Compounding the error
To err is . . . profitable.
The ball that rolled by Bill Buckner in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series was auctioned Friday. An unidentified buyer forked over a whopping $418,250 to own a piece of history that until just a few years ago represented the touchstone for decades of misery embedded in the broken souls of Red Sox Nation.
“There’s a little roller up along first . . . behind the bag . . . it gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight . . . and the Mets win it!’’
That was Vin Scully’s call the night of Oct. 25, 1986, at Shea Stadium, when Mookie Wilson sent Bob Stanley’s pitch bouncing Buckner’s way. The first baseman muffed it, the ball skittering down the right-field line, and Ray Knight scooted around from second to score. The Mets subsequently won Game 7, and the Red Sox were denied their first World Series title in 68 years, their dreams put on hold for another 18 Octobers.
The Dallas-based auction house that sold the ball last week did not reveal the buyer’s name, or what he/she intends to do with it. But the previous owner, songwriter Seth Swirsky, who bought it a dozen years earlier for about $64,000, dubbed it an “American culture piece’’ and sounded convinced that we’ll eventually learn the new owner’s identity.
Obviously, other than Buckner, who wouldn’t want their name attached to it?
“Once somebody points out that they have the ball,’’ noted Swirsky to the Associated Press, “people will surround them at every party, telling them their experience of where they were.’’
Like most New Englanders, I don’t need to see the ball again to remember. I was at Shea Stadium, part of the Globe’s expansive reporting contingent. Only minutes earlier, when things looked inexplicably ducky for the Sox, I dashed to a stadium pay phone to share the glorious moment with my father.
The Sox had a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the 10th, and my dad, born in 1922, had never seen them win it all. I was only 33 years into the joy ride.
We had gone to Fenway together since 1962, rollicked on its lawn the day the Sox won the 1967 pennant, stood side by side in Section 29 the night Carlton’s Fisk homer rattled off the foul pole to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.
Our meeting point in life, in all things, was baseball. Catch in the backyard. The Red Sox. The trips to Fenway. The succession of seasons, mostly fun, all of them failures. The game on the radio on hot summer nights.
Now here they were, at the edge of victory.
“Why’re you calling now?’’ he said flatly, as a man who generally treated the phone with suspicion, an intrusion. “Game’s still on. You’re working, right.?’’
“Well, yeah,’’ I said, “but, I mean, come on, they’re gonna win. It’s 5-3 and . . .’’
“Maybe, but it’s not over yet,’’ he said, voice just as flat, edging toward irritation. “We’ll see. Here, talk to your mom.’’
I didn’t call back until late the next day, not so much to commiserate, but just to hear him once more lament, “What a bunch o’ bums.’’
He died three years later, and the Sox were still bums, and I know he was OK with that because, honestly, it’s how he knew them, how he liked them. My father was a man who appreciated consistency, dependability, routine, and the Red Sox delivered on all that for every one of his 67 years.
Had one of those years ended with a win, I’m sure he would have enjoyed it, but briefly, and from there it would have been an oddly uncomfortable fit in his life, a tuxedo placed in his closet next to the modest sport jacket for church on Sunday and work pants for the rest of the week.
Largely because of that appreciation in our family for what the Sox always were - infuriating but lovable bums, Sisyphus in red stirrups - I never bought into the whole vilification of Buckner.
Yeah, he booted one, badly, outrageously. He also made it worse later with the excuse-making that his glove malfunctioned and his speculation that Stanley probably wouldn’t have made it to first in time to handle his throw ahead of Wilson.
So rich. So typically Red Sox. No one succeeded at failing like the Red Sox, which was their charm, their hold. In that sense, Buckner wasn’t a demon, just another tiny tile in a cherished but fractured mosaic.
Stanley, of course, had just seen catcher Rich Gedman mishandle an inside pitch on Wilson, the ball blowing by him and allowing Kevin Mitchell to score from third, only to have Gedman’s boo-boo recorded as Stanley’s wild pitch.
Clearly a passed ball. Gedman’s bad.
Then came Wilson’s ball to first, which began as a high chop, then weirdly flattened, skipped . . . rolled.
Honestly, as I write this now, I am crying with laughter, at the thought of how my father’s eyes must have bugged out as these follies unfolded on TV that night.
“. . . behind the bag!’’
Bums. Always and forever. Bums.
Not that anything compares to being one out away from a Series title, but we don’t get that kind of drama and lore a quarter-century later at Fenway. These days, it’s a bland and underperforming lineup, and most of the fan/media focus is on owners, the general manager, front-office employees, and manager. Mercy.
Time for someone to serve up a heapin’ helpin’ of Wade Boggs and the Delta Force. Imagine the fun ol’ Boggsy would have set free in the clubhouse with an iPhone.
The Buckner ball, marked with a tiny “x’’ near one of its stitches by right-field umpire Ed Montague, for years was owned by Mets executive Arthur Richman. Actor Charlie Sheen (“Winning!’’) bought it in 1992 for nearly $94,000, and Swirsky picked it up on a short hop eight years later at roughly a $30,000 discount.
Swirsky tried to auction it on eBay last October for $1 million, didn’t succeed, then folded it into a much bigger baseball memorabilia auction that last week brought in a total of some $1.2 million.
And though it forever will be known as the Buckner ball, it was signed by Wilson for Richman, and it reads, “To Arthur, the ball won it for us. Mookie Wilson 10/25/86.’’
It was British poet Alexander Pope who wrote, “To err is human; to forgive divine.’’ In that same piece, “An Essay on Criticism,’’ Pope also penned such memorable phrases as, ‘’A little learning is a dangerous thing’’ and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’’ Not a bad day of writing. Three lines that will live far longer than one man’s gaffe.
A lot of Sox fans needed to forgive Buckner for his error. For them, the Series titles here in 2004 and 2007, long after his departure, were the price of letting go.
Now someone has paid $418,250 to hold on just a little bit longer. I understand it. I just don’t see the profit in it.