Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Blues for a Baseball Hero—Bill Buckner

Bill Buckner as I remember him.

Note—We got word from Chicago Cubs broadcasters Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies.  The game from Houston was playing in the background while our family jammed into the living room for a rainy Memorial Day gathering.  He passed away earlier in the day in his long-time adopted hometown of Boise, Idaho of Lewy body dementia, related to Parkinson’s disease.
Most people remember Bill Buckner as a Red Sox first baseman—the Goat in the 1986 World Series for letting a ground ball skip between his legs scoring the winning run in Game Six.  That one play haunted him for the rest of his life.  And sure enough it was the only clip from his great career that was shown on the TV sports reports that I saw last night.

But I remember Billy Buck from his years as a Cub, back when a perpetually broke guy like me could decide in the morning to catch a game at Wriggly Field and walk up to the box office and get an upper grandstand seat for $5 with no trouble.  Buckner was a star on the team during one of its many, alas, years in the doldrums.  He was just a year younger than me.  I would sometimes run into him after a game at the Neisse Lounge on Sheffield a couple of blocks south of the park.  Cubs’ clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano would often bring players and coaches for a drink in an atmosphere more relaxed than the rowdy saloons by the ballpark.  He was a nice, regular guy without pretentions.
In his honor I am recycling this entry in Heretic, Rebel, A Thing to Flout back in 2010 when the blog was still hosted on LiveJournal.

Today is Bill Buckner’s 61st birthday.  The twenty-year Major Leaguer was born on December 14, 1949 in Vallejo, California.  Buckner was a star first baseman most of his career, winning a National League Batting Championship  in 1980, appearing in an Al Star Game as a Chicago Cub, and amassing more than 2,700 hits as an amazingly consistent contact hitter.  His teammates will tell you that he was more than just solid at first base—playing 1,555 regular season games at the positions while making only 128 errors in 13,901 chances.
One error would haunt Buckner the rest of his life.  Umpire Jim Kibler calls Mookie Wilson safe at first after a soft ground ball skipped between his legs in the 10th of game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Despite this, he is best remembered as The Goat.  No, not the damn Billy Goat of the legendary Chicago Cubs Curse.  No, Buckner, whose bat and glove helped win the American League Championship for the Boston Red Sox against the California Angels in 1986, was blamed for the loss in the World Series against the New York Mets.  
In the sixth game with the score tied in the 10th inning, two out, and a man at second, Buckner charged a slow ground ball by Mookie Wilson, one of the fastest runners in the game.  In his haste, he did not get his glove all the way down and the ball rolled between his legs scoring the winning run.  Buckner contributed two hits and scored in the eighth inning in game seven, the BoSox lost, continuing their long run of futility.
Despite Buckner’s solid contributions to the team and that the loss in game seven could just as easily be blamed on a collapse by reliever Calvin Schiraldi and a wild pitch by Bob Stanley, the Boston media hung the loss on Buckner.  Always passionate Red Sox fans turned viciously on the ball player.  The next year as the Team Goat, Buckner endured death threats and harassing telephone calls.  He was booed and pelted with garbage at home, and endured the taunting of other teams on the road.  Despite a more than solid .273 batting average, two home runs and 42 RBIs through 95 games, Buckner was given his unconditional release, both for his own safety and to assuage fan vitriol.
Buckner's contributions to the Red Sox is better represented in his reliable hitting and usually flawless defense. 
The Angels quickly snapped him up, and he finished the season batting .306 and driving in 32 runs in just 57 games.  The next year playing for Kansas City, Buckner returned to Fenway Park and went one for two with a walk against ace Roger Clemens. 
Now in his late thirties with his bad ankles troubling him, Buckner spent the last days of his career as a utility man off the bench.  In 1990 Boston re-signed him as a Free agent.  The Boston fans must have mellowed.   The press, which had crucified him, now saw that he had a raw deal.  When he was introduced on opening day, he received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.  Despite the welcome, he could no longer produce his old numbers and retired for good on June 5, 1990.
Cubs fans recall Buckner’s seven years in Chicago with fondness.  Buckner arrived in town as part of a deeply unpopular four player trade.  Fan favorite Rick Monday and pitcher Rich Garman were traded to Los Angeles for little heralded journeyman outfielder Buckner, shortstop Ivan De Jesus, and another player.  The consensus among Chicago’s fans was that the Cubs had been robbed again.
Buckner, who was recovering from a severe infection in his ankle, was shifted to first base in Chicago, a position he had played sporadically in Los Angles before Steve Garvey cemented his hold on the position.  Buckner adapted quickly and was soon turning bang-bang plays at first off of quick tosses from De Jesus at shortstop.  And despite his continuing ankle problems, he earned respect by playing through pain, and for the first two years in town he was still a speedy runner as well as a crafty base stealer.  Eventually, his ankles did slow him down, but he could still fool a pitcher and steal a base from time to time.
Despite bad ankles, Buckner was an effective runner and base stealer for the Cubs.
More important was steady production at the plate.  Few players had such a low strike-out to time at plate ratio.  He was a good contact hitter.  Twice he led the league in doubles, batted over .300 four times, leading the league hitting .324 in 1980, and was the Cubs’ sole representative at the 1981 All-Star Game.  Buckner was a true star during an era when the Cubs struggled.
Boyishly handsome with a mop of black hair and one of the most impressive mustaches in the Game, Buckner was popular off the field as well.  He often would visit neighborhood taverns near the ballpark and mingle casually with fans while other players were strutting their stuff on Rush Street.
Fans were genuinely sorry to see Buckner go in 1984 when Buckner was traded to Boston for pitcher Dennis Eckersley and utility infielder Mike Brumley.  It was a good deal for Boston.  In his first year he helped turn the team from a cellar dweller to a respectable 67-51 record for the balance of the season.  He was a solid center of the team as it became a contender.
Redemption at last--Buckner was invited back to Fenway to toss out the first pitch in the 2008 season opener, the year after the Red Sox finally won the World Series. 
At Fenway Park’s 2008 season opener, the year after Boston finally won the World Series, Buckner was invited back to throw out the first pitch.  He received a four minute standing ovation.  All, finally, was forgiven.
Buckner is now a successful businessman in Boise, Idaho.  His son, Bobby, plays baseball for the University of Texas Longhorns

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