A child’s drawing of Bill Buckner was displayed proudly on a wall in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse at HoHoKam Park in Mesa. An entire elementary school class in Chicago signed it, telling Buckner he was their favorite player and wishing him good luck in the 1979 season.
I am sure players must get these kinds of things all the time. This was only one I remember being given such prominence. A few years later I was at the concession stand one morning at Fitch Park, essentially the back fields of the Cubs’ spring training operation in Arizona at the time. I was chatting with the ladies who ran the stand and for whose family the park was named.
We were interrupted when Bill Buckner, his wife, and their young kids stopped by on their morning bicycle ride. The ladies quickly turned their attention to the Buckner family.
I don’t think the Buckners bought anything. They just chatted for a few minutes. “Bill is so nice,” one of Fitch ladies said as the Buckners rode off. “He always stops by to say hi.”
Those memories came flooding back on Monday when I learned of Buckner’s passing.
There is one other memory that came back of course. It is the only memory many have of Buckner.
Buckner failed to come up with a ground ball at first base with two out in the tenth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The New York Mets scored the winning run and forced a seventh game.
The Mets won Game 7. The Boston Red Sox drought of World Series titles, which went back to 1918, continued. Somehow all the blame fell on Buckner. Many believe, incorrectly, that the Red Sox would have sealed the Series if Buckner made the play.
While it is true the Rose Sox were at one point just a strike away from winning the Series, the Mets had already scored two runs to tie the game by the time of Buckner’s error.
The play was one a major-league first baseman should make. But it was not an easy one. Mookie Wilson cued the ball off the end of the bat, giving it a wicked spin. In fact, Wilson even tried to take credit for putting the spin on it.
Wilson was a fast runner. Buckner had bad wheels. Wilson might have won a foot race to the base.
Pitcher Bob Stanley came over to cover the bag. Stanley said he would have beaten Wilson to first. Wilson said that night that he would have beaten Stanley.
So we don’t know absolutely that the Red Sox would have recorded the out if Buckner fielded the ball cleanly. Still, Buckner knew he should have come up with it.
“I can’t remember the last time I missed one like that, but I will remember that one,” Buckner told reporters after the game.
He had a rough Series. He batted .143 through the first six games. “You have to accept it,” Buckner said. “If you want to be a major-league baseball player, then you take responsibility for what happens.”
The often-injured Buckner had surgery on his feet and ankles after the 1986 season. He came back with the Red Sox and hit .273 in 75 games in 1987, but they released him.
He signed with the California Angels and hit .306 the rest of the 1987 season. That was his last good stint, although he managed to hang on in the majors until 1990, making it back to the Red Sox for his final season. He was heckled by Boston fans for a while, but he was treated warmly in his second tour of duty with the Red Sox.
The error that wouldn’t die
After his playing days, Buckner moved the family to Boise, Idaho in part to get out of the spotlight.
The video of his error was replayed over and over. “I’ll be seeing clips of this thing until the day I die,” Buckner told the Wall Street Journal in 1998. “I accept that. On the other hand, I’ll never understand why.”
It was his misfortune to the on the wrong end of the most memorable play of a memorable World Series game.
He talked occasionally with reporters about his legacy, always centering on the play. You could tell in all those interviews that he was trying to avoid succumbing to the bitterness. But it was a struggle.
If there is a happy part of this tale it is this: After the Red Sox won their second World Series of the 21st Century in 2007, Bucker was invited to Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day in 2008.
“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. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”
The fans gave Buckner a rousing, standing ovation when he walked from the left field to the mound.
Buckner finished his career with a .289 career batting average and 498 doubles. He won the National League batting title in 1980. If you look up his stats on Baseball Reference, you will see that the triple slash, OPS+, and WAR numbers are not kind to him.
But keep in mind we didn’t have those OPS+ and WAR when Buckner played. And few cared about on-base percentage until late in Buckner’s career. He posted high batting averages when batting average was the coin of the realm.
No matter what the numbers say, I prefer to look beyond them and to look beyond the replays of the ball rolling between his legs.
I want to remember him as a guy who was proud to be the favorite player of a bunch of Chicago school kids and as a big star who wasn’t too big to find time to talk with the people who ran a concessions stand.