Wednesday, May 29, 2019

My best memory of Bill Buckner

My first memory of Bill Buckner is NOT a ground ball through the five hole.
It’s of him granting me a one-on-one interview in the Cubs dugout in HoHoKam Park in Mesa during spring training of 1983. Billy Buck, as he was known then, already was in a foul mood with Cubs general manager Dallas Green and manager Lee Elia and at odds with the Chicago media which I did know when I made my interview request.
He paused.
“What paper are you from?” he asked through that bushy mustache.
“Rockford Register Star,” I replied.
He paused again. His bushy eyebrows raised.  “OK,” he said, “Sit down.”
I can’t recall what questions I asked him and if he gave me any profound or even interesting answers. It was a spring training puff piece looking ahead to the 1983 season, and I was just delighted that Billy Buck was giving me the time of day.
As it turned out, the Cubs’ 1983 season set into motion Buckner’s move to Boston and his infamous moment with the Red Sox. In April of 1983 Lee Elia, who got into a fist fight with Buckner in the dugout in June of the previous season, went ballistic in a post-game press conference laced with F bombs, MFs, and crude references to fellatio following another Cubs loss at Wrigley Field. Basically, Elia accused all Cubs fans who were booing the team of being clueless and jobless. Less than four months later, Elia was clueless and jobless, too. The Cubs fired him.
In the meantime, Dallas Green was continuing to look to trade Billy Buck and move slugging leftfielder Leon Durham to first base. It wasn’t until May of 1984 that Green unloaded Buckner to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley. Eck helped the Cubs win their first title of any kind since the 1945 and Durham, well, he made a crucial error in the fifth and final game of the NLCS that allowed the San Diego Padres to score the game-tying run en route to the World Series.
Only Cubs fans talk about Durham’s error. Everyone talks about Buckner’s error.
You know the sob story. Mookie Wilson’s ground ball with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning rolled between Buckner’s legs to score the winning run in Game Six of the 1986 World Series that the Mets won in seven games. It’s an error that has lived in infamy ever since. A Boston Sports “Great 80s” highlight film put music to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to the play accompanying the sound of Vin Scully saying … "So, the winning run is at second base... with two out... 3 and 2 to Mookie Wilson. Little roller up along first... BEHIND THE BAG! IT GETS THROUGH BUCKNER! HERE COMES KNIGHT, AND THE METS WIN IT!"
It was an error that never should have happened and never should have defined Buckner’s otherwise illustrious 22-year major league career.
Here is the real story. First, Buckner should not have been playing first in that situation. Red Sox manager John McNamara had inserted Dave Stapleton as a late-inning defensive replacement at first base for Buckner when the Red Sox led in Games 1, 2, and 5 because Buckner was hobbled by bad ankles. McNamara years later asserted Buckner was a better first baseman than Stapleton yet still felt comfortable enough to play Stapleton at first with the Red Sox ahead in their three previous World Series wins in the ’86 World Series.
Next the tying run should have been at third base and given Buckner and Boston a second chance. Ray Knight was at second base after Red Sox reliever Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that got past catcher Rich Gedman, allowing Knight to get from first into scoring position. I fault Stanley more than any other player that night for the meltdown and it is the wild pitch that I remember more than the error. It was a potential third strike pitch that wound up at the backstop.
Years later, when I first met Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee for the first time, the first thing out of his mouth when I told him I was a Red Sox fan was, “Where were you at the Buckner game?”
Red Sox fans can recall the exact place they were when the Buckner error occurred. It is our “Where Were You When JFK Was Assassinated” like moment.
I was at a burger-and-beer joint in Milwaukee called the SafeHouse. You need a password to get in. I was in Milwaukee covering the San Francisco 49ers-Green Bay Packers game when the Packers used to play two games a year at County Stadium. The 49ers won starting their third-string quarterback, Mike Moroski out of Novato, who replaced Joe Montana and back-up Jeff Kemp, both injured coming into the game.
The night before in SafeHouse I was watching in horror as the Red Sox’ 5-3 lead was evaporating. Calvin Schiraldi retired the first two Mets batters. The Red Sox were one out from their first World Series championship since 1918. The Curse of the Bambino was about to get 86ed in 86!
Then three straight hits and a run off Schiraldi and I remember my legs literally buckling when McNamara came to the mound and signaled to the bullpen for the righthander and that meant Stanley. I had about as much faith in Bob Stanley in 1986 as the air in Chernobyl.
My worst fears came true. Mookie Wilson fouled off three potential third strike pitches before Stanley’s next pitch went so far inside that Gedman couldn’t move his body to stop it. Game tied. With Knight now getting a big lead off second base, two more potential third-strike pitches were fouled off. Then Wilson hit the little roller along first …
Pause … I need a moment …
The Red Sox blew a 3-0 lead and lost Game Seven and that kept Buckner on the hook as perhaps the greatest scapegoat of all-time even though they were many scapegoats surrounding him in Game Six.
“I can’t remember the last time I missed a ball like that, but I’ll remember that one,” Buckner said after the game.
So has everyone else. Buckner became the punchline for a sporting nation. He was the starting first baseman on Opening Day for the Red Sox the next year and few remember that Red Sox fans gave him a standing ovation on that day during pre-game introductions.  Yet it wasn’t until Opening Day 22 years later – ironically Buckner’s jersey number was 22 with the Cubs – that Buckner and Boston forgave each other. He received a four-minute standing ovation before wiping tears from his eyes to make the ceremonial first pitch.
I hope that is the lasting memory of Bill Buckner. That sight of forgiveness and not the sight of bitterness. Unfortunately, baseball historians will forever remember one error and not his 2,715 career hits, more than Red Sox legends Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, and David Ortiz accumulated in their playing days.
Me? The one-on-one interview with Billy Buck means more than the one error. I was just happy to have met the man and have him talk to me.


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