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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Bill Buckner: Redefining a Remarkable Career

After battling dementia, baseball stalwart Bill Buckner passed away this past weekend at the age of 69. Having spent parts of 22 seasons in the major leagues, he will forever be one of the most recognizable names in the game. While many immediately think of him because of one misplayed ball made on the biggest of stages, his legacy deserves to be much, much more.

Buckner played for five teams between 1969 and 1990. During that time he accumulated 2,517 games played, a .289 batting average, 174 home runs, 1,208 RBIs and 2,705 base hits. The left-handed first baseman (he also played a little outfield early in his career) also stole 183 bases, scored 1,077 runs and struck out just 453 times in 10,037 career plate 
appearances—including no more than 39 in any given season. He made an All-Star team, won a batting title in 1980, had two top-ten MVP finishes and received votes three other times. That all being said, one play came to define him in the minds of baseball fans.

In Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Buckner, playing first for the Boston Red Sox had a slowly hit ground ball by Mookie Wilson of the New York Mets go under his glove and through his legs to force a Game 7, which was ultimately taken by New York. Although the play didn’t lose the World Series for the Red Sox, Buckner was saddled (quite unfairly) with the blame and frequently found himself as the subject of guffaws and derision. 

In death, a person typically receives a bounty of fond remembrances. This will also happen in the case of “Billy Buck.” While he is quite deserving of this, it’s also well past due to change the arc of his baseball story and remove the burden of the 1986 World Series. He became a convenient poster boy for a quite unfortunate moment, but that moment was not the entire game or the whole Series. He was so much more than that miserable October night more than 30 years ago, and that should be what defines his baseball career.

In 1986 Buckner was 36 and in his third season with the Red Sox. Despite nagging injuries, he still appeared in 153 regular-season games and hit .267 with 18 home runs and 102 RBIs. A sore back and bad Achilles heels forced him to wear special black high tops that helped him stay upright, but didn’t stop him from regularly taking the field. To be clear, if this was a player in 2019, they would have been shut down long before. However, Buckner, kept suiting up and was certainly not going to stop once his team made the playoffs and advanced to the World Series.

The Red Sox famously believed they had the Series in the bag late in Game 6, even going so far as to having cases of champagne wheeled into their clubhouse in anticipation of being able to celebrate their first title since 1918. Heading into the bottom of the 10th inning them held a 5-3 lead. After recording the first two outs of the inning, Boston’s Calvin Schiraldi became unhinged, relinquishing three straight singles before giving way to Bob Stanley, who threw a wild pitch and then gave up Wilson’s famous grounder.

Buckner, visibly stooped and hobbled with his bad back and feet, had the misfortune of being the face of the final play of the game. He shouldn’t have even been in that position to begin with. In Boston’s previous three victories in the Series, Dave Stapleton had been summoned as a late-inning defensive replacement at first. Perhaps manager John McNamara wanted his gritty veteran to be on the field to enjoy the feeling when the team clinched; perhaps it was poor managing; perhaps it was something else. For whatever reason, the more agile defender stayed on the bench and the rest became history.

Buckner never snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Red Sox had already allowed the Mets to tie the game before Wilson’s dribbler. He also banged out two hits, scored a run and played an errorless first base as Boston got pounded 8-5 in the deciding Game 7.
In the final years of his career, Buckner bounced around between Boston, the California Angels and Kansas City Royals. After 22 games with the Red Sox in 1990, he was released and called it a career at the age of 40. Because of the blowback he continued to receive, it was literally years before he could show himself in Beantown again. 

To have given his team everything his failing body had in 1986 to help them get in position for a championship, only to see those efforts erased by one play must have been an acidic pill to swallow. Buckner is now gone. By all accounts he was a good man, a good teammate and a damned good ball player. This should be his legacy in and out of baseball. The grounder was simply one play in a remarkable career.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) on topics of baseball that are available on Amazon.

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