One moment didn’t make the man
Published 12:36 am Saturday, June 1, 2019
By Rich Manieri
Bill Buckner was a terrific baseball player.
He played 20 years in the Major Leagues, collected 2,175 hits, hit for an average of .289 and won a batting title.
The most money Buckner ever earned in a year, according to Baseball Reference, was $785,000. That’s walking-around money for a player with similar credentials today.
And, by all accounts, Buckner was a good man; self-effacing, honest, hard-working.
Yet, when Buckner died this week at the age of 69, after battling Lewy body dementia, you couldn’t read or watch a story that didn’t focus on the single mistake by which many have tried to define him. At the same time, in the great irony of ironies, the same news media that spent the remainder of Buckner’s life using his name as a synonym for failure, released a spate of stories pointing out the injustice of defining the man by one World Series gaffe.
If only more of these stories had been produced while Buckner was still alive.
Buckner did not cost the Boston Red Sox the World Series in 1986. Yes, a grounder rolled through his legs in Game Six to allow the New York Mets to score the winning run. There was still a Game Seven, but the Red Sox couldn’t pull themselves out of the fallout from the previous night’s meltdown, most of which had nothing to do with Buckner. And most of which no one outside of Boston remembers.
Boston took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the tenth inning and was one out away from its first World Series championship. Three singles and a wild pitch later, Buckner’s moment came.
“I’ll have to live with this,” Buckner said after the game. “I was having a lot of fun until that. Great game tonight. I haven’t let many get through me like that. Can’t remember the last game I lost that way. I wish it hadn’t been a World Series game.”
Had Boston rallied and won the following day, no one would have remembered Buckner’s gaffe. Instead, the play dogged Buckner. We wouldn’t let him forget or move on. The unrelenting replays, the discussions, the questions.
To a certain extent, this is what professional athletes and entertainers sign up for. Failure and scrutiny are part of the job. That’s fair.
What wasn’t fair was accusing Bucker of singlehandedly losing the World Series and worse, making him a symbol of ineptitude for the next three decades.
Until the Red Sox finally won their first World Series in 2004, Buckner became an easy target for an angry Boston media that associated him with failure and the so-called “Curse of the Bambino,” a silly superstition with roots going back to 1919 when the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth (nicknamed “The Bambino”) to the Yankees.
While the media haranguing bothered him, Buckner never ran from his error. In fact, he even found a way to laugh about it and to make others laugh with him.
Buckner appeared in an episode of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in 2011. In the episode, Buckner comforts David, who let a ball go through his legs during a championship softball game. Later, Buckner makes a diving catch of a baby tossed out of the window of a burning building.
“Very sweet, kind man,” David told Mike Lupica in a May 27 story for mlb.com. “There was something about him that made me feel for the guy. What an awful thing to go through.”
We all have our bad moments. The difference between Buckner and the rest of us is that we don’t have to watch our worst moment over and over again, and hear it discussed and debated by strangers for the next 30 years.
What we do have in common with Buckner, however, is the same choice. What do we do with our worst moments? Do they make us angry or bitter? Do we allow them to define us? Or, do they make us better?
“In my heart, I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through,” Buckner said in 2008. “I’ve done that. I’m over that. I just try to think of the positives, the happy things, the friendships.”
Buckner made his peace with the media and the fans. He threw out the first pitch for the Red Sox season opener in 2008 and received a two-minute standing ovation.
Buckner refused to let one play on a baseball diamond define his life or measure his worth. He suffered unjustly for his error. But in its aftermath came his greatest victory.
RICH MANIERI is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. His book, “We Burn on Friday: A Memoir of My Father and Me” is available at amazon.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.