Bill Buckner died today.
Even many non-baseball fans know his name. The first baseman gained cultural infamy in 1986, when Mookie Wilson hit a slow bouncer that found its way through Buckner’s legs, winning Game 6 of the World Series for the New York Mets after the Boston Red Sox had appeared certain to finally win their first Word Series tittle since 1918. Buckner became an object of ridicule nationally and a scapegoat in Boston, which had reached its limit in close calls and near misses after dramatic final game defeats in 1946, 1948, 1949, 1967, 1975 and 1978. (Game 6 wasn’t the final game in ’86: the Sox had to blow a three-run lead in Game 7 to lose that Series. Never mind: the surviving narrative was that it was still all Bill’s fault).
Knowledgeable and fair Red Sox fans—like me—never blamed Buckner, and condemned those who did. Indeed, Buckner’s late season offensive heroics probably got the Sox to the Series in the first place. Playing on fragile, oft-injured legs, he endured painful daily therapy to allow him to stay in the line-up, even though he was barely mobile. Boston manager John McNamara routinely replaced him in the late innings with defensive specialist Dave Stapleton.
In that fateful Series game, the Sox were two runs ahead in the bottom of the 10th [Correction note: I originally wrote “9th,” and should have checked my memory], and a win would clinch the championship. McNamara decided to vary from his season-long practice and sent Buckner out to first for the final inning, because, he said later, he wanted Buck to be able to celebrate the World Series win on the field. This is known as violating the well-known “Counting your chickens before they hatch” principle. Mistake #1.
Mac then foolishly called on rookie closer Calvin Schiraldi to get the last three outs—Mistake #2, because the kid had pitched shakily in the post-season, unable to calm his nerves now that he was on the big stage.
There were two sharply hit outs, and then the balls started finding holes. Mac, as was his custom, was late to react to the new data (What a terrible manager he was!), and brought on veteran closer Bob Stanley, who had pitched better than Schiraldi in October, to put out the fire. It was not to be. First lumbering catcher Rich Gedman failed to block a ball in the dirt, allowing the pitch to roll to the backstop and the tying run to score. Then came Wilson’s bouncer through Bill’s wickets, as Ray Knight scored the winning run.
Bill Buckner’s life ran downhill from there. The Sox lost Game 7 and the Series, and the video of his error became one of the most re-run sports moments in history. Buckner became a pariah in Boston, traded midway through the next season, and was mocked everywhere he went. “When that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, hundreds of thousands of people did not just view that as an error, they viewed that as something he had done to them personally,” longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote. Many of Ryan’s colleagues in the press were no better.
His children were teased in school; he got hate mail. Eventually he moved his family out of the Boston area, all the way to Idaho, where he became a rancher. Buckner became the symbol of Red Sox futility, superseding Johnny Pesky “holding the ball” while the decisive run scored in the 1946 series, and Bucky Dent’s pop-fly homer in the agonizing loss in1978’s single game play-off with the Yankees. The Red Sox didn’t win the World Series championship they thought they had in the bag in ’86 for 18 more years, and in every one of those, Bill Buckner was blamed for it, in print, on TV, in the ignorant insults of fans.
After the World Series trophy finally went to Boston in 2004, “all was forgiven,” it is said. Buckner returned in 2008 for a ceremony and he was cheered by the fans. But there was nothing to forgive. To his credit, Buckner was the one who did the forgiving, for it was he who had been wronged. “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner said of why he decided to return to Fenway. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”
The truth is that Bill Buckner was nearly destroyed by moral luck; indeed, I can think of few better examples of how moral luck confuses perceptions of cause, effect, and misconduct. If the Red Sox had won the next game, as they could have and should have, nobody would have cared about or remembered Buckner’s error. If Gedman had blocked a pitch most catchers would have easily stopped, Buckner’s error would have only let the tying run score, and the Red Sox might have won Game 6 anyway. If manager McNamara hadn’t taken leave of his senses, Dave Stapleton would have been playing first, and Bill would never have been in a position to have to field the ball. And, of course, if a long, long line of Red Sox teams not found bizarre and sundry ways to lose games and championships they seemed to be on the verge of winning, Buckner’s single ill-starred mishap would not have come to bear the weight of almost a century of frustration. Yet because of a confluence of events beyond his control, Bill Buckner’s life and reputation were permanently defined by a single moment that carried far more significance that it should have.
This can happen to any of us in our lives, when the proverbial chips fall in perverse ways. Bill Buckner handled his misfortune as well as anyone could, and we can only hope that over time what is remembered are his distinguished baseball career and what by all accounts was a sterling and admirable character.
As a personal note, I loved watching Buckner play. He was one of the best pure hitters I ever saw, incredibly quick with the bat. His problem was, ironically, that he could hit just about any pitch, so he rarely let one go by. Buckner seldom struck out, and he seldom walked. By modern analytical methods, he was the archtypical .300 hitter who made too many outs. I will never forget seeing Buckner do something I had never seen before, and never have since. He intentionally swung at a wild pitch for strike three knowing that he would be able to reach first base.
But for moral luck, he’d be remembered today for his near-Hall of Fame caliber skills, instead of a rare instance when they failed him.