By Arnie Leshin
I hustled from the press box at Shea Stadium to the third base dugout of the Boston Red Sox. Couldn’t waste any time. The Bo Sox hadn’t been or won a World Series since 1918, but now they had the New York Mets down to one strike and set to celebrate all those frustrating years on this Saturday night in Queens.
That’s how it looked. Down 3 games to 2, they had split the first two at Shea, lost the next two at Fenway Park, and then stayed alive when southpaw Bob Ojeda pitched them past his former team to get to game 6,
But back at Shea, the frantic Met fans were hoping, just hoping, there would be a game 7. Their team was down 5-3 in the last of the 10thinning. There were two out after second baseman Wally Backman grounded out to second, and first baseman Keith Hernandez popped up to short, and catcher Gary Carter was at the plate. The count went to 1-2 and first baseman Bill Buckner and his ankle injury would only slow him down for the on-field celebration.
Yes, that was it, one more strike and they would be hugging, high-fiving, kissing and joyful that the 68-year wait was about to end. Boston had begun the frame with former Met, Calvin Schraldi, on the mound, and Carter sliced an outside fastball into centerfield. One on, still two down. Up next was left fielder Kevin Mitchell and he singled to right and Carter was able to race to third.
Third baseman Ray Knight went to a 2-2 count before singling to left, scoring Carter and getting Mitchell to third and cutting the lead to 5-4. Boston then called on right-handed reliever Bob Stanley, a former Met out of Kearny, N.J., and with the next hitter, centerfielder Mookie Wilson, hugging the plate, Stanley backed him away with an inside wild pitch, and Wilson waved Mitchell home to tie things, and Knight to third.
And at first base with his all-black spikes looking more like football cleats and the legs of his pants rolled up enough to show only skin from there to his shoes, was Buckner. In games 1, 2 and 5, Sox manager John McNamara had replaced him in the late innings with defensive specialist Dave Stapleton. This time he did not.
And with the full house at Shea rocking the place, Wilson hung around for 10 pitches, fouling off six. Then he poked a short bouncing grounder to first. Buckner ranged to his left, went down to grab the ball, and then watched it roll through his legs as Knight sped home to complete the magical comeback and send the Series to game 7.
But it rained all day Sunday and they rescheduled the deciding game for Monday night.
Losing 3-0 in the third inning, left-hander Sid Fernandez took over from starter Ron Darling and pitched three scoreless frames. The Mets tied it in the sixth, took a 6-3 lead in the seventh as Knight led off with a home run, and in the seventh, Darryl Strawberry also hit a solo. Boston cut the deficit to 7-5, and that’s how it ended.
And there was now joy in New York and disappointment all over New England, with Boston suffering the most.
Buckner passed away at age 69 Monday after a long battle and complications from the disease of lewy body dementia. His wife, Jody, informed the media of this. They had lived in New England for years since being with the Red Sox, but in 2000, relocated back to his ranch in Boise, Idaho, with Jody and their three children.
He and his family decided to head back to their 2,000 acre ranch after all those years of hearing how the infamous error would greatly overshadow his years as a splendid player. He had played 22years, with time spent with the Dodgers, Cubs, Angels, and Red Sox.
He was an excellent player, a clutch hitter, not a bad fielder. His statistics may be short of Hall of Fame recognition, but he was a big plus wherever he played. He came away with 2,007 career hits. Then came the unforgettable error at the worst possible time on the grandest of all stages.
But Buckner didn’t hide in the clubhouse after the game. His post-game reaction came from a far more mature place, and was accepted.
He faced the reporters and said: “It’s unfortunate, but that’s baseball. All I can say is I never played in the seventh game of the World Series, and I get to play in one now. I hate to say it’s because I missed the ground ball, but that’s the way it goes.”
But the Red Sox nation was not forgiving, especially after it lost game 7. For years, Buckner heard nothing but that one play. He didn’t attend the 20th anniversary of the ’86 Red Sox, but after thinking about it for a month, he did accept the club’s invitation to throw out the first pitch at the home opener in 2008 as part of a celebration for winning the 2007 World Series, and a teary Buckner felt the crowd’s positive reaction.
“Will you please welcome him back to Boston,” said the PA announcer that day, “and let him know that he is welcome always, number 6, Bill Buckner.”
He received a four-minute ovation and totally appreciated it. But a sign that read, “You’re forgiven,” was ill-conceived. The only ones who needed to apologize were those who took one error personally. He tried to make the play, and didn’t.
For fans still smarting, the Sox’ 2004 world championship healed wounds from the error. But not all wounds created by the reaction to it had yet healed. Then in 2012, he was invited to the Red Sox-New York Yankee game to celebrate the 100thyear anniversary of Fenway Park. When he strolled over to first base, he waved to the crowd and it responded with a huge ovation.
He later said, “That made my day. It was a nice feeling.”
Speedy Mookie Wilson always said that even if Buckner fielded the ball cleanly, he would have been safe at first. This was correct, for I saw the play develop, and when the ball first reached Buckner, Wilson was a step away.
In later years, Buckner and Wilson became best of friends. And it always bothered Wilson about howan error could cause so much bitterness, so much anger, how ridiculous that a ballplayer should be remembered for one play.
But Wilson spent 12 seasons in the big leagues and stole 327 bases, so in one respect you can understand how he resents being remembered for one grounder, but that’s not how the world works.
Inside and outside of sports, the unusual makes news. Sorry, but a groundball that goes through a first baseman’s legs and alters baseball history in a big way is newsworthy.
But RIP, William Joseph Buckner, you were a truly outstanding ballplayer.