I hope Bill Buckner’s death Monday makes everyone take just a moment to ponder a few things. I know I did – things such as perspective, fairness, cruelty and the insidious power of a narrative to take on a life of its own.
It’s especially important now, because in the era of social media it’s easier than ever to disrupt, or even ruin, athletes’ lives just because they didn’t perform well enough to satisfy fans. But that power has always been there, and Buckner paid the price to a greater extent than most.
Just a few weeks ago, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Bill Simmons that many players in his league are “genuinely unhappy” because of the ill-effects of social media. Certainly, a portion of that is the crescendo of abuse that often accompanies perceived poor play, or mistakes made on the court, diamond, gridiron, etc.
Buckner’s famous (and grossly overblown) transgression pre-dated social media by a couple decades. Yet in many ways his life was made hellish merely because he couldn’t quite corral a spinning grounder in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
Not even in death could Buckner escape those cursed 20 seconds that were an anchor for the final 33 years of his life. Almost every obituary I saw had a headline that was a variation of this one from The Washington Post: “Bill Buckner, whose long career was overshadowed by World Series gaffe, dies at 69.”
It’s to Buckner’s immense credit that he never seemed overcome by bitterness. By all appearances, he lived a happy life until contracting the horrible illness, Lewy body dementia, to which he ultimately succumbed. He had a great family he doted upon, was a successful businessman and reveled in the outdoor life in his longtime home in Boise, Idaho.
He moved from Boston to Boise after an incident at school involving one of his children, 4 at the time, who was told by a classmate, “Your daddy had to quit baseball because he missed the ball.”
Buckner’s wife, Jody, told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap on E:60 that their son had come home and asked, “Daddy, what did he mean?”
Buckner dealt with this sort of thing the rest of his life, and did so with a grace not many could have mustered. Maybe the worst was when a reporter called Jody in 1989. Former pitcher Donnie Moore, victimized by an infamous home run hit by Boston’s Dave Henderson that cost the Angels the pennant in 1986, had killed himself after trying to murder his wife. Had Bill ever contemplated suicide, the reporter wanted to know?
It’s no wonder Buckner felt the media was as much at fault as the fans for making him something of a pariah. The fact that Buckner was one of the very best hitters of his generation became a footnote. Former major-leaguer Mike Cameron, who had Buckner as a hitting coach with the 1997 White Sox, tweeted Monday about what a shame it was that his accomplishments were being overshadowed by that one play. I called up Cameron, now a Mariners special assistant, to expound on that thought.
“He was a great coach, an amazing guy,” Cameron said. “He gave me a great idea, routine-wise, about hitting. He reminded me a lot of (former Mariners manager) Lou Piniella. He told me he went almost two months without fouling the ball off. That’s amazing.
“He was good, man. And a really good player. I don’t think guys play 22 years any more. The World Series never came up, but I understand what it’s like. Shoot, I played in Boston. For a moment like that, to blame him, it’s not right. They still had a chance to win the Series. They had another game.
“It’s crazy. The guy was too good of a player to be remembered for that. Not great, but a good, professional player. I heard (former Red Sox outfielder) Jim Rice talk about how much he helped him. He was a winning player. And that’s all you can ask for. That’s what I wanted to be known for – a winning player.”
Buckner was “forgiven” after the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, and he was feted in 2008, but even that was tinged in injustice to Buckner. He didn’t believe he had done anything to be forgiven for. And he was absolutely right.
For starters, there were culprits galore in Game 6, from Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, who some believe pulled himself from the game because of a blister, to relievers Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley, who combined to squander the two-run lead Boston had taken in the top of the inning.
Most of all, there was Red Sox manager John McNamara, who had gotten in the habit of taking out Buckner for late-inning defensive purposes. Buckner was playing on a bum, painful, arthritic ankle for which he had taken nine cortisone shots that year. For him to gut out the season was a miracle in itself.
For some reason, McNamara didn’t go to Dave Stapleton, the defensive replacement, in the 10th inning. And, of course, Mookie Wilson’s ball found Buckner – after the Mets had already tied the score on a Stanley wild pitch. Many people overlook that fact. Even Sports Illustrated, in its initial obituary Monday, wrote that the error lost the game for the Red Sox.
It didn’t; it merely kept it from going another inning, though there is a school of thought that Wilson would have beaten out the play even if Buckner had fielded it cleanly.
But that’s all irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned. Buckner made an error, a mistake – one of many committed on that day by the Red Sox. His effort was honest and total. No matter how much passion you invest in your team, you have to be able to let go. And those of us who write and talk about sports have to know when overkill has been reached.
Nowadays, it’s even easier to be cruel from afar, and to shape public opinion. All you need is a keypad and a pseudonym to launch an assault. Everyone has an outlet to give their takes, the hotter the better. Empathy and proportion are not necessarily part of the equation.
That’s some of what I’m thinking about when I reflect on Bill Buckner’s noble life and stellar career.