Buckner: 'I try to look at it in a positive way'
Idaho. It is called the Gem State for good reason, covered by an amazing landscape, endless vegetation and vast mountains.
Today, this is the home of William Joseph Buckner. He is hardly recognizable in his current attire as the former hard-nosed major leaguer. Many days he sits perched on his horse, wearing a cowboy hat, riding the countryside hills. Now in his late 50s, Buckner is a changed man. He still lives with the aftereffect of his final years in Boston, and so he is secluded in Idaho, far from Major League Baseball, more than two thousand miles from Shea Stadium ... the site of his unfortunate legacy.
|OTL: THE BUCKNER PLAY|
|Twenty years ago, the Mets played the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. ESPN's "Outside the Lines" (Sunday, 9:30 a.m. ET) will present the two players involved in the Series' most pivotal play: Mookie Wilson, who hit a soft grounder to first base with two outs and two runners on in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6, with the Mets trailing 3-2 in the Series; and Bill Buckner, who had the ball trickle through his legs, allowing the winning run to score. The Mets went on to claim the Series with a Game 7 victory.|
"The dreams are that you are going to have a great series and win, and the nightmares are that you are going to let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs. Those things happen, and I think a lot of it is just fate."
Nineteen days after that scary statement, the line score for the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, read the following:
13 hits, 5 runs, 3 errors.
Of course, not many remember the 13 hits or the five runs. Barely anyone remembers Dwight Evans' error in right field, and most fans don't recall catcher Rich Gedman's error in in the ninth inning. But what they do remember is the third error.
With two outs in the 10th inning and the Mets trailing 5-4, outfielder Mookie Wilson stepped into the batter's box. On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, after fouling off six Bob Stanley pitches and posting arguably the best at-bat in New York Mets history, Wilson hit a ground ball toward Buckner, the Red Sox first baseman, who described it this way: "I watched the ball. I think it hit something and bounced to the right. It went above my glove so it wasn't something that I didn't stay down on. The ball just bounced and I missed it. It wasn't because of any stress or whatever, just a bad bounce."
Buckner did miss it, and the ball continued dribbling down the first-base line. It has become an indelible image burned in baseball history, a picture most baseball fans could never erase from their minds, even if Boston fans so desired. There's the shot of the ball going between Buckner's legs and the call from legendary play-by-play man Vin Scully -- "little roller up along first, behind the bag, it gets through Buckner, here comes [Ray] Knight, and the Mets win it!"
Twenty years later, Buckner is still asked what happened on that one play.
"It just amazes me. I don't quite get it. I have come to the understanding that it is here to stay, so I try to look at it in a positive way," Buckner said. "Everybody still remembers me, they say, 'Yeah, he was the guy that made the error, but he was a pretty good player.' So I guess that is a positive about it."
The next year the Red Sox released Buckner at midseason. He signed as a free agent with the California Angels, and then just a year later signed with the Kansas City Royals. In 1990, Buckner returned to the Boston Red Sox for his 22nd and final major league season.
On April 9, the baseball season started at Fenway Park: "Opening Day I got a great ovation. Fans in Boston are really good. They really are. They liked me and they were always good to me, and I think they just got caught up in the media. Overall, they were good. That was probably why tears came to my eyes, and it was pretty emotional."
He played his final 22 games in a Red Sox uniform, retiring before the All-Star break that season, content with the way things ended in Boston.
Today, Buckner said he hasn't been to Fenway Park in nine years, when he was a coach in the White Sox organization. He didn't return to Boston when the organization invited him June 27 to celebrate the accomplishments of the 1986 Red Sox team at Fenway, and he recently said, "I am a little bitter towards some of the things that have happened there."
What happened? The wrath of Boston fans happened. On a day of celebration for our country, July 4, 1993, Buckner wasn't celebrating. Instead, the then-43-year-old Buckner had a confrontation with an 18-year-old fan, who knew Buckner only as the man who ruined the Red Sox fortunes in '86.
