Leave It to Buckner
This time, it’s no mistake: Twenty years after The Error, the unforgivable first baseman and his unlikely new friend Mookie Wilson are cashing in on Sox fans’ pain.
This is what it’s like when you win, Billy Buck.
I’m crammed behind a table in what years ago was the training room for the New York Jets football team but these days is just another ratty corner of ratty Shea Stadium. (You remember Shea, Buck.) There are 40 or 50 of us packed in with our television cameras, tape recorders, and notebooks, and the room is crackling with excitement. It’s like a party in here. Tonight the New York Mets are celebrating the 20-year reunion of the…oh, sorry, Buck, you know what they’re celebrating.
The Mets have brought all the big stars from their 1986 World Series team back to Shea for the festivities. They’re going to be introduced in a couple of hours to a sellout crowd, but at the moment they’re sitting before us reporters at three long tables arranged in the shape of a U. Keith Hernandez, Howard Johnson, Lenny Dykstra, Rick Aguilera, they’re all here, and so are Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter, though as the biggest names they’ve been moved to a separate area to accommodate all the press attention. Oh, your good friend Mookie Wilson is here, too.
As far as I can tell, I’m the only writer from Boston in this crowd. The year 1986 is not remembered with much fondness by Red Sox fans, but I guess you know that, too, Buck. I’m crouching about three feet behind Wilson, leaning over his left shoulder so I can hear him answer questions from other reporters. It’s loud in here, Buck. I mean really loud. The World Series high lasts a long, long time. What’s interesting about the questions is how many of them concern a player who’s not in the room. That would be you, Buck.
“How often do all these guys ask you about the play, Buckner’s legs?” asks one of the half dozen reporters who are swarming around Wilson, shoving microphones and cameras in his face. Wilson laughs and says, “That’s all anybody asks me.” You know, Buck, Wilson’s been retired for 15 years, but he looks as if he could step into the batter’s box on this very night, if he had to, and hit the kind of feeble dribbler up the first base line that made both of you famous.
Now here’s Bruce Beck, from Channel 4 in New York, leaning in with his cameraman. “Mookie,” he says, “do you still see the ball going through Buckner’s legs in your dreams?” Wilson responds that there’s no need to dream when he wants to visualize the moment. “I have a lot of pictures in my house,” he says. “I see it in every corner.” Hey, Buck, I bet some of those pictures have been autographed by you. The only question is, were they freebies, or did you charge your partner, same as everybody else?
Until recently, I’d never really seen the point in hating Bill Buckner.
If others wanted to pin the whole thing on him, that was fine by me, but the truth is, the score was already tied by the time he flubbed that grounder. And it was John McNamara, the manager, who left the gimpy first baseman in there when he should have replaced him with Stapleton to protect the lead. Plus, it was only Game 6. The Sox could have won it all the next night, but they blew another lead, and Buckner had nothing to do with that. I’d always considered Buckner just the latest punch line in a cruel joke that was 68 years old by the time he came along. (Did you hear Bill Buckner tried to commit suicide after the World Series? He stepped in front of a bus but it went between his legs.) I was 15 that night, and I drove my fist into the wall of my parents’ home in Maine, but I never really cared one way or another about Buckner. Getting worked up over a patsy just never seemed worth the energy. Things do change, though.
October 25 marks the 20th anniversary of the mistake that defines Buckner’s existence. The fact that this milestone comes just two years after the Red Sox finally won the World Series has a lot of people around here thinking it’s about time we forgave old Billy Buck. The sting of a loss that for so long grew more painful with each year has at last begun to fade. Fans are wondering now whether Buckner’s right when he complains that he’s been mistreated—“I’ve gone through a lot of, which I feel, undeserved bad situations for myself and my family over a long period of time,” he said in 2004—all because of that single error. The fans have heard he lives in virtual seclusion out in Idaho. They’ve read about his wife’s claim that after a relief pitcher for the Angels shot himself, a reporter called to ask whether Buckner had ever considered doing the same. He’s suffered long enough, they’re saying; all he wants is to be left alone, to never again have to talk about the ball rolling between his legs. It’s like he told the Globe three years ago, “I don’t sit in the woods and think about it. Ever.”
But that’s not exactly true. The problem with Bill Buckner is that when he’s not trying to forget about that softly skipping grounder, he’s scheming to squeeze every last nickel out of it. Every so often, an overnight package arrives on the doorstep of Buckner’s house in Boise, Idaho. Stuffed inside are hundreds of copies of the same photo: The ball is already past Buckner, the first base umpire is thrusting out his arm to indicate a fair ball, and Mookie Wilson is in full sprint for the bag. These pictures await only the few alchemic strokes of Buckner’s autograph marker that will transform them into gold. He and Wilson have an exclusive deal with a New York memorabilia company that sells the signed photos: $99 for an 8-by-10, $119 for a 16-by-20. As part of their relationship with Steiner Sports Marketing, Buckner and Wilson also appear together a couple of times a year at signing events in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, pens in hand, grinning into an ocean of orange-and-blue Mets caps.
