1986 was not a happy year for Bill Buckner or me.
Thirty-seven years old, I had filed for divorce from my first wife. Racked with self-doubt, work was intermittent as I pondered whether I would ever find my right place in a career. I returned to an empty apartment and lay awake wondering what’s going to happen next.
Baseball was one solace as I watched my two favorite teams, the Dodgers and Red Sox, as they worked their way through opposite ends of that season. The Dodgers finished second to last in their division. The Red Sox finished with an incredible .590 as they headed to the playoffs.
However, despite my own personal failures, they pale in comparison to the public and private humiliation of a man who was one of the most skilled players of his generation, and yet was branded a traitor when he made the error of a lifetime, not only in front of some 45,000 fans in Shea Stadium but millions more on TV.
“Buckner had more big-league hits,” The Boston Globe writes (May 27), “than either Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. Playing on ankles that had to be iced almost round the clock, he knocked in 102 runs for the pennant-winning Red Sox in 1986.”
All that didn’t mean much to some fans at the end of game six. When Fenway’s finest showed up at Shea Stadium, they had a 3-2 advantage over New York’s Mets.
The Red Sox, who had not seen a World Series win since 1918, were one strike away from seeing a 68-year-old dream come true, when Mets left-hander, Mookie Wilson hit what announcer Vin Scully called a “little roller up around first,” his voice rising, “behind the bag… IT GETS THROUGH BUCKNER!”
Watching the whole thing on a small TV in my bedroom, I was crushed. Not only had the Red Sox lost the game but two nights later, they lost the series. The Buckner incident seemed to be a metaphor for my life… with one big difference: my mistakes weren’t playing out in front of millions of fans. My life errors, while painful, were private. Buckner’s ONE error was repeated endlessly in news stories and in fans’ shameful remarks for much of his life after that game.
In an extraordinarily prescient interview before the series, Buckner told a reporter, “Your dreams are that you are going to have a great series, and win. And the nightmares are that you are going to let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs …”
Bill Buckner, with a lifetime batting average of .289, 2,715 hits, 174 home runs, 1,208 runs-batted-in, had nothing to be ashamed of.
Bill Buckner, who in 1980, won the National League batting title with a .324 average.
Bill Buckner, who, when the players’ strike canceled 38 percent of the regular ‘81 season, batted .311. Playing for the Chicago Cubs that year, he was the only Cubs player to go to the All-Star game.
Bill Buckner, in eight seasons with the Cubs, hit .300 with 81 home runs, 235 doubles and 516 RBIs over 974 games.
When the Cubs traded Buckner to Boston, it was Buckner who helped the Red Sox finish in fourth place in their division. In 1985, Buckner played in all 162 games for the Red Sox and batted .299 with 16 home runs while posting career highs with 110 RBIs, 201 hits and 46 doubles.
But it was Buckner’s one error that was magnified beyond all comprehension that some fans could not let go of.
The Red Sox would not win a World Series until 2004 and as glorious as that win was, some diehard fans still tagged Buckner as the goat of a generation. They didn’t look at Buckner’s error as a heartbreaking moment in sports history. Bill Buckner personally denied the Red Sox of a World Series win, and for the next 25 years, they never let him forget it.
He returned to his old team in 1990 when he was a free agent.
However, “Buckner, whose legs were shot,” Joe Bills writes (Sept. 2016), “would retire mid-season, but not before one last highlight-reel play. On April 25, Buckner blasted a drive past Los Angeles Angels outfielder Claudell Washington, who collided with the short right-field wall and toppled over it. Buckner limped around the bases for the only inside-the-park home run of his career.”
After the Red Sox win in 2004, management invited him back to Fenway. He turned them down because of the hard feelings he still felt. When they won the 2007 World Series, management reached out again, and invited their first baseman back to the park to throw out the first pitch in the opening game of the 2008 season. This time, Buckner accepted.
In a 2011 ESPN interview, Bill’s wife Jody said, “the thing that upset me going back there was seeing signs in the stands that said, ‘You’re forgiven”; We forgive you,’ because the truth is, we don’t need forgiveness and we didn’t go there seeking forgiveness because we have nothing to be forgiven for. We needed to forgive. We needed to forgive.” She paused, “And I think we have.”
It’s ironic to look at Buckner’s 1986 Donruss trading card, the year he made that infamous miss. He’s crouched at first base, eyes fixed, knees bent, glove down low, ready to catch a low roller.
On May 27, Bill Buckner quietly died from complications due to dementia.
I will always remember 1986, not for Buckner’s miss, but for the grace, courage and dignity he exemplified to his family and others who took the time to notice. That day in 2008, Bill Buckner forgave Boston and himself.
We need to forgive. We need to forgive others, because if we can’t, how can we forgive ourselves?