Feinstein: Bill Buckner Was Always A Class Act

Boston didn't need to forgive Bill Buckner; Bill Buckner needed to forgive Boston – and in doing so, he showed us who he was

John Feinstein
May 28, 2019 - 2:28 pm
Fenway Park

USA Today Images


Through the years, I’ve been privileged to cover many remarkable moments in sports. One night that stands out for me is Game Six of the 1986 World Series. I put Game Six in capital letters because if you say Game Six to most baseball fans, that’s the night they conjure in their memories—with all due respect to Carlton Fisk in game six of the 1975 Series. The Red Sox didn’t win game seven—the Mets did.
I was at Shea Stadium that night to write a sidebar for The Washington Post. Richard Justice was the Post’s baseball writer and Tom Boswell, then as now, was the columnist.
For me, the presence of the Mets in the World Series for the first time since 1973 was a bonus. I’d grown up a Mets fan, sitting in the $1.30 general admission seats at Shea for years—most notably in 1969, when I went to 66 games, including the four games they played there in postseason. (The ticket prices jumped to $6 for postseason).
When they closed Shea in 2008, I was truly saddened. Shea was a dump, but it was MY dump.
I had bounced back and forth between the two leagues during the ’86 playoffs, and I was in Houston covering the NLCS when the Mets won another remarkable game six, rallying from a 3-0 deficit in the ninth inning and finally winning 7-6 in 16 innings.
During that game, as the Astros’ Bob Knepper set the Mets down inning after inning, I got so frustrated that I turned to Justice at one point and said, “You’re on your own for game 7. I’m not going to sit here and watch Mike Scott scuff the ball again.”
I had absolutely no proof that Scott, who had won the Cy Young Award that year, was scuffing baseballs, but he’d already shut the Mets down twice in the series and the Mets publicly insisted he was scuffing the ball. Naturally, I believed them.
Justice didn’t have to work game 7 alone because the Mets rallied to win. Then, the Red Sox won the first two games of the World Series at Shea Stadium, before the Mets won the next two in Boston. Bruce Hurst—who was NOT accused of scuffing baseballs—then shut down the Mets for a second time in game 5 and it was back to Shea for game six.
If you can spell the world baseball, you know what happened on that fateful Saturday night. The Red Sox, behind Roger Clemens, led early. The Mets rallied to tie the game, 3-3. David Henderson—who had been the hero of the ALCS—homered in the tenth and the Red Sox tacked on another run to lead 5-3.
I moved from the auxiliary press box in deep right-field to the main press box for the bottom of the tenth—not so much to observe the impending Red Sox celebration as to have quicker access to the clubhouses when the game ended. There were empty seats because many writers had already gone downstairs.
Keith Hernandez made the second out and then, as he explained later, retreated to manager Davey Johnson’s office to console himself with a few beers.
I was ready to bolt as soon as Gary Carter made the third out. The scoreboard briefly said, “Congratulations to the 1986 World Series champion Boston Red Sox.”
Bob Costas was in the Boston clubhouse preparing to ask the Red Sox how it felt to break the 68-year, “Curse of the Bambino.”
I figured Henderson would be my sidebar.
And then, Carter singled. Kevin Mitchell, who had been in the clubhouse trying to make a plane reservation to get home the next day, pinch-hit and also singled. Ray Knight singled and it was 5-4, Mitchell going to third. I didn’t dare hope. One minute, the season was over, the next Mitchell was standing on third with the tying run.
Bob Stanley had come in to relieve Calvin Shiraldi. Mookie Wilson stood at the plate. What happened next is still argued about 33 years later. Stanley threw a pitch that some thought catcher Rich Gedman should have handled. He didn’t. The ball went to the backstop. Mitchell scored, Knight went to second. Stanley was charged with a wild pitch. Some still think it was a passed ball.
Either way, the score was stunningly tied, 5-5. I sat back in my seat. It was already after midnight. Deadline was slipping away. I was in semi-shock.
And then, Wilson hit a roller towards first base. Bill Buckner was there for one reason: manager John McNamara wanted him on the field when the Red Sox won the Series. On any other night, Darryl Stapleton would have been in the game as a defensive replacement. Buckner was 36, a battered 36. He’d once been a solid defensive player but now he was in the lineup because of his bat. He’d driven in 102 runs that season.
As the ball rolled in Buckner’s direction, I remember thinking, ‘This game is never going to end.’ The ball wasn’t hit sharply. It knuckled and skipped. Buckner went down to field it and—as everyone breathing knows—it went through his legs.
Knight, running all the way, scored easily without a throw. It was over: 6-5 Mets. Game seven to come.
