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An error turns 20

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff October 25, 2006 11:29 AM

Twenty years.

Exactly two decades have passed since that fateful evening in Shea Stadium, one that extended a fan base's heartache for another 18 seasons and created a scapegoat out of Bill Buckner. Twenty years ago tonight, Buckner misplayed Mookie Wilson's ground ball in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, helping the Mets to an improbable win and sealing the Red Sox' fate for another season without a championship.

I vividly remember this date in 1996, remarking how unreal it seemed that the moment was 10 long years earlier.

Now, for some reason, it seems that long ago.

Maybe it's because the monkey has finally been lifted off the franchise's back with the world title in 2004. Maybe it's just because, with age, I've rationalized how ridiculous it was to place the blame on Buckner, which too many Red Sox fans did with viciousness.

"I had a three-run lead in the sixth inning, and I lost it," pitcher Bruce Hurst, who pitched Game 7, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Nobody's really been critical of that."

Nor did John McNamara replace Buckner at first with Dave Stapleton like he had all season. Try telling Terry Francona if he made such a move today that he wouldn't get the bulk of the blame, and you'd better back up before he laughs in your face. Can you imagine Francona leaving David Ortiz in lieu of Doug Mientkiewicz at first so the big guy could celebrate on the field? You think Ortiz would get the brunt of the fans' ire if he booted a ball? Please.

Then again, maybe the Red Sox would still have the ball.

Perhaps no postseason play has been so vividly over hyped as Buckner's failure to corral Wilson's grounder, which helped the Mets tie the series at three games apiece. If he had come up with the ball, the game was in extra innings anyhow, a matter most seem to forget. Bob Stanley and Calvin Schiraldi already took care of letting the Mets tie the game, but the blame for them never really matriculated until people sat back and said, “Hey, wait a sec ...”

"[Bob] Stanley’s run-scoring wild pitch was just as deflating, and mystifying, as Buckner’s blunder," wrote Larry Whitside in the Globe's game story. "All Stanley knew was that something went wrong, and his batterymate could only agree. 'I still don't know what happened,' said catcher Rich Gedman. 'I missed it. I shouldn't have in a situation like that. But I did.'"

Where's the guarantee they win in extra innings? And is everybody who helped lose Game 7 free from blame? Marty Barrett struck out to end that game. No digs his way?

Instead, the play became one of the centerpieces of the silly "curse" that plagued the Red Sox. Death threats followed Buckner, an embarrassing state of affairs for Red Sox Nation, which was so gracious two years ago to actually absolve the first baseman. How kind. Terry Cashman even sent him the message that he was "forgiven" in that God-awful song he sang on Opening Day last season as the World Series banner was raised.

The late Hunter S. Thompson didn’t appear so willing, however.

Joe Castiglione welcomed him back to Fenway earlier this summer at the 1986 team reunion, which Buckner declined to attend. He's not talking about '86 anymore, you know.

Except, that is, when he talks about it. Got it?

It's all such a weird state of affairs now. Buckner still wants nothing to do with anything Boston, refuses to discuss the issue. But there he is, on ESPN this morning doing a retrospective on the moment. There he is, making a quick buck with Wilson, signing baseballs and photographs of the error for which he doesn't want to be forever remembered.

In fact, just this month when he was approached by an ESPN.com writer to explain why he was wearing, of all things, a Cubs batting glove, in Game 6, sparking theories of a "double curse," he said, "I'm all '86ed out."

Except, that is, when he's shilling the memories.

"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," wrote John Wolfson in last month's Boston Magazine. "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 much as Red Sox fans want to "forgive" Buckner for the error that nobody will ever forget, the man makes it awfully hard.

Much like any momentous sporting moment, everybody remembers where they were at THAT moment. It is an error that goes hand-in-hand with his name. Mention Bill Buckner, and nobody's first reaction is 2,715 hits. It's the error.

These days, Bill Buckner, when he's not hitting the road with his boy Mookie, lives quietly in Idaho, where it's pretty much impossible to live any other way and owns a number of car dealerships that claim his name. In "The Simpsons," it's Laundromats.

Marge: Hmmm. [opens envelope and reads note] "Thank you in advance for a world-class meal. You're an inspiration to our entire organization. Thank you again, Bart." Oh, what a lovely gesture.

Bart: Cost of paper, five cents. A mother's love, priceless.

Marge: Aw.

Homer: Do I get a card?

Bart: No, but here's a book called "Chicken Soup for the Loser" that gave Bill Buckner the courage to open a chain of Laundromats.

It wasn't all Bill Buckner's fault. But it's ironic that just when they're ready to forgive him, Red Sox fans now actually have reason to spite Buckner. The insincerity with which he approaches the subject is farcical.

In his documentary film, "Chasing Buckner," Christoph Gelfand seeks "to vindicate Buckner and prove that a good man and a great ballplayer have been treated unfairly because of one mistake." OK.

Or maybe we should just learn to have fun with it. For all Buckner's protests of the matter, he certainly appears to let it hit him on the lighter side more recently.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, a friend of Buckner's son once asked Buckner how he dealt with the memory, and Buckner told him how he once considered ending it all, jumping off a bridge onto railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train.

"Wouldn't you know," Buckner said, "the train went right between my legs."

We'd show you the moment here in closing, but thanks to MLB.com's locked down restrictions on showing any form of highlight, we give you instead its RBI Baseball equivalent. Enjoy.

by eric wilbur


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