Monday, 17 June 2019


All the obituaries led with the error. Bill Buckner, whose fielding mistake in Game Six of the 1986 World Series cost the Boston Red Sox their first championship since 1918, since the Curse Of The Bambino was laid on the team after the 1919 season, when their owner sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. It is not the way any of us would care to be remembered, and it is unfair, and I had a chance to see up close the effect it has on a life.

In 1993, I was Vice President for European Operations for Major League Baseball International, and I had Buck in Britain for some coaching clinics and a little baseball publicity. He was an affable guy, there to do a job, and did everything he was asked to do. He turned out to be a natural instructor, which is not always true of very talented athletes, and smooth with the media. To a point. We staged a PR event at Lillywhites in Piccadilly Circus, and a number of reporters from national papers turned out. Before we started, I took them aside and asked if they would refrain from concentrating on, or hounding Bill about, the '86 Series. The wound was too fresh, the story too familiar.

So of course a guy from the biggest Sunday paper, as things are going fine, asks a convoluted question about watching a movie where a baseball player drops an easy fly ball and loses the most important game for his team. Such a movie did not, to my rather extensive knowledge, exist. But this guy wanted Buck's opinion. I don't think the question bothered Bill as much as its transparent dishonesty did, and he gave a perfunctory answer and visibly lost his enthusiasm for the rest of the event.

I walked away with him afterwards, apologized in an ineffective way, and went off with him and the other coaches for a beer and lunch. I knew Buckner had received death threats immediately after the World Series. I knew he'd been abused by fans in New York. I knew the media would never let that be forgotten (and imagine how much worse it would have been in today's world of half-baked mockery on the internet). But this is the story I should have told him right then and there. Because I am a Red Sox fan, and in 1986 I was probably twice as fervent as I am today. Which is still pretty fervent. I followed them religiously, though from afar. But I was working for ABC Sports in 1986, and ABC had a WATS line with New York, which meant my counterpart and friend in New York, David Downs and I could throw in extensive Sox chat as we discussed business daily.

On the evening of Saturday October 25, 1986 I was in Monaco. I had spent the previous three days with David and two of our colleagues from New York doing business at the annual congress of AGFIS, the association of international sports federations. The others had left for the airport Saturday morning, leaving me to finish business with the head of the World Weightlifting Federation over breakfast. In the afternoon, my then-girlfriend arrived by train from Milan. We had dinner, and were asleep in my room in the Hotel de Paris when the phone rang, sometime after five in the morning. It was David calling from New York. “Two outs, two strikes, bottom of the tenth: I wanted you to hear this!” He held the phone to his TV speaker. I heard “Stanley's pitch...” followed by a scream and a curse. And he hung up.

I grabbed the Sony short-wave I'd always carried since my days as a journalist for UPITN, and tried desperately to tune in Armed Forces Network, from Germany or Italy. Cornelia was half awake in the bed, asking in Italian what was going on. But the sun had risen in France, and I couldn't find a signal. I waited a while and then took the immense step of calling New York from an expensive hotel phone. The Sox had lost, the New York Mets had tied the series at 3-3 and the deciding game would be played Sunday night.

Let me explain something now. The moment I heard (or didn't hear) over the phone was a wild pitch by Bob Stanley (or passed ball by catcher Rich Gedman, the point is still being argued) with the Sox still leading 5-4 in the bottom of the tenth inning. It allowed the tying run to score. Mookie Wilson, the batter, then hit the ground ball down the first base line that skipped between Buckner's legs and allowed the winning run to score. The Mets won the game 6-5 and tied the series 3 games each.

Buckner had the misfortune of making the highly visible error, the perfect photo, the metaphor for the loss: but the win implied by Boston's scoring two runs in the top of the tenth had already been erased before Mookie's ground ball.

It wasn't Buckner's fault manager John McNamara pinch hit for his starting pitcher, Roger Clemens, in the eighth inning up 3-2 (the hitter, Mike Greenwell, struck out). Nor that Calvin Schiraldi, the closer acquired late in the season from the Mets, immediately allowed the tying run. It wasn't Buck's fault that after going up 4-3 in the top of the tenth, McNamara called allowed Schiraldi to hit for himself, nor with the lead now 5-3 he called on Schiraldi to pitch a third inning of relief. It's not Buck's fault that after getting two outs, Schiraldi allowed three straight hits before McNamara pulled him. Nor that the new pitcher, Bob Stanley, didn't see Marty Barrett calling desperately for a throw that would pick Ray Knight off second base for the third out. Most of all, it isn't Bill Buckner's fault that McNamara, for the first time in the playoffs, neglected to send Dave Stapleton, a slick fielding infielder, in as a defensive replacement for Buckner. Johnny Mac, old school all the way, wanted Buck to be on the field for the moment of the triumph.