"People would make derogatory comments, and that bothered me," Buckner said. "I was coaching for the Red Sox in Pawtucket. I am signing autographs for all the kids. Then somebody came up to me and made an obnoxious, rude comment. I think it is a combination of being around the Red Sox ... [and] their affiliate ballpark, and just kind of a combination just [set] me off. I got pissed, grabbed the guy around the neck, wanted to punch him out, but I didn't. Thank God for that."
"There was one incident in Boston," Buckner said, "and some guy was honking the horn at me, and he was late for work and kept honking at me and I got out and went and said something to him about honking the horn. He recognized who I was and made some obnoxious comment as he rolled his window up. As he is rolling his window up, I grabbed him around the shirt collar and he starts dragging me down the road, so I decided I better let go. Those were a couple things. It's still in my mind's history."
What Buckner said was most difficult was how the Boston fans verbally abused his loved ones.
"I think what bothered me the most is the people -- my immediate family and mother, wife, kids -- I think it was unfortunate that they had to endure it, 'cause it was a lot harder on them than on me, because they didn't like to see how people were treating me."
Because of the cumulative effect on his family, Buckner got to the point that he could no longer handle living in Massachusetts. He left his home in Andover, Mass., shortly thereafter and moved permanently to Idaho.
After falling in love with the vast countryside of Idaho while visiting his step-uncle, Buckner purchased a ranch in 1975. Back then, it would have been difficult for Buckner to predict that he would cherish the day he permanently lived 2,600 miles away from Boston.
In the years since his move, Buckner's involvement with the Red Sox has been minimal.
When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, many fans felt Buckner was finally off the hook. Not so, Buckner said.
"I didn't ever feel like I was on [the hook]. That is just the way I felt," he said. "A lot of people were happy for me, and I thanked them and that didn't matter; the Red Sox won. I am happy the Red Sox won, but it doesn't make any difference to me. I mean, I would love to have an '86 championship ring, but I don't, and that is the way it goes."
At 56 years old, the positives are evident in Buckner's life. A father of three, his children are all on their way to successful careers of their own. His oldest daughter, Brittany, is an aspiring actress. Kristen, the middle child, is working toward a career in sports journalism. His youngest is 17-year-old Bobby, a high school baseball prospect. With Bill's guidance, Bobby is considering several major programs, including Texas, LSU, Oklahoma State and USC.
Bill spends most of his days helping Bobby's high school baseball team in Idaho, and he tutors his son on the trials and tribulations of life.
"When Bobby goes and plays in college, something will come up if he makes an error or something," Buckner said. "Somebody is going to say something, so he will have to deal with it.
"One day he made kind of a wise comment to me as we were taking ground balls and I missed a ground ball. I got on him a little bit. I didn't like that. None of the kids say much about it."
These days Buckner has become a successful businessman, owning a couple of car dealerships and commercial real estate. In recent years, he found a new, somewhat surprising source of income. Alongside the man who hit the ground ball to him in the '86 World Series, Mookie Wilson, Buckner signs the infamous picture of the ball going through his legs.
"It took a long time for me to decide whether I wanted to do it or not," Buckner said. "And the more I thought about it, I thought, 'Well, you know what, I have taken a lot of heat over this, so I might as well get something out of it.' I thought it would be a one- or two-time thing. I had no idea that I could put all my kids through college just by signing the pictures, but you know people want them."
Buckner said that while he goes to New York a few times a year for autograph shows, he still doesn't want to make a signing appearance in Boston.
"The Buckner Play," as it is often called, remains his unlikely legacy. For the man with 2,715 career hits, his thoughts are not stuck on that play. He doesn't relive that moment. He doesn't imagine fielding the ball cleanly. Buckner said he dreams of Game 7 of the 1986 World Series.
"Everybody dreams about being the star in the seventh game and hitting the game-winning home run," he said. "I still have dreams about that, you know, driving down in the car, and you put yourself in that frame of mind. It is almost like being there."
If only Buckner had gotten to the plate in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, maybe he would be remembered differently. Maybe he would be remembered for keeping the two-out rally alive. Maybe he would still live in Massachusetts, and not Boise.
Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett made the last out of Game 7. The man on deck: Bill Buckner.
Ben Houser is a feature producer for ESPN's "Outside the Lines."
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