Bill Buckner throws out the first pitch at the MLB baseball game on April 8, 2008 at Fenway Park.
(Brian Snyder/Getty Images)
If not for one play, one lousy play, former Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s death would not have been as big a story, and that would have been just fine with him.
Buckner lost a long battle with Lewy body dementia on Monday. He was 69. His death first was reported by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, who received confirmation from Buckner’s wife, Jody.
“Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life,” Jody Buckner said.
Buckner played 22 seasons for five teams in the big leagues, had 2,715 hits, won a National League batting title in 1980, was an NL All-Star in 1981, twice led the NL in doubles and played in the World Series for two teams (1974 Dodgers and ’86 Red Sox).
Those aren’t Hall of Fame numbers. They’re darn good ones, especially being able to maintain his skills for 22 years, but typically they don’t make for huge news. Unfortunately, he became a big baseball name that would echo louder with each passing year as the Red Sox championship drought grew because of one lousy play.
I once spoke to a man in a dugout at Shea Stadium about the 10th-inning groundball that went through Buckner’s legs in Game 6, preventing the Red Sox from clinching the 1986 World Series, which they lost to the Mets in Game 7.
The man was very bitter about the treatment of the play, was tired of talking about it, thought it ridiculous a ballplayer should be remembered for one play. That man’s name was Mookie Wilson, the speedy outfielder who hit the grounder through Buckner’s legs.
Wilson maintained that even if Buckner had fielded the ball cleanly, he would have beat it out for an infield hit. I hadn’t talked to anybody who shared that opinion before interviewing Wilson in the dugout at Shea Stadium and haven’t found anyone since.
Wilson spent 12 seasons in the big leagues and stole 327 bases, so in one respect you can understand how he resents being remembered for one grounder, but that’s not how the world works. Inside and outside of sports, the unusual makes news. Sorry, but a groundball that goes through a first baseman’s legs and alters baseball history in a big way is newsworthy.
All of Scott Norwood’s made field goals and extra points didn’t amount to a murmur compared to the blaring siren of his wide-right against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. The siren grew exponentially louder in each of the next three years when the Bills made it to and lost in the Super Bowl. You don’t like that Norwood is remembered for one lousy kick, but you understand it’s unavoidable.
Similarly, the play that kept the Red Sox from 86-ing the Curse of the Bambino will be the enduring baseball legacy for Buckner and Wilson.
In 2011, Schaap did an “E:60” episode in which Jody shared the reason the family moved from Massachusetts to Boise, Idaho: A parent at their son’s preschool said to the 4-year-old boy, “Your daddy had to quit baseball because he missed the ball.” The Buckners’ son came home and asked, “Daddy, what did he mean?”
Buckner’s postgame reaction to the play came from a far more mature place.
“It’s unfortunate it happened, but that’s baseball,” Buckner told reporters. “All I can say is I never played in the seventh game of the World Series, and I get to play in one now. I hate to say it’s because I missed the groundball, but that’s the way it goes.”
Perfect statement from a player whose job it was to worry about the next play, especially when preparing for Game 7 of the World Series.
For fans still smarting, the Sox’ 2004 world championship healed wounds from the error. Not all wounds created by the reaction to it had yet healed. Buckner didn’t attend the 20th-anniversary celebration of the ’86 Red Sox, but after thinking about it for a month, he did accept the club’s invitation to throw out the first pitch at the home opener in 2008 as part of a celebration for winning the 2007 World Series.
Buckner received and appreciated a four-minute ovation. But a sign that read, “You’re forgiven,” was ill-conceived. The only ones who needed to apologize were those who took one error personally. He tried to make the play and didn’t. It happens, and it happened at the worst possible time on the grandest of all stages. Still, next play.
Buckner again felt at home in the area when he managed the Brockton Rox of the independent Can-Am League in 2011.
Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson in 2001 (Ron Frehm/AP)
Buckner’s signs of healing from the treatment he received were evident from his good humor in participating in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which ended with Buckner making a running catch of a baby thrown out of a burning building and being carried off on the shoulders of those who witnessed his heroics. Earlier in the show (Season 8, Episode 9), he had failed to catch a baseball with Mookie Wilson’s signature on it and the ball sailed out the window.
As the years passed, Wilson and Buckner made money sitting side by side, signing photographs of the play, which was eerily shadowed in an ESPN interview of Buckner on the field at Fenway Park, 19 days before the error.
“The dreams are that you’re going to have a great series and win, and the nightmares are you’re going to let the winning run score on a grounder through your legs,” Buckner said. “You know, those things happen, you know, and I think a lot of it is just fate.”
Buckner knew all along his error was not worthy of being taken personally. One of the best things about the Red Sox’ 21st-century championship run is that it finally led so many others to learn that lesson.