I knew all the back-stories: how Schiraldi's ex Met teammates knew how he was likely to pitch to him. How McNamara claimed Clemens had 'begged' to be taken out, which the pitcher vehemently denied. How Stanley, lumbering over to cover first, might not have beaten Mookie to the bad even had Buckner made the play. The basic point was: you lose as a team, and there was more than enough blame to go around.

And of course, the Series was still there to be won; Game Seven was supposed to be played the next night. I was still in Monaco, but it rained Sunday in New York, so the game was played Monday Night (opposite it, the lowest-rated Monday Night Football game in history) and, back in London, I listened on AFN from Wiesbaden.

The delay allowed McNamara to give the start to lefty Bruce Hurst, albeit on three days rest rather than four. Hurst had two wins already and had been the Sox best player in the series so far. But here Johnny Mac made his biggest mistake. The pitcher on Sunday would have been Dennis 'Oil Can' Boyd. Boyd was told he wasn't starting Monday. But instead of the manager saying something like “look, Can, Bruce has been our best. But he'll get tired, and when he does, I want you ready to go. Not pacing yourself, just giving us your best innings. It's not who starts the game, it's who finishes it, and we need you to finish it. OK?” Mac just told him and walked away. He was the skipper and his word was law. As it was, Can went to the clubhouse and started drinking beer (that's where his 'Oil Can' nickname came from) and by the time pitching coach Bill Fischer found him he was angry and drunk. Or drunk and angry. He supposedly spent the whole game in the manager's office.

The Sox led 3-0 going into the bottom of the sixth, when Hurst tired and allowed three runs, which would have been more had not Dewey Evans thrown out Keith Hernandez on the bases. Now tied 3-3, the seventh would have been the moment for Boyd. Instead, McNamara had to call on Schiraldi who gave up a home run to the first batter and allowed two more runs before giving way to two walks from Joe Sambito and finally the third out from Stanley.

The Sox got two back in the top of the eighth, a rally started by Buckner's single. But Jesse Orosco came in and shut the rally down. It was now 6-5 Mets, and McNamara replaced Stanley, who'd faced only one batter, with Al Nipper, in order to make a 'double switch' to get Ed Romero into the lineup where his bat could be a factor. Like Schiraldi, Nipper gave up a leadoff home run (to Darryl Strawberry), then another run. Orosco closed down the Sox in the top of the ninth and the Mets won the game 8-5 and the Series 4 games to 3: since selling Babe Ruth the Sox had lost three World Series, in 1975, 1967, and 1946—all by 4-3 in seven games, all to arguably the decade's best National League team.

I would have told Buck that I blamed David, who had tickets to Game Seven but didn't go. All kidding and superstition aside, I blamed McNamara more than anyone. But I didn't mention that. I could have said the 'Curse Of The Bambino' thing was a modern construct, born of the nostalgia boom of the 80s and the Sox resurgence post 1975. But I was also stymied by my own evaluation of Buck's overall disappointment in the Series: only six hits, and no production with runners on base. Which was something I pondered as I watched him teach.

Buckner had 22 years in the majors. He was an amazing contact hitter: he didn't walk much, but he didn't strike out very often either. He wasn't a power hitter, but in his best home-run year, in Boston, he hit 18 and struck out only 25 times. For his career, his 162 games average season showed 29 walks, 29 strike outs. His career batting average was .289, lowered by a severe decline in his last three years. But he was also helped by playing much of his career in great hitting parks, Wrigley Field and Fenway. He came up with the Dodgers along with Bobby Valentine and Steve Garvey (see photo of them with Tommy Lasorda at rookie-league Ogden in 1968). Valentine was a similar kind of player whose career also wound up being limited by injury. Valentine was already a legendary high-school athlete when I was a kid in Connecticut, and they were both players with intense natural talent that matured early. Buck was a quick outfielder, contact hitter, without a great arm (career-wise, he's a pretty good match for Al Oliver). He was playing left field for the Dodgers when Hank Aaron hit a home run over his head to break Babe Ruth's career record, which makes another odd link between Buckner and the Babe. But the Dodgers produced a lot of talent in those days—they were constantly moving players out of the outfield, Bill Russell to short, Pedro Guerrero to third. With the ankle injury and infection limiting his mobility, they tried moving Buck to first but of course Garvey was there at the same time. Interestingly, Garvey is the third-closest comparison to Buckner's career, after Oliver and Mickey Vernon, though Vernon's a different type of player with an odd career pattern. Eventually they traded Buckner to the Cubs for Rick Monday, who proved integral to post-season success.