As a strict civil libertarian, I oppose prohibitions on prostituting oneself, but Buckner’s nauseating sanctimony long ago slipped into outright hypocrisy: It wasn’t his fault. He just wants to forget the whole thing. Everyone’s so nasty to his family. Buckner is the child who pokes a stick in the hive then whines about the stinging. “I got over it right after it happened,” he once told an ESPN.com writer who found him signing photos with Wilson in the basement of a Connecticut hotel. Well, Buckner, we did not. The agony of your bungled play kept burning long after you hobbled out of town.
“I don’t care what any Red Sox fans think about this,” Buckner said to the ESPN writer. “I busted my butt for them and I had a lot to do with getting us to that point.” He said the money was to put his son through college.
I wanted to ask Buckner about his side action, but a Steiner Sports rep said he wasn’t interested in talking.
By 1989, Buckner was playing for the Kansas City Royals, and Mookie Wilson had been traded to Toronto. Wilson was on the field stretching one day before a game between the two teams when Buckner walked by. “It was strange,” Wilson told me. “We hadn’t spoken or talked about that day until then. He said, ‘Hey, you want to come hit me some ground balls?’” Both men laughed. “We’ve been very good friends ever since that,” Wilson said.
With his career winding down, Buckner came to spring training the following year in the hopes of winning a spot on, of all teams, the Red Sox. It was a curious choice, given how poorly he says he was treated in Boston, but he hustled his way onto the roster. On Opening Day in 1990, tens of thousands of fans rose to their feet—just four seasons after the heartbreaking error—and showered an ovation upon Buckner that lasted for a full minute. “I don’t know what to say,” Buckner told the Globe that day. “I never expected a welcome like that.” Added Sox legend Dwight Evans, “It gave everybody goose bumps. That was a great moment.”
It was also a fleeting moment. After appearing in just 22 games, Buckner was released by the Sox and retired. Wilson followed him into retirement the next year and, as so many former ballplayers do, hung around the game in various coaching positions. Buckner, on the other hand, began a lucrative business career, developing 28 acres in the Boise suburb of Meridian into three housing subdivisions. He chose to call these new communities Fenway Park, an odd decision given that Buckner played for seven years with the Chicago Cubs—twice as long as the Red Sox—a team with a fairly well-known ballpark of its own. Considering Buckner’s mistreatment in Boston, you’d think he might have named his developments Wrigley Field instead.
In 1999, Steiner Sports approached Buckner and Wilson with the idea of getting into the autograph business. “We were on this tear about moments,” Brandon Steiner told me when I visited him at his offices on the second floor of a mall in New Rochelle, New York. “We think the concept of a moment is a collectible in itself. People want to collect something that’s saved up in their mind.” Steiner, wearing slacks and an open-collar shirt, sat at a glass desk in his softly lit office. Hanging on the wall behind him was a huge image of Albert Einstein. Steiner said Buckner’s error became “one of the biggest moments we’ve ever had. We just couldn’t keep them in stock.” He said he’s sold a few thousand of them, and lots of baseballs autographed by the pair, too.
It wasn’t difficult to get Buckner on board. “Not really,” Steiner said. Eventually he even agreed to do the autograph appearances with Wilson. “I don’t think we’re going to bring him up to Boston anytime soon,” Steiner said.
Buckner will likely survive that loss of potential income. Besides his Fenway Park subdivisions, which feature nearly 100 homes, he owns parts of two car dealerships in Idaho and another in Montana. In the mid-1990s he and his wife sold six houses in Napa, California, grossing $1.3 million. In 2002, the couple flipped an 8,000-square-foot strip mall in Nebraska. Buckner is also involved in multimillion-dollar real estate deals with the Albertson’s supermarket chain in Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. In 2003, he and a few partners submitted plans for still another housing development in Meridian, Idaho, this one on about 60 acres. And when Buckner can’t stand for another second the torrent of hostility constantly directed at his family, he hides away in a 6,625-square-foot home that sits on four acres, has five bedrooms and five bathrooms, and is assessed at $1.13 million. Bobby Buckner, it’s safe to say, will get to go to college even if his father never signs another photo of himself choking in the clutch.
But that’s unfair, according to Steiner. “We get what Bill is,” he told me. “Bill made a bad play. It doesn’t make him a bad person.” Before I left, Steiner took me on a tour of his offices. We passed a cubicle where three employees were talking shop. “Hey,” Steiner said to the young men, “we should do an auction item—meet Buckner and Wilson. Let’s put that up on the website.” The employees looked at each other for a moment, then one of them announced his idea for the auction prize. “You get to roll the ball through Buckner’s legs,” he said. “He stands up and you roll the ball through.” They burst out laughing. “These guys,” Steiner muttered to himself as he led me away.
