RIP Bill Buckner

Ken AshfordIn Passing, Red Sox & Other SportsLeave a Comment

He taught those of us in New England how to screw up with grace:

Had it not been for his fateful error in that 1986 World Series, Buckner — who suffered from Lewy body dementia, a degenerative brain disease — would have been best remembered as one of the finest hitters of his generation. Instead, his legacy includes some very gaudy statistics and one terribly unfortunate mistake but also proof that there are opportunities for true grace even after one really bad night.

In a career that lasted from 1969 through 1990, Buckner compiled 2,715 hits, won a batting title, made an All-Star team and never struck out three times in a game, something 16 major leaguers did on Sunday alone.

Buckner even stole 31 bases in 1974, helping lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to the National League pennant. But that was before a severe ankle injury, and by the time he made it back to the World Series, with Boston in 1986, he had become a symbol of grit, a hobbled hero with high-top cleats who had needed nine cortisone shots just to make it through that season.

And there he was, playing first base at Shea Stadium in the 10th inning of Game 6, with the Red Sox on the verge of their first championship since 1918. At the end of every Boston victory that postseason, Red Sox Manager John McNamara had used a more mobile first baseman, Dave Stapleton. But this time he let Buckner play the field.

With two outs and the bases empty, trailing by two runs, the Mets stirred: Three singles produced a run off Calvin Schiraldi, bringing up Mookie Wilson to face another reliever, Bob Stanley. One strike from the title, Stanley’s wild pitch eluded catcher Rich Gedman, tying the game, 5-5.

On the 10th pitch of his at-bat, Wilson dribbled a grounder up the first base line. Buckner did not charge it, as a more nimble Stapleton might have. He shuffled over to straddle the ball, bent over to pick it up — and watched in disbelief as it skipped through his legs, scoring Ray Knight with the winning run.

In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, McNamara said he had no regrets about leaving Buckner in the game.

“If the ball was hit to either side of him and he couldn’t get in front of it, yeah, I would have questioned myself,” McNamara said. “But he got to the ball.”

Even if Buckner had fielded the ball cleanly, Wilson might have beaten him or Stanley to the bag. And as scapegoats go, Schiraldi or Stanley deserve the most blame: According to Baseball Reference, the Mets had a 1 percent chance of winning before the first of their three two-out singles, and a 60 percent chance after Stanley’s wild pitch.

The Red Sox also had another game to put the Mets away, but they blew a three-run lead in the sixth inning of Game 7. As it happened, Stapleton would never play in the majors again, and Buckner would struggle to escape the shadow of his error.

“He handled it amazingly well, but it killed him,” said Valentine, speaking metaphorically, of course. Valentine roomed with Buckner in the minors and played with him on the Dodgers. “There were probably 50 interviews where he could have blamed McNamara, or said something about Stanley throwing the wild pitch, or anything else about Game 6. He never said any of that.”

The Red Sox released Buckner in July 1987, but the fans cheered him when he returned to the team in 1990. They did so again in 2008, when Buckner threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park the day the players received their championship rings for winning the World Series the previous October, for their second title of that decade.

At a news conference after his pitch, Buckner referred to the emphasis on his error as “the ugly part of sports,” and added, “I don’t think that in society in general that’s the way we should operate. What are you teaching kids? Not to try because if you don’t succeed then you’re going to be buried, so don’t try?”

For those of us in New England, we remember this:

Boston would not win a championship until 18 years later. Buckner would not win one at all. He would play Major League Baseball from age 19 to age 40, doing his best, adding to his impressive personal stats, but the stain on his reputation and taint on his memorabilia would never go away. He would forever be the guy who made the error. The permanent casualty of it-got-through-Buckner.

But that was not his career, and it shouldn’t define him. Only 65 players have had more hits than Buckner, and he never struck out three times in one game. (On the day he died, at the age of 69, from dimentia, 16 players in MLB games struck out three times in a game). Buckner rarely struck out.

On an episode of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Buckner even managed to turn his personal tragedy into situation-comedy. Or, at least, he and Larry David did. The comedian invited Buckner to play himself in a bit of farce that climaxed with a baby’s fall from a great height, only to be saved by a great catch by, yes, Bill Buckner. Ah, hooray for a man who can make fun of himself, be a great sport. When all was said and done, Buckner was able to have a last laugh

Boston forgave Buckner, and this was never made more clear than in 2008, when Buckner returned to Boston and received a two minute standing ovation from the crowd.

Bill Buckner returned to Fenway Park in 2008 and got a hero’s welcome 22 years after a dribbler went through his legs.CreditCreditJim Davis/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

No, as a player, Bill Buckner was not an immortal. He was a great ballplayer and, by most accounts, a great guy as well. That is a lot. A lot of us would gladly settle for that.