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An Apology to Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner lived his life under the weight of a city’s blame, the least we can do is apologize.

First Base Line Fenway by C.S. Imming is licensed under CC BY 3.0

An Apology to Bill Buckner


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Estimated Reading Time: 9 Minutes

There are few players who get to the level of play where a single action evokes their name. The most prominent of these kinds of actions is yelling “KOBE!” when putting up a jump shot, or even tossing something in the garbage from a few feet away. Hell, I’ve even seen floor hockey players yell “Gretzky!” when tossing a puck behind the goalie.

But there’s really only one player whose name is synonymous with failure. One player whose entire life and career is completely wiped away thanks to a single, solitary moment in time.

Buckner.

A “Buckner” is a when anything slips between a person’s legs in what should be a routine, easy-peasy, simple catch. A “Buckner” is a moment of humiliation, of failure, of ineptitude.

It’s interesting that this term exists in other corners of the sports world. Football, or Soccer for you peasants, has a term for this. A “nutmeg” is when the ball slips between a defending players legs, usually leading to a goal by the charging offense. Despite the longevity of the term around the world, in American sports, this will always be a “Buckner.” Suck it, Soccer.

It’s been well-documented that I’m a Mets fan who was born in Boston, and have split my allegiance down Designated Hitter lines since moving to New York City. The one question I am repeatedly asked is how I deal with the 1986 World Series. The answer is simple, “I’m glad Gary Carter was able to win a ring.”

That sentence is almost always followed up with “And I think we all owe Bill Buckner an apology.”

Let’s talk about Game 6.

First off, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series is such a spectacular time capsule of old school baseball. Seriously, whenever I want to feel nostalgic, I watch Game 6 of the 1986 series or Game 7 of 1991, the latter being one of the greatest World Series games of all time.

So Roger Clemens, who finished the 1986 season with an actually insane 24-4 record, starts this game. Clemens is having what can arguably be described as the greatest season of his career, winning his first of seven Cy Young Awards, and winning the only MVP of his 24-year career. It should be noted that Clemens’ career was only 2 years longer than Buckner’s.

So Clemens pitches a great game, but gets pulled after pitching 7 solid innings. If this game swings the other way, Clemens is the hero and possibly doesn’t leave Boston and all that other stuff… Anyway, he strikes out 8 in his 7.0 innings, giving up 2 runs on 4 hits.

That’s when Sox Skipper John McNamara pulls him in favor of Game 1 starter Calvin Schiraldi, who at this time last year was a New York Met.

This is where the first mistake happens.

When Schiraldi enters the game, the Red Sox had a one-run lead. Should be easy to protect, right? WRONG. With one out, the Mets suddenly had the bases loaded thanks to a Lee Mazzilli single, a Lenny Dykstra fielder’s choice, and after McNamara and Schiraldi intentionally walk Keith Hernandez.

Imagine a world where you’re walking Keith Hernandez to face Gary Carter, that’s how dire this situation was for the Red Sox. After Carter’s sacrifice fly plates Mazzilli, tying the ballgame. Schiraldi then somehow manages to get Darryl Strawberry to fly out and end the inning because baseball doesn’t play by your rules, it’s a demon that runs it’s own world.

For some MAGICAL REASON BEYOND MY UNDERSTANDING, McNamara keeps Schiraldi in the game, heading into the bottom of the 9th inning, hoping to keep the game tied. This… rarely works out.

There’s an old baseball adage that goes something like, “when you’re at home, you play for the tie, but on the road, you play for the win.” This is why you’ll usually see a home team’s closer stay in the bullpen when a game is tied in the ninth.

McNamara doesn’t play for the win, he’s playing for the tie by keeping Schiraldi in the game. He’s hoping to use his “closer” for a nine out save. That’s nuts.

However, the gamble pays off and Dave Henderson hits a home run, and Marty Barrett drives in Wade Boggs to give the Red Sox a 5-3 lead heading into the bottom of the 10th, now just three outs away from winning a World Series for the city of Boston.

Are you paying attention? Have I mentioned Bill Buckner at any point so far? Has he even come close to making an impact on this game? Think about that.

THREE. OUTS.

After 39 throwing pitches, and with his team up by two runs, John McNamara ONCE AGAIN keeps Schiraldi on the mound, for a third inning, because there might not be a God. I’m serious. Schiraldi hasn’t gone more than two innings since September 26th, which is a LITERAL MONTH AGO AND THIS IS THE TIME THAT MCNAMARA WANTS TO PUSH HIM?! NOW OF ALL TIMES?

In fact, the last time that Schiraldi threw more than 35 pitches was in the ALCS against the California Angels. In that game, McNamara pushed him as far as he could go, and guess what happened? Schiraldi came into the game after Roger Clemens handed him a two-run lead, and the Angels walked off the Red Sox in the 11th.

So here’s Schiraldi, in extra innings, with a two-run lead, at 39 pitches… do you get what I’m trying to say here?

McNamara has two pitchers in his bullpen who could shut this game down in Joe Sambito and Bob Stanley. The 31-year-old Stanley has seen most of the mop-up duty this series, coming into Games 2, 3, and 4. At the top of the 10th, Stanley is sitting in the bullpen with his jacket on, his 16 regular season saves sitting in his pocket.