I raced downstairs, going first to the Mets clubhouse. I got there just as Hernandez sat down in front of his locker, cigarette and beer in hand.
“I can’t believe how lucky I got,” he said quietly. Then he told the story about going into Johnson’s refrigerator and, dehydrated and disgusted, drinking two beers so quickly he was buzzed by the time Stanley threw his wild pitch.
“I was halfway through the third one,” he said. “All of a sudden, I realized I might have to go back on the field for the 11th inning—buzzed!”
I knew what my sidebar would be: the saga of the two first basemen. I sprinted down the hall to the Red Sox clubhouse, which, not surprisingly, was screaming with silence. The plastic that had covered the lockers in anticipation of the celebration was still evident.
Buckner was surrounded, but I edged into the circle. “I have to live with this,” he said at one point. “I was having a lot of fun until that. Great game tonight. I haven’t let many get through me like that. Can’t remember the last time I lost one that way. I wish it hadn’t been a World Series game. At least it was only game six, not the seventh.”
Reporters left, others arrived. The same questions were repeated. Buckner never blinked; never said he’d already answered that or he’d had enough.
Here’s how stand-up he was: When I finally walked out of the clubhouse, I wished he hadn’t booted the ball. NO ONE was a bigger Mets fans than I was. But Buckner was so classy, so standup, I felt sick for him.
And, at that moment, I didn’t know how that his life had changed forever. The Mets won game 7 two nights later coming from 3-0 down in the sixth inning against Hurst to win. Game seven had been rained out on Sunday and McNamara went back to Hurst instead of Oil Can Boyd, who had been lit up in game three.
Just as there were so many Red Sox who shared in getting the team to within one out of victory, there were a passel who shared in the defeat. Shiraldi—an ex-Met—couldn’t hold the lead in game 6 and he and Hurst couldn’t hold it in game 7. There was also the tag team of Stanley and Gedman.
But ALL the blame seemed to fall on Buckner. People literally forgot the score was already tied when he made the error. For years, I sat in baseball press boxes and asked people the score when Wilson hit the fateful ground ball. Almost always, the answer came back: “Was it 5-4 or 6-5?”
Even Tom Boswell, who has forgotten more about baseball than I will ever know, got it wrong. Once, I asked my agent, Esther Newberg the question.
Esther loves the Red Sox with as much fervor as anyone I know. The only emotion that springs from her that is equal to her love of the Red Sox is her hatred of the Yankees—and the ’86 Mets.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “We were up by a run.”
“Wrong,” I answered. “The game was tied. You should let up on Buckner.”
She glared at me and said, “I don’t care. I still HATE him.”
She wasn’t alone. Buckner was pilloried in the Boston media and by fans. The Red Sox released him the following July. Understandably, he had some bitter moments believing he had been mistreated.
But he never seemed to lose his sense of humor. He made appearances with Wilson and they became friends. He appeared on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he and Larry David are asked to be part of a Jewish minion because the men involved are two short of the required ten. When they arrive in the apartment one of the men refuses to take part with Buckner because, “he ruined my life.”
The episode ends with a baby being tossed from a burning building. The baby hits the firemen’s tarp but BOUNCES. Buckner dives and makes the catch. It is one of the great TV moments ever.
Buckner wasn’t a Hall-of-Famer, but he was in the discussion. He finished with 2,715 hits, a batting title and never ONCE struck out three times in a game. I didn’t know that stat until The New York Times' Tyler Kepner tweeted it Monday soon after Buckner died at the age of 69 after suffering from dementia.
His death has reminded people just how good a baseball player he was during his 22-year career. It has also brought out fans and Boston media saying how terrible it was that he was treated so badly after Game Six. Those who ripped him are, seemingly, nowhere to be found.
In 2008, after the Red Sox had finally won the World Series in both 2004 and 2007, Buckner was invited to throw out the first pitch at Fenway on Opening Day. He received a lengthy standing ovation.
How great, people said and wrote, that Boston had finally forgiven Bill Buckner. I look at it differently: how great that Bill Buckner forgave Boston.
THAT was remarkable. And yet another measure of what an extraordinary person he was.
John Feinstein’s most recent work of fiction is, “The Prodigy,” a novel about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters but must fend off agents, equipment reps and his own father all of whom want to turn him into a human ATM machine. His latest non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Sports.” John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com