It's a sad legacy, and one that he had a hard time dealing with for almost two decades of his adult life. Still, to this day, if someone says the name Bill Buckner, most baseball fans (if they are old enough) will immediately hear Vin Scully's voice in their head... “A little dribbler up along first. Behind the bag. It gets through Buckner! Here comes [Ray] Knight and the Mets win it!”
For those of you who don't know, it was game six of the 1986 World Series. The Boston Red Sox were on the verge of their first championship in 68 years, and that 'fateful' error (as ESPN described it on the bottom of the screen tonight, then later changed the word to 'pivotal') enabled the Mets to win the series in seven games the following night. Red Sox fans let him have it for 22 more years, but at least the fans and Buckner made up before it was too late. It was announced today that Buckner has passed away at the age of 69.
William Joseph Buckner was much more to the game than when the ball went through his legs in '86. He played 22 years in the big leagues. He was a career .289 hitter in a little over 10-thousand at-bats. He had 2715 hits. He won a batting title in 1980 with the Cubs, hitting .324. He had 105 RBIs in 1982. He stole 31 bases in 1974 with the Dodgers en route to the World Series.
In the middle of the 1987 season following his so-called disgrace, he was released by the Red Sox. He hooked on with the Angels, and then the Royals, but actually finished his career back in Boston in 1990. He made his major-league debut with the Dodgers in 1969 at the age of 19, which means he is one of just a handful of players to play in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.
But wait, there's more. If you glossed through the volume of numbers that make up his career, you wouldn't have caught this. He never struck out three times in a game. In 1984, in a combined 135 games with the Cubs and the Red Sox, he struck out a total of 39 times. That was his career worst. Guys today might strike out 39 times in three weeks.
So, in other words, summing up the first five paragraphs filled with superlatives above, the guy was good. It was much more than that, though. He didn't deserve the booing and name-calling, and even death threats he got after 1986. Buckner moved his family to Idaho. His phone number was unlisted. When the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, Buckner was invited back to Boston. He wasn't ready. He didn't go. After they won it again in '07, he did return. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day in 2008 and got a four-minute standing ovation. It was a big day in Buckner's life.
A major part of the reason I love baseball as much as I do, is because of Buckner. When I was little, he was the Dodgers left fielder. If you are older than I am, you probably remember Henry Aaron's historic 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's all-time record. That's Buckner trying to climb the left field fence to go after it. Buckner hit a home run in the World Series that year. I had a t-shirt with Buckner's picture on it—not a jersey-type shirt with his name and number, but a light blue shirt with Buckner's picture on the front. My mom said she kept it. It must still be in her house in a box or a drawer somewhere.
The reason that I was such a big Buckner (and baseball) fan, though, was a play he made at Dodger Stadium. I told myself as an adult that if I ever met Buckner, I was going to ask him about it. I even practiced in my head what I was going to say to him. If I began with, “Remember that play...”, he might punch me, thinking I was talking about the error in '86. I would ponder it for awhile, then realize I wasn't going to meet him anyway, so I was just wasting my time. Except I was wrong.
I actually did get to meet Buckner. It was June 11, 2010 (I had to look it up). The Marysville Gold Sox were playing the Norcal Longhorns, and it was Faith Night at the ballpark. For several years, a local group called the Christian Business Alliance put on a night where they would bring in a guest speaker to talk about their faith and the crises that person had to endure. How they got a hold of Buckner and got him to agree to come to Marysville is a question I can't answer, but he appeared. I interviewed him on the radio, but didn't ask the question. I would save it until after the game, not knowing if he would stick around.
Buckner did stay, and signed autographs for many of the more than 31-hundred people in attendance that night. If I remember right, I asked him soon after the game. I don't recall exactly how I phrased the question, but it was something like, “ I want to ask you about something” and then very quickly added “but it has nothing to do with 1986”. He sort of chuckled. I was nervous now. Even though I had broken the ice with the 1986 issue out of the way, I wasn't sure if he was going to know what play I was talking about. Or maybe I didn't remember it the way it actually happened. I felt myself sort of talking but not really saying anything.
I told him that I remembered a ball hit to left field, and that he had jumped over the low box-seat railing, disappeared into the crowd, and what seemed like an eternity later, came up with the baseball, and the batter was out. Without a second of hesitation, he quipped right back, “well you know who hit that ball don't you?” I hadn't remembered, and he said the answer was Dusty Baker, who played for Atlanta at the time, and would come to the Dodgers a year before Buckner left.
That play made me a fan. That, my parents and relatives love for the game, the numbers and statistics involved, the big landmark buildings where they play, all of it. That night after the Gold Sox game, I got to drink a couple of beers with Buckner and the Gold Sox coaches in the clubhouse and hear some great stories from my first favorite player. A great night.
Buckner's wife reportedly told ESPN that the baseball star died from complications after suffering from dementia. Watching him play and getting to meet him is something I'll never forget.
Post script: I looked at my scorebook (which Buckner signed) at the game he attended. The Gold Sox beat the Longhorns 10-1 that night, but playing right field for the Longhorns was current Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson. Pederson went 0-for-2 with a strikeout, but his younger brother Tyger played second base that night and went 1-for-4 and scored a run.
Bench mark: Memorial Day is usually the first real measure of the major league season. Every team has played over 50 games, and the year is about a third of the way through. After play tonight, the Minnesota Twins (who saw this coming?) have MLB's best record at 36-17. The Dodgers , though, are right behind them at 36-18. The Baltimore Orioles have the worst record at 17-37, but are only on pace to lose 111 games instead of my predicted 120. If the playoffs started now, Atlanta would be at Milwaukee for the National League wild card game with the winner playing the Dodgers, and the Cubs would be at Philadelphia. In the American League, there would be a tie between Oakland and Boston for the second wild card, Tampa Bay would be the first wild card, and Houston would be at the Yankees in the other Division Series. It's May 27, folks. Let's see what happens.
Missed it by that much: This was the first time NBC ever televised the Indianapolis 500, and it's too bad for the Peacock Network that Grass Valley-Nevada City isn't a metered market. The ratings there would be huge because Nevada City native Alexander Rossi briefly led the race with two laps to go before losing to Simon Pagenuad. Rossi, who showed some anger at his crew during a long pit stop in the middle of the race, finished behind Pagenaud by just two-tenths of a second.
Memorial Day meaning: ESPN televised a Memorial Day baseball tripleheader today, and watching the poorly attended first game between the Miami Marlins and the Washington Nationals, it occurred to me that there should be more than 21,048 people at a game in our nation's capital. I'll leave it to the marketing geniouses to figure out, but sellout crowds on Memorial Day and July 4 should happen in D-C every year. Have a parade, give flags away, honor the military, free admission, anything. Just make it happen.