The Cubs were the only team in baseball with a longer history of futility than the Red Sox. In fact, there was an equation known as the Cub Factor which could be used to determine the outcome of nay post-season series: the team with fewer ex-Cubs would win. With the Cubs Buckner would win a batting title in 1980, the first of three straight years hitting over .300, including 105 RBIs in 1982. But in '82, a young outfielder named Leon Durham would make the All-Star team, and by '84 he'd been moved to first base, and Buckner was sidelined. He demanded a trade and was shipped to the Sox for pitchers Dennis Eckerlsey and Mike Gorman.

Here's where it gets weird. In the 1984 National League playoffs, the Cubs were on the verge of eliminating the San Diego Padres, a game where Durham's homer had staked them to a 3-0 lead. But with the margin cut to 3-2, and two runners on base, Durham allowed an easy ground ball by Tim Flannery through his legs, and the tying run scored. Another error by Ryne Sandberg would seal the Cubs' fate; it turned out Durham's glove was soaking wet because Sandberg had accidentally overturned a Gatorade barrell onto it. The play was an eerie foreshadowing of what would happen to Buckner two years later.

As a footnote, Eckersley, whose career as a starter was fading, would be reborn in Oakland as a closer, but he is perhaps best remembered now for the backdoor slider he threw with two strikes to a hobbled Kirk Gibson, which Gibson blasted for a home run on the way to a Dodgers' win and championship in 1988. Eck, of course, represented the Cub Factor in that game.

In '85, Buck had his best year with the Sox: .299 16 HR 110 RBI and even 18 stolen bases with only 4 caught stealings. He'd slipped a bit in '86, but still was over 100 rbis in a lineup loaded with players who got on base (Wade Boggs, Evans, Don Baylor) batting ahead of him. He was much less effective in '87, and the Sox traded him to the Angels, where he had a decent half-season, but after that his career was effectively over, though he hung on for three more years, retiring at age 40. He lived in Boise, made good real estate investments, and later returned to baseball as a coach of an independent minor league team outside Boston.

But in 1993 Buckner responded to being admired by young baseball players and respected by British coaches as only someone with major league credentials can be. There was no false modesty just as there was little defensiveness about '86, he knew what he had and hadn't accomplished in his career. As I said, I wished I'd expressed a little bit more of this at the time, but I too was more concerned with showing him the respect he was due, and helping him do his best for the clinics at which his talent was visible and his effort in teaching admirable.

The Red Sox finally broke the Curse of the Bambino, if such a thing existed in 2004, rallying back from three games down to the Yankees in the American League Championship, and sweeping the Cardinals, their nemesis in both 1946 and 1967.

In 2008, after a second World Series win in 2007, Buckner returned back to Fenway to throw out the first ball on opening day. The Fenway Park crowd rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation that lasted minutes. Buckner visibly wiped away tears a couple of times, but otherwise stood awkwardly, one hand in his pockets, without a hat to tip to acknowledge the fans. When the applause died down he threw a perfect 12 to 6 curve ball to Dewey Evans at the plate, and the two embraced as the crowd applauded again. Afterwards, Buckner said he had never carried animosity toward the fans when he was criticised, but he did have some for the media. Imagine again what that would have been like today. But the moment was a ceremonial and symbolic burying of that moment of surrender to a curse, and a reclamation of Bill Buckner as a player.

He died at the end of May in Boise, of Lewy Body Dementia. He was only 69. Had he lived another six years, he and Mookie Wilson would probably have gone on tour, like Gibson and Eckersley did, putting that moment of the past into historical, legendary, perspective. I could not help but wonder how his memory was affected by the dementia, and whether he would blessed to recall the cheers of 2008, the high points of his career, and of course the blessings of his life. There is one photo of him, with the Red Sox, that I think captures the joy we all get to feel with life, when it seems it will go one forever, that we will enjoy being part of it, that all our problems will be insignificant, or if not, will be overcome. Ironically, I'm writing about that one moment which will always be attached to his name, but I am grateful that I had the chance to put a real person ahead of that moment in my own memory. RIP Buck.

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