As the accolades for Bill Buckner poured in as news of his death at age 69 marked a bittersweet Memorial Day for Bostonians I mused on his life and the fact he was both a dogged competitor as well as a Zelig-like character who showed up in the backdrop and foreground of several noteworthy sporting and cultural benchmarks.
As a member of a golden generation of young Dodgers whose number included the likes of Steve Garvey, Billy Russell, Davey Lopes and Ron Cey Buckner was the starting left fielder for LA on the April evening in 1974 in which Henry Aaron socked his record breaking 715th home run. For the many millions who’ve viewed the footage on TV and YouTube that’s Bill clambering atop the chain link outfield fence at Fulton County Stadium as the record breaker descends into the grasp of Braves and future Red Sox relief pitcher Tom House.
In an episode that was more absurd than bad Buckner had a front row seat to the infamous post game tirade offered by Cubs manager Lee Elia in the Wrigley Field clubhouse on April 29, 1981 in which among other things he proclaimed, "They're really, really behind you around here... my bleepin' ass. What the bleep am I supposed to do, go out there and let my bleepin' players get destroyed every day and be quiet about it? For the bleepin' nickel-dime people who turn up? The motherbleepers don't even work. That's why they're out at the bleepin' game. They oughta go out and get a bleepin' job and find out what it's like to go out and earn a bleepin' living. Eighty-five percent of the bleepin' world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here."
Apparently, the fact the Cubs delivered a win in the first game for the 4,067 in attendance and the fact Buckner went 3 for 9 over both ends of a Wednesday afternoon double header did nothing to soften the blow for what has endured as perhaps baseball’s quintessential “primal scream” at the end of what was a long day’s journey into blight for Elia (the team record was 2-13 at the time) as the second game, a 2-2 tie, was one of the last Major League contests called on account of darkness.
And, who among us would ever want to have our worst ever day at the office shared with 45 – 50 million fellow citizens. Such was the case when Mookie Wilson’s ground ball slid under Buckner’s mitt in a heart stopping moment at Shea Stadium in Game Six of the 1986 World Series when both the odds and Boston hopes were crushed as the Mets remained alive as cases of victory champagne were quickly wheeled out of the visitor’s clubhouse. For many the non-play became the symbol of Red Sox fatalism, a seeming distillation of decades of Red Sox heartbreak. It was almost as if a baton of doom was passed from Harry Frazee to Denny Galehouse to Joe McCarthy to Luis Aparicio, who trips on third while handing it to Mike Torrez and finally to Buckner.
Upon reflection, Red Sox Nation, in the years following the ’86 World Series, collectively offered an apology to Buckner spread out over several memorable ovations he received at Fenway Park. The first occurred on the night of April 25, 1990 when Buckner, who’d re-joined the Red Sox after a mini two and a half season exile with the Angels, Blue Jays and Royals, hit an inside the park home run that turned out to be the last of his 174 career round trippers. Fenway went crazy as the still gimpy legged 40 year old warrior rounded the bases and scored standing up.
However, the most memorable standing ovation came on Opening Day in 2008 as Buckner walked across the diamond to throw out the first pitch on the afternoon the Red Sox received their World Series rings for the previous season. You didn’t necessarily have to have an HDTV to see that the former first baseman wiping away tears as he greets teammate and friend Dwight Evans prior to tossing him a ceremonial strike. This was the highlight that fronted most of the recent memorial tributes to Buckner and is the moment that should endure as our lasting memory of a true “gamer” in every sense of the word.
Another memorable and joyous occasion was the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode from 2011 in which Buckner pokes fun at the misfortune of his World Series miscue by rescuing an infant tossed from a burning building. A clever and almost perfect page in what would soon prove the final chapter of his life.
News of the death of any of our sports or cultural heroes hits us hard as it reflects on the essence of the frailty of the human condition we all share. 69 is young as he was still a teenager in the summer of Woodstock and the moon landing. And apart from the friends and family members who knew of his battle with Lowys dementia the world at large assumed Buckner continued to enjoy retirement in the Idaho countryside. Our memories of him should focus on the innate scrappiness that endeared him to Boston fans who love nothing more than a dirty uniform. He once remarked, “Baseball is a game of averages, but to have a little luck going is not a bad thing.” Indeed.