Schiraldi gets two quick fly-balls from Wally Backman and Hernandez. The Boston Red Sox are one out away from climbing the mountain, from being champions.

Instead, Schiraldi falls behind Carter, who punches a single to left. Pinch-hitter Kevin Mitchell singles to Center, followed by Ray Knight, who also singles to Center, bringing Carter in and moving Mitchell to third. The score is now 5-4, in favor of the Red Sox.

When the Red Sox began this inning they had a 92% Win Expectancy. At this point, up a run, with runners at the corners, the Sox still have an 81% chance to pull this one out. All they have to do is get a ground ball. That’s it.

Instead, after 55 pitches, McNamara decided this is the time to pull Schiraldi. With the tying run 90 feet away, McNamara finally takes the ball for Schiraldi and gives it to Bob Stanley, who has yet to allow a run in this World Series.

At the plate is Mookie Wilson, who is hitting an anemic .184 so far this World Series. Stanley wastes no time going after Mookie, but Mookie’s here to wait for his pitch. Spoiling pitches left and right, Mookie takes the count even at 2 balls, 2 strikes and that’s when it happens.

And then Bob Stanley loses control of a two-fastball and it gets past Rich Gedman, the Red Sox catcher, who really should have gotten in front of that ball, but you don’t hear his name all that much, do you?

Kevin Mitchell crosses the plate. Tie ballgame.

Remember that 92% Win Expectancy? It’s now sitting at 40% for the Red Sox. If you’re looking for a play that cost the Sox the World Series, that is it.

But then, of course, two pitches later…

A little roller…

Up along First…

Behind the bag…

Here’s a list I want to you look at:

That’s a list of men who Bill Buckner out-hit on his way to the 1980 batting title. But we don’t talk about that, do we? Instead, the career of a man who hit .324 in 1980, had two Top-10 MVP finishes, is forgotten. All because of a play that should have meant nothing.

Why? Because we needed someone to blame? Because we needed a reason to hate?

No one blames Gordon Hayward for missing the final shot of the Butler Final Four Game. Does Barry Bonds get blamed for Sid Bream‘s game-winning run in the 1991 NLCS? How about Mariano Rivera for the Yankees 2001 World Series loss?

Yet Bill Buckner is saddled with the blame of losing a game that slipped through the fingers of men who couldn’t get the job done before him.

I grew up a Red Sox fan just outside of Boston, and during school, my mind would often wonder, and the question that popped into my head the most was: “Where is Bill Buckner?” I heard friends on the playground talking about how he changed his name and lives on a farm in Kansas, or he moved to Mexico to escape the shame.

In reality, he moved to Idaho. Began investing in Real Estate. He was a normal human being. One that was burdened with the pain and anguish of a city’s blame.

I don’t watch the Buckner play anymore. I don’t revel in its magnitude, I don’t wallow in its sadness, I don’t feel the historic significance. Mookie Wilson’s ground ball to first base isn’t magical to me. It’s heartbreaking.

In 2004, when the Red Sox were on the verge of winning their first World Series in 86 years, everyone in the country was glued to their TV.

Everyone except Bill Buckner. Because they kept on replaying the worst moment of his life, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Imagine the isolation.

Imagine the loneliness.

Earl Weaver, the great Hall of Fame manager, once said, “[In Baseball] You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

I don’t think Bill Buckner ever got his chance. I don’t think we ever wanted to give it to him.

And that’s the apology that Bill Buckner deserves. Instead of replaying the worst moment of Bill’s career, I say we relish in the amazing moments he gave us during his 22-year career. That’s right. Bill Buckner played professional baseball for 22 years, finishing his career in 1990… as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

But as far as most people are concerned, he played one inning of one very important game. Of the 17,600 innings Bill Buckner played, we’ve obsessed over a single one, an inning where he didn’t factor much into the situation he was thrust into.

And now, Bill Buckner is gone. On May 27th, 2019, at the age of 69, Buckner passed away after a long battle with dementia.

If you Google his name, you’ll see a lot of mentions of Game 6, and few mentions of much else. Even in death, Buckner cannot escape the media’s obsession with his blame, but I think he’s at peace with that.

After the Red Sox won their second World Series in the 2000s, the Sox invited Buckner to throw out the first pitch at Opening Day of the 2008 season. That’s the memory I want to keep of Buckner. That’s the memory I think we all collectively ignore. The one where all of the anguish, solitude, disappointment, and torment… was lifted. The one where the man we ridiculed for years forgave us.

Why do we ignore this moment? Because it’s easier to hate someone for wronging you than it is to realize your own shortcomings. Because we don’t want to apologize to Bill Buckner. But we should. Because we’ve been wrong.

And so to Bill, on behalf of all of us,…

I’m sorry. It was never your fault. It was ours. And we’re so sorry.

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1 Comment

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    clebo99

    May 28, 2019 at 2:38 pm

    I get teary eyed watching the episode of “Curb” where he catches the baby. He was a great player that had one moment of bad luck.

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