Billy Buck

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, October 25, 2017. Well, that was a watchable World Series opener, wasn’t it? It took less than two-and-a-half hours to play, which is what you get when you combine new-school advanced metrics (like trying to hit the ball in the air and throwing plenty of breaking balls) with old-school talent (two dominant aces on the mound and gritty middle infield play).

In World Series history, October 25 is a date which will live in infamy, at least in the minds of Boston Red Sox fans. Thirty-one years ago tonight, Halloween came early in Beantown in the form of a baseball game that unfolded like a horror movie.

Feelings are soothed now. The passage of three decades, not to mention the winning of three subsequent world championships, will have that effect. But for many years, the words “Bill” and “Buckner” were enough to induce frightening flashbacks among the Bosox faithful.

This was never fair, as I’ve tried to explain before.

Baseball aficionados know the back story. The Boston Red Sox came into the 1986 Series as big underdogs to the New York Mets, who’d won 108 games that year. But Boston led the Series, three games to two, at Shea Stadium on October 25, 1986 and had their young flame-thrower, Roger Clemens, on the mound with a 3-2 lead in the 8th inning. Then things got spooky.

A series of managerial and player mistakes followed, culminating in a ground ball by the Mets Mookie Wilson trickling through Bill Buckner’s wickets into right field as the winning run scored. But the gimpy Buckner shouldn’t have even been on the field. And “Billy Buck” wasn’t always gimpy. He was drafted into professional baseball by the Los Angeles Dodgers directly out of Napa High School in Northern California, where he’d been a fleet-footed outfielder and star wide receiver on the football team. He could really fly, but that aspect of his game was robbed forever on April 18, 1975, when Buckner slid hard into second base in a game against the Giants, forever damaging his ankle ligaments.

Buckner loved the game, however, hitting most of all, and by the time of his notorious World Series error, Buckner was a hobbled athlete who succeeded on guts and guile. “Buck reminds me of a rodeo cowboy limping off to his pickup truck, throwing his saddle in the back and driving off to his next performance,” Boston manager John McNamara told Los Angeles Times sportswriter Ross Newhan before the ’86 Series began. “He’s one of the finest competitors I’ve ever been around.”

That admiration, while not misplaced, would prove fateful. And before Buckner’s error, McNamara would make some of his own. In the top of the 8th, with his team holding that slim one-run lead, McNamara pinch-hit rookie Mike Greenwell for Clemens. Don Baylor, sitting on the bench stoically, was the more logical choice instead of Greenwell, who struck out. But why take Clemens out at all? Clemens had developed a blister on one of his fingers that made it hard to throw his slider, but he believed his fastball would have been enough. Although we’ll never know what would have happened, we do know that the Sox relievers were not up to the task.

The first to fail was Calvin Schiraldi, a former Met who may have been trying too hard against his old team. Schiraldi promptly gave up a single, and then botched the play that followed, unwisely throwing to second base on a sacrifice bunt, compounding that mistake by throwing the ball in the dirt. The result was that the Mets tied the game, which went to extra innings.

In the top of the 10th, Boston’s Dave Henderson homered. As the Red Sox gave each other high-fives, Shea Stadium “became quiet as a library,” writer Christopher Ball noted. The Sox weren’t done, either. They mounted a rally, scoring another run, despite McNamara inexplicably not pinch-hitting Baylor for Schiraldi, who struck out. Nonetheless, it was 5-3 Red Sox, and the “Curse of the Bambino” was about to be laid to rest.

Or not.

In the bottom of the 10th, Schiraldi got the first two outs, and the Mets were down to their last hitter, catcher Gary Carter. NBC announced that Boston second baseman Marty Barrett was named the player of the game and Red Sox pitcher Bruce Hurst the MVP of the Series. Plastic was spread over the lockers and furniture in the visitors’ clubhouse to protect against sprayed champagne, and Bob Costas began making his way there for post-game interviews.

Yet those first two outs in the inning had been hard line drives, and Carter singled sharply to left. Mets manager Davey Johnson sent pinch-hitter Kevin Mitchell to the plate. He, too, singled. Now, with a relief pitcher warming up in the bullpen, and the fans at Shea snapped back to life, Ray Knight came to the plate, and quickly got to a two-strike count. But Knight managed a soft single to center, making the score 5-4. As the stadium went crazy, McNamara finally came to the mound to replace Schiraldi.

Anyone watching the game closely would have noticed at that point that Bill Buckner was still in the game. All year long when the Red Sox were ahead, McNamara had put in Dave Stapleton as a late-inning defensive replacement. Stapleton was a former shortstop, sure-handed, and nimble — and he had been on the field at the end of three games in the ’86 Series.

It has always been assumed that McNamara left Buckner in for sentimental reasons. If so, that was misplaced romanticism. Meanwhile, new pitcher Bob Stanley promptly threw the ball past Sox catcher Rich Gedman, scoring the tying run. It was ruled a wild pitch, but the ball was nearly a strike and should have been blocked by Gedman, who seemed nervous.

The next hitter was Mookie Wilson, who batted his way — and Bill Buckner’s — into baseball’s unforgiving history books. There were other goats galore: McNamara, Schiraldi, Stanley, Gedman, right fielder Dwight Evans (who also made an error in the game), along with the Sox batters who stranded 14 runners than night. Plus there was Game 7 game yet to be played, in which the Red Sox blew at 3-0 lead (with Schiraldi again on the mound). But Buckner was tagged as the goat.

“Life is unfair,” John F. Kennedy noted at a 1962 press conference, and in that respect, baseball is very much like life. But just as baseball fans (and Americans generally) can be overly judgmental, they can be forgiving, too.

In 1990 at the age of 40, Buckner returned to the Red Sox for a last hurrah. On opening day, he started in Boston, and was given a standing ovation at Fenway. And on opening day in 2008, as the Sox unfurled their 2007 championship banner, Buckner was asked to throw out the first ball. He came from seeming exile in Idaho to do it — and was given a four-minute ovation by fans who realized that dedication to the game is all they can really ask, not perfection, and that Billy Buck had always given everything he had.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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