Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Billy Buck's Boo-Boo

At one time or another, I guess, most American boys play organized baseball.

And most probably fantasize about driving in the run that wins the World Series for their teams.

If that is the dream, then what happened to Bill Buckner on this night 25 years ago is the nightmare.

Buckner's Boston Red Sox were one out away from ending a World Series drought that had existed since 1918. In fact, the scoreboard in New York's Shea Stadium flashed a congratulatory message — briefly.

But that turned out to be premature.

The Mets, who had given up two runs in the top of the 10th, scored a run, then had the tying run on third and the winning run on first. Mookie Wilson was at the plate against a new pitcher, who threw a wild pitch, scoring the tying run and putting the winning run at second.

Wilson then hit a slow grounder in the direction of veteran first baseman Bill Buckner, who seemed sure to make the play. But the ball took a strange hop just before it got to Buckner and rolled into the outfield, allowing Ray Knight to score the winning run from second.

The cameras almost immediately zeroed in on home plate, where Knight was scoring the winning run, but they lingered for a few seconds on Buckner after the ball got away from him, providing the image I will always remember from that night — Buckner standing forlornly at first while his teammates scrambled to retrieve the ball in the outfield.

My instinct would have been to run after that ball, even if I knew deep in my heart that there was no way I could reach it before one of the other players did — and, even more importantly, before Knight could score that winning run. My mind wouldn't let me accept that the die had been cast, that it was over.

But it was as if Buckner realized, in that split second when the ball took its inexplicable jump, that it was over, and he was resigned to the abuse that he knew would come his way.

Actually, it wasn't the end of the Series. The Red Sox brought a 3–2 lead to New York and needed to win either Game 6 or Game 7. The game that was played 25 years ago tonight was only the sixth game. The Red Sox could have won the seventh game and been world champions, but the pitching staff fell apart, as it had been inclined to do against the Mets.

As it did in Game 6 when that wild pitch allowed the tying run to score.

It wasn't Buckner's fault that Boston lost that seventh game, either. He went two for four at the plate and committed no errors in the field. In fact, Buckner even scored a run in Boston's comeback attempt in the late innings, but it simply wasn't enough.

Besides, the Mets were favored to win that Series before it began — and they weren't slight favorites, either. The Mets were heavy favorites that year.

The fact that the Mets won it was no real surprise. What was surprising was the way that title was won.

I knew it was a bitter experience for Red Sox fans — to be so close and see it slip through their fingers — and I empathized with them. But that did not excuse how they treated Buckner when the Series was over.

One would have thought he was a latter–day Shoeless Joe Jackson — except Shoeless Joe at least got the gamblers' money. As far as I can see, Billy Buck got nothing but abuse.

Say it ain't so, Billy Buck. But it was so. It just wasn't intentional.

What happened 25 years ago tonight had to be one of the strangest finishes of any game in World Series history — and it was almost immediately taken to be the latest confirmation of the existence of the "Curse of the Bambino" — the superstitious belief that, when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, a "curse" was put on the franchise, preventing it from winning a championship.

I always felt it was unfair for Buckner to be subjected to the abuse of the frustrated Boston baseball fans — just as I always thought it was unfair when the fans of another long–suffering baseball franchise blamed their team's 2003 postseason defeat on a fellow fan's innocent reach for a foul ball.

Team sports are precisely that — team sports. On extremely rare occasions, a team's loss is clearly the fault of a single player or an official's bad call; on even rarer occasions, a loss is the fault of an innocent bystander.

Most of the time, though, it is the result of a team effort. Teams win and lose as teams.

Whether such a thing as the "Curse of the Bambino" ever really existed, the Red Sox, who had won several titles before selling Ruth to the Yankees, went on to lose the 1986 World Series to the other New York team.

The Sox did not win another title until 2004. The Yankees, meanwhile, became the most successful franchise in major league baseball after acquiring the Babe.

I don't know if that was a curse, but 25 years ago tonight, Buckner probably would have told you that it sure wasn't a blessing.

Anyway, after the perceived "curse" was gone, the Red Sox were just another team again, and they were free to play ball without the weight of all those years on their shoulders.

A few years later, they won another title, and no one, as I recall, said anything about a "curse." As he watched the Series, Buckner (who, ironically, played for the Cubs before coming to Boston) may have thought about it and reflected that 21st century ball players don't know the meanings of the words pressure, expectations and superstition.

But the following spring, Buckner participated in the unfurling of the world championship banner at Boston's Fenway Park. The fans gave him a standing ovation, and Buckner later spoke of a sense of closure that came from being in the ballpark on that day.

"I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through," he said.

And now, Billy Buck's boo–boo is a part of baseball lore.

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