Bill Buckner was a borderline Hall of Famer. He collected over 2,700 hits in his career, which spanned a period of light hitting and low averages (if we factor out a few guys with names like Brett, Gwynn, and Madlock). Thanks to knee problems, his chances of reaching the magical 3,000-hit mark, otherwise very good, were neutralized. A batting champ in 1980 and twice a league-leader in doubles, he endured the somewhat seesaw vagaries in his stats that are typical of a man who perhaps presses too hard in an effort to carry a mediocre team on his shoulders. Bill sometimes tried too hard.
As in the 1986 World Series. His manager, John McNamara, ought to have removed him and opted for a first-baseman with two good knees (or even one) when the game went into extra innings. Buckner insisted on staying in—and he was, after all, the Sox’ best hitter in most regards. The drive he struck in his first at-bat that evening very nearly carried out of Shea. Had it done so, everything about the game would have changed.
But the only game we can analyze is the one that took place… so let’s look at that one. The Red Sox carried a 5-2 lead into the tenth. Buckner’s error allowed the winning run to score. Hmm. So how did those other three get on the board? I haven’t watched the tape for a few years, but I distinctly remember that several errors were made by people not named Bill Buckner. Reliever Calvin Schiaraldi had a couple in there somewhere. Other plays were less than inspiring. I wondered that Jim Rice didn’t lay out for a foul ball that would have recorded a precious out in the tenth—the final out, as I recall. I may be “Bucknering” Rice now; he couldn’t help it that he wasn’t Ken Griffey, Jr., or even Sandy Amoros. But… if you’re not going to belly-flop into the stands making the last out out of the World Series, when are you ever going to do it?
Buckner would have done it, if he could. For that matter, I don’t know that anyone—that Keith Hernandez—could have handled the wicked topspin hopper off the bat of Mookie Wilson. After boring into the dirt around home plate, it blooped toward first… and then bolted away on impact like a squirrel who has decided to juke one way and take off another under your tires. If Buckner had taken this steroidal screwball off his chest instead of letting it get past cleanly, the net result would have been no different.
And what was the result? The home team won Game Six and evened the series. If the play had been made somehow, then Boston bats in the top of the eleventh—with the winds of momentum sucked from its sails, no effective reliever left in the pen, and the home team awaiting another crack at the piñata. Younger fans may think that the Series ended with the Bill Buckner miscue. It didn’t.
In fact, Boston took a 3-0 lead in Game Seven before frittering that one away, too. Why not portion out some blame to an exhausted and anemic relief corps? Nope, that’s not the way baseball fandom writes its myths. We need heroes and goats. Bill Buckner has become Billy Goat for all baseball eternity.
I’m glad, in a way, that Buckner didn’t draw closer to 3,000 hits. I’d hate to have seen him denied entry into the Hall for a small gaffe that occurred at the worst possible moment (or at what “fake history” has made the worst possible moment). He was a damn good ballplayer… and a fine human being. If we get to play ball in heaven, I hope he’s my first-baseman.