So you see, Buck, that’s where I’m coming from. And sitting here in this godforsaken room in godforsaken Shea Stadium, it’s getting to the point where I can’t take it anymore. All these reporters asking about you, and now this guy Seth Swirsky—he says he wrote that Taylor Dayne song “Tell It to My Heart”—stooping down to tell Mookie that he owns the ball. He bought it after Charlie Sheen put it up for auction. Charlie Sheen? Tell it to my heart? Buck, it’s a zoo. All these people—millions of people—laughing at you. Don’t you care, Buck?
You spent three and a half seasons here, just a pit stop in your 20-year career. You put up mediocre numbers during a pretty mediocre stretch for the Sox, we both know it. Fourth place in 1984, fifth place in 1985. Then came the World Series in 1986, of course, but you were terrible in that postseason run. You hit .200 in 14 games, Buck, and drove in just four runs. And then there was your error.
Your only legacy in Boston is failure. That’s no knock on you, actually. Plenty of ballplayers a lot better than you spent their entire careers here, only to fail, too. But it seemed to bother them. Some of them have even managed to be ashamed, aware that it means something special, something worthy of respect, to play for New Englanders who have loved their team to the point of obsession despite the generations of disappointment, despite Pesky holding the ball, and Bucky Bleeping Dent, and Grady leaving Pedro in.
But you, Buck—you who committed the error that symbolized the most agonizing moment in all the anguished history of the Boston Red Sox; who played here for just a blink of an eye; who knows nothing of us and seems to care even less—you prance around like Monica Lewinsky at the Republican National Convention, autographing Garcia y Vegas for anybody willing to lay a few dollars on the table. You give it away cheap, Buck. All of it.
Have you been mistreated? Scapegoated? Are you owed something better? Well, let me finish with an old line, Billy Buck: Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.
Thanks for the Memories
As much as we’d like to forget, we all remember exactly where we were on October 25, 1986.
By Rebecca G. Dorr
“I was watching at my girlfriend’s house—she’s now my wife. The Sox were winning, and her stepfather, who wasn’t a baseball fan, said, ‘I wish they would just lose and get the World Series over with.’ I was so mad that I left the house and went home. So I was sitting at the end of my bed, alone, when they lost. It was an absolute shock. I just started crying. I’ve never forgiven that man for saying that.”
—Dana Van Fleet, whose family has owned the Cask ’n Flagon since 1969
“I was debating my [gubernatorial] opponent at Faneuil Hall that night. During the debate, someone handed me a piece of paper that said Red Sox 3, Mets nothing, and I announced it with great fanfare. After, I got home around the sixth or seventh inning, and Kitty and I settled down to watch them win. Of all the painful Red Sox moments, I’ll never understand it. Buckner was a hell of a ballplayer. Gutsy. But he could barely run. And we had an excellent defensive first baseman named Dave Stapleton. Why McNamara didn’t put him in for the 10th inning…”
—Governor Mike Dukakis
“I was living in New York City. I was in agony because my parents were visiting, and we went out to a play. During intermission, we went outside and all the limos in the theater district had the game on. My mother, in an act of great charity, said, ‘You look miserable. Why don’t you go back to our hotel and watch the game?’ I wasn’t really willing to be optimistic until there were two out and two strikes on the third batter, and I said to my father—their play had finished—‘I actually think they’re going to win.’ It was at that moment they got the first base hit and the sequence of events that followed. New York erupted, and you could hear people shouting and cheering, car horns blasting, bells ringing, and I’m sitting there forced to endure this celebration.”
—Paul Grogan, CEO of the Boston Foundation
“I was right there at Shea Stadium. I was in the Red Sox dugout with Mrs. Yawkey. When Buckner came off the field that night, I shook his hand, patted his back, and said, ‘You’re the person who brought the Red Sox to this point.’”
—Boston Mayor Ray Flynn
“I was at a high school dance in East Boston with a cute boy. A group of people were just standing around his car with the radio blasting, and when the ball went under Buckner’s legs, we were all like, ‘WHAT?!? No fucking way!’ We weren’t going to riot or anything, but we sort of shared in the misery and made quite a bit of noise.”
—Kay Hanley, musician
“I was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at my daughter’s freshman parents’ weekend. We were watching the game in a hotel room. As the ball went through Buckner’s legs, we all went speechless. After that, there was nothing to say. It was very depressing. My wife is convinced I didn’t speak for three months.”
—Ron Druker, president of the Druker Company
“My wife and I were at a big dinner party thrown by non–baseball friends, Anna and David Kanarek. At the party, a small group kept padding upstairs to the Kanareks’ auxiliary set. This group became so large that Anna actually sent her son Denny up to the roof to cut the antenna wire. Denny, however, climbed through the second-story window and joined us. The ball went through Buckner’s legs. ‘What’s wrong? Where is everybody?’ asked Anna. Two of her guests, I can tell you, were already trudging home, where our sons, Paul and Theo, sat frozen on our couch, a place they symbolically remained, in some sense, until October of 2004.”
—Leslie Epstein, director of the BU creative writing program and father of Sox GM Theo Epstein