Bill Buckner, Mookie Wilson, and Me (Revisited)
I’ve never been able to appreciate the aesthetic perfection (that is to say, the perfection of baseball’s most imperfect play; it’s most jarringly incongruous moment) because it was too painful. I was too invested in the response to that stimulus and what it signified: game (and, we knew, series) over.
A lot of people forgot, or never knew, that this was only Game Six. It was not the end of the actual series; they had one more game to play even if everyone understood that it wasn’t necessary. This was the Red Sox, after all.
Is there any doubt in any Red Sox fan’s mind that if Oil Can Boyd had (been allowed to) pitch(ed) he would have won? I say that as someone who was 100% in support of the decision to pitch Bruce Hurst on short rest, once the Sunday game got rained out (yet another rung in the hellish labyrinth of Red Sox horrors: what seemed like a blessing turned out to be a …well I’m not going to use that word). Of course, pitching Hurst did work wonderfully, until he was understandably out of gas half-way through the game, when John McNamara, part of the unholy triptych of imbecilic Sox managers along with Don “The Gerbil” Zimmer and Grady “Gump” Little, went (too late) to the dugout. I thought (and think): why not Oil Can? I’ve always assumed that harsh words were exchanged when Mac told Can he was not getting the call (Can allegedly wept when he received the news). The reason all sensible Sox fans were relieved when Hurst got the nod is because we recalled Game 3, when Oil Can labored through about 300 pitches to get through the first inning: even though Can settled down, the Sox lost 4–0. At best, the question of whether he was suited for prime time was not yet answered. On the other hand, we knew Calvin Schiraldi was not. When, after leaving poor Calvin in the night before even as he looked like he was about to cry on the mound; after soiling his shorts on national TV, Mac went to him again, there was no doubt. The man who had been one strike away from baseball (and Beantown) immortality spit the bit when it mattered most. To redeem himself, of course he promptely surrendered the go-ahead run to the insufferable Ray Knight. (If the Sox were not so worthless and weak at this point, someone, anyone would have taken a run at Daryl Strawberry when his cherry-on-top homerun prompted the most egregiously disrespectful slow-circle of the bases in the history of the sport.) The rest, as they say is history.
But it couldn’t simply be history, because it was history. I literally could not count the number of times I saw replays of Buckner’s bungle, or the subsequent footage of the insufferable Knight crossing home plate (into the waiting arms of the equally loathed Gary “Camera” Carter). Or the penultimate indignity, Jesse Orosco’s histrionics after striking out Marty Barrett for the final out (in Game 7). I can’t tell you the intolerable pain these images caused, one million times worse than the shot of Bucky “Bleeping” Dent’s soul-to-the-devil shot over the Monster. All the way up to ’03 they were ubiquitous until, as it seemed, Satan conjured up the final insult by having the Sox’s eternally overdue beatdown of the Yankees (in Game 7 of the ALCS) mutate into a comeback only slightly less improbable –and painful– than the Mets’ second miracle.
(Sidenote: I was with my old man in ’86 and I was with my old man in ’03. On the other hand, I was with him in ’04 and ’07, so we got that goin’ for us…which is nice.)
This was what it was like to be a fan. It was not merely a matter of expecting the worst; all sports fans are acquainted with that (some more than others: Hello Cleveland!). It was that the worst was about to happen at the worst possible moment in the worst possible way.
And so, all together now: Thank God for 2004!
2004 cemented my already-existing penchant for underdogs. 2004 solidified my solidarity with teams and their longest-suffering fan-bases (except for Philadelphia).
Just as it’s difficult to articulate the unique and acute distress the events of ’86 (and ’03) caused, it’s similarly challenging to relate what 2004 felt like. A glacier dissolved to the final tear drop after thousands of years and riding the crest of a forever fever breaking; a billion babies’ burps; burnt-out batteries firing with life; the sports fanatics’ equivalent of the golden glow at the end of the dugout tunnel…
But before we got there we had to walk through that long and illogical darkness.
And what bothered me most was not the losses or the regret, but the fact that one figure unfairly came to bear the brunt of all of this pent-up rage and resentment.
This week marked the 25th anniversary of Game Six and the most (in)famous error in post-season (if not all-time) history.
I always knew, from October 1986 until October 2004 (and even now, really) who the real Red Sox fans are. If you blamed Bill Buckner for the loss it conclusively proved three things: you weren’t a real Sox fan, you didn’t understand baseball and most importantly, you were an asshole.
I’m not going to recount the play-by-play, just like I’m not going to embed any video (ugh), but suffice it to say, there was plenty of blame to go around. Much more egregious than Buckner’s error was the wild throw by Bob “The Steamer” Stanley who, that night, opened his name up to more scatalogical associations. (Plus, for anyone who happened to catch his post-game interview, the ease and disgrace with which he threw Buckner under the bus earns him eternal enmity.) Much (too much) has been made of the fact that Buckner should not have been on the field at all; that he should have been pulled for defensive wiz Dave Stapleton. Horseshit. If Schiraldi had done his job (or Boggs had charged that harmless grounder and made a play before it went foul) Stanley would never have been needed, Gedman’s fat ass would never have had to make the (lame) attempt to cover the wild pitch, and Buckner would have rightly been on the field to celebrate with his teammates after the winning out was recorded, and Bruce Hurst would have remained the series MVP (as he was prematurely declared when the game was presumably seconds from concluding…).
Coincidentally, watching the recent ESPN special “Catching Hell”, I was reminded how irrational fans can be, and how as Americans we insist on easy –if unfair– solutions to complex problems. That poor Steve Bartman was blamed for his team’s epic and embarrassing collapse (we are not talking about a one-run turn of events, we are talking about a collective meltdown that makes Calvin Schiraldi look like Bob Gibson) is enough to make you wish the Cubs never win another playoff game. Of course that is not fair to the organization, or the authentic fans, and human beings, who are unable to pin their own frustrations and real-world impotencies on an anonymous, unlucky fan. But watching that feature, which I highly recommend to even non sports fans, I understood that any sane person, seeing or hearing the way Buckner was treated and excoriated, would –and should– have hoped that the Red Sox would never win a World Series. Or more, that a city that could act so ignobly never deserved to win anything, as some type of atonement.
Again, thank God for 2004. Of course, Buckner has long since put the past behind him (although he was still very understandably bitter when, in 2004, idiotic sports reporters were asking him “do you feel forgiven now?” and other offensive questions). By 2008, after the Sox had won, again, enough water had, at long last, swept under the bridge that Buckner was willing to get his long overdue serenade. I kind of love the fact that Bill (and his partner in crime, Mookie Wilson), have managed to make money off of this play over the years. For all the grief he got, he damn well should have got paid. You go Bill. Decent story from this week’s Boston Globe here.
And that is some video I will be happy to share (although I can’t help noting, even the person good enough to record this was moronic enough to make sarcastic/disparaging comments even as Buckner strode to the mound).
There was, of course, nothing to forgive. But in the spirit of a quarter-century of misunderstanding, misplaced ire, recrimination and redemption, the last few, rocking, minutes of this delectable recording should resonate from the snowy environs of Boston to the lush fields of Idaho.