia for a couple of years. His career is a testament to how cruel baseball can be, but also to how much it exposes character. It also shows us how redemption IS possible…if we possess the patience of Job.
Buckner was a superb left-handed hitter who came up with the Dodgers, played with the Cubs, and spent his golden years with the Boston Red Sox. The numbers are outstanding. A .289 lifetime average…including a battle title with the Cubs in 1980 when he hit 324. He is one of a handful of players to have played in four decades.
For his time, only Rod Carew was a better contact hitter. Buckner struck out only 459 times in nearly 7,000 at bats. He NEVER struck out more than twice in a game!!
But despite playing more than 18-thousand innings in his major league career, Buckner will be remembered most for a single inning…and a single ground ball. A ground ball he should never have seen.
In 1986, the Boston Red Sox were leading the New York Mets 3-2 in the World Series. Boston was about to shed it’s image as cursed losers, claiming a title for the first time since 1918. They went into the bottom of the tenth at Shea Stadium, leading 5-3.
During the season, Red Sox Manager John McNamara often substituted Dave Stapleton for Buckner with a lead late in the game. Buckner was playing with a severely injured Achilles, an ankle injury that had plagued him since 1975. But McNamara chose to leave the hobbled Buckner out on the field as the Sox tried to get the final three outs.
The Sox got the first two outs quickly. Then came a single. Then another. Then a third. Then a wild pitch. Suddenly it was 5-5 with a runner at second. The speedy Mookie Wilson hit a slow grounder to first. Buckner wobbled to his left and stabbed at it—but it rolled between his legs. Two runs scored. The Mets won and evened the series. They won the next day to take the Series 4-3. The Red Sox frustration continued, and Buckner became the scapegoat.
Never mind that cleanly fielding the ball would have simply sent the game into the 11th inning. Never mind that Wilson may have been fast enough to beat it out for a hit anyway. No. The mob had found their goat.
Baseball has a nasty habit of freely administering the “goat” tag in a most undeserving manner. Fred Merkle’s infamous “boner” in 1908 cost the Giants a pennant, even though his sin (not touching second base on a game-winning base hit) was standard practice at the time. Mickey Owen is forever remembered for his “dropped third strike” in the 1941 Series. Never mind that it simply tied the game between the Yankees and the Dodgers, and it was simply one game in an otherwise-unremarkable series. And this is to say nothing of pitchers who have given up significant homers. One pitch, one swing, one decisions DOES a career make. It is cruel as hell. Imagine your entire career being determined largely by a singular event.
The hell of it is, not even FANS are immune. Steve Bartman’s private life was ended when he tried to catch a foul ball in a playoff game in 2003 at Wrigley Field. It prevented Moises Alou from making the catch. Bartman was escorted out of the stadium amid fans tossing beer at him. History doesn’t remember that Cub’s Shortstop Alex Gonzalez’s error on a sure double play ball later that inning was FAR more costly in the Cubs loss to the Marlins. No. The Baseball Gods had chosen their Goat. And that was that.
It apparently took Buckner years to reconcile his undeserving place in baseball history. At one juncture he moved to Idaho and began working in real estate. But time heals all wounds. And eventually, Buckner made peace with the Red Sox fans and with baseball in general. He even appeared on an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where he made light of his infamous error. Baseball is cruel, yes. But all sins are eventually forgiven. Even those that are not your fault.
On Bill Buckner’s passing, I will do all I can to NOT remember one simple ground ball hit in one inning of one game 33 years ago. The only thing I choose to remember is one of the great contact hitters of his generation. A throwback to a day when it was considered unmanly to strike out.
THAT was Bill Buckner.