Saying Goodbye to Bill Buckner, and the Myths We Attached to Him
Even in the bad years, before the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, in 2004, and upended all the foundational bad-luck stories of the franchise, the smart take among Sox fans was that it wasn’t really Bill Buckner’s fault. Blame it—and the word “it” alone always sufficed—on a rogue’s gallery of pitchers (Roger Clemens or Calvin Schiraldi or Bob Stanley, take your pick), or on the manager, John McNamara. The cruel, late-inning crumbling by the Sox against the Mets, in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, which derailed a victory that would have given the Sox their first championship in sixty-eight years, was a true team effort. The score was already tied and good fortune clearly exhausted by the bottom of the tenth inning, when the Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson hit a meek dribbler down the first-base line that bounded not under Buckner’s glove, as many would later put it, but somehow, impossibly, around it and into right field, allowing Wilson’s teammate Ray Knight to score from second, winning the game for New York. Those wised-up Sox fans would then add that, even after all that, there was still another game for Boston to play—and blow a lead in—before the Series reached its dismal end.
But that’s a twisty story, and so, not right away but eventually, out of some combination of mental convenience, mediocre newspaper columns, mounting losses to the rival Yankees, and predictably lousy winters, the story in New England became the one that I got growing up, that Bill Fucking Buckner lost the 1986 World Series and then was chased into hiding in Idaho.
Neither part of the story was right. Buckner didn’t enter witness protection. He returned to the Red Sox for the 1987 season, following an offseason in which blame for the 1986 loss was spread around liberally, and during which Buckner himself suggested that Wilson might have been safe even if he had fielded the ball, since the pitcher at the time, Stanley, hadn’t covered first base fast enough. Buckner was let go midway through the ’87 season, but, after stints with the Angels and the Royals, he came back to Boston again, making the team in 1990, at the age of forty, after scratching his way onto the roster in spring training. “This is more satisfying than anything I’ve ever done in baseball,” he said at the time—hardly the words of a ruined man haunted by a single, irrevocable moment from his past.
Buckner did move to Idaho a few years after retiring from baseball, but this, like everything else about him, was both more and less complicated than the narrative that came to prevail. His departure from New England followed an altercation with a fan after a minor-league game in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where he was serving as a hitting instructor for the visiting team. He was leaving the ballpark when, as he told the Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, “Somebody asked for an autograph, and another guy said, ‘Don’t give him a ball, he’d just drop it anyway.’ I got to my truck to put my bag inside, and I started thinking about it. I went back and found out who said it, and I picked the guy up by the shirt collar.” This must have been where the exile story started: Buckner chased west by one wise-ass too many. He told Shaughnessy that he didn’t want his kids having to hear about ’86 anymore. And yet, a few years later, Buckner told the Globe that the tale of his self-imposed hermitude had been overblown: he had a ranch in Idaho, he liked it there, and he wasn’t hiding from anyone.
Bill Buckner died in Boise on Monday morning, of Lewy body dementia, at the age of sixty-nine. The news of his death has occasioned an airing of regret. Buckner had 2,715 career hits and twenty-two seasons in the majors; that should never have been subsumed by the black cloud of a single misplayed grounder, many people have noted. Mookie Wilson, who became friends and an occasional memorabilia-seller with Buckner, said that his former opponent “should not be defined by one play.” Also making the rounds during the past twenty-four hours is a clip from Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2008, when Buckner was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He takes a long walk from left field to the mound, wipes a few tears from his eyes, and then delivers a looping curve over the plate for a strike. (Afterward, he said, “In my heart I had to forgive the media, for what they put me and my family through.”) It was a moving moment, owing to Buckner’s grace at the center of the spectacle, but there was a whiff of self-satisfaction and stage-managed pathos on the part of the Red Sox organization and its fans, who were celebrating their second World Series victory in four years, and were at last successful enough to reckon with, and put to bed, an emblem of their former, sadder selves.
It wasn’t the first time that Buckner had been hailed by the crowd in a much publicized return to Fenway. Eighteen years earlier, in 1990, in what would be his final Opening Day in the majors, he was announced in the lineup and greeted with a minute-long ovation. For David Nyhan, writing in the Globe the next day, the scene had been a kind of religious reckoning, “a day for Second Chances, if not Second Comings.” Nyhan went on, writing, “New England doesn’t forget. But New England forgives. You are us. We are you. Only by forgiving you do we forgive ourselves.” For as long as Sox fans had maligned him, there were others who relished their forgiveness of him, their accepting of an apology that he had never offered for a play that was not, in fact, some mystical or accursed happening but just the result of an unfortunate bounce.
The truth about baseball and its slow accumulations is more mundane than any of the stories—of failure, or of misunderstanding, or of redemption—that attached themselves to Buckner. For him, it was a mile of eye black and thousands of bags of ice and shredded knees, bickering with team executives about contracts and managers about playing time. It was appearing in a major-league game for the Dodgers at nineteen and winning a batting title with the Cubs at thirty-one. It was the great satisfaction not of being hailed by the fans on Opening Day, in 1990, but grinding to make the team in the first place. It was running the bases that season to leg out an unlikely inside-the-park home run, looking like “a suitcase falling downstairs,” as Roger Angell put it at the time. And it was being cut for good that June, finally too old to do it anymore.
And it was a cruel trick of the ball on a night in October in 1986, a trick made crueller because it yielded an image that so perfectly encapsulated the seeming sports tragedy that had unfolded for the Sox, which was irresistible, in its way. The legendary play-by-play man Vin Scully, announcing the game on television, said, “If one picture is worth a thousand words, you have seen about a million words.” He was talking about all that had transpired in the tenth inning, but he could have been talking just about Buckner, bending his busted knees, jabbing his glove to the ground and coming up empty, then turning his head as the ball went by. Scully made the comment after going silent for nearly two remarkable minutes, as the cameras cut from the Mets mobbing one another to fans screaming and the Red Sox moping out of the dugout. Scully knew what something astonishing looked like, and he knew when words couldn’t do it justice.