Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 10, 1990, editions of The Boston Globe.
You learn more about life by losing than by winning.
Which is why the most important moment for New England’s sore-hearted baseball believers came yesterday even before Roger Clemens first formal heater of 1990 caught the inside corner against the Tigers’ lead-off man.
The moment that threatened never to come arrived during the pre-game roster introductions. Sherm Feller, rumbly-baritoned voice of Fenway Park, announced ‘‘Number Twenty-Twoooo . . .” and let it hang there, a slice of time frozen in space. “Bill . . . Bucknerrrrrr . . .”
The dam broke. It came like a swollen river suddenly breaching all that had held it in check. Applause. Cheers. A bed-sheet grandstand banner. The most heartfelt cheer of the day, perhaps of the season, ripped from the hurting hearts of New England. Welcome back, Billy Buck. It’s OK.
Standing bravely on the first base line, only a few steps from the treacherous sod he’d last trod in a climactic World Series match, the mustachioed veteran doffed his cap and waved. You’re OK too, he was saying. No hard feelings. That’s baseball. Driven out of town, humbled by exile, forced to wrest a spot on the roster by fighting his way out of the minor leaguers’ no-frills camp in Winter Haven, Bill Buckner is back. He’s had more comebacks than Richard Nixon, but it was Opening Day, and he was here.
This was the most important event that could have happened for New England yesterday. The scapegoat of the Sox World Series collapse was back, in Easter Week, the season of redemption. His pluck and skill and swing won him his spot, a bandy-legged pinch-hitter who’ll wait with a veteran’s calm to see if a rookie named Billy Jo Robidoux can do it with glove as well as bat.
But whether Buckner ever got another at-bat was not what counted. New England has not been whole, really whole, since Mookie Wilson’s grounder squibbed under Buckner’s mitt. The pain was never truly excised, because New England could never forgive, in person, like it forgave yesterday. The crowd crammed into Fenway served as surrogate for all whose faith broke, all who wept when the Mets leapt out of the coffin.
We are all sadder since that day. Only by forgiving Billy Buck can we begin to be wiser. Because that pain, that loss, was never confronted, chewed, swallowed, and digested, the way it should have been. Grief has to be dismantled, brick by brick. But banishing Buckner for his sin deprived us of the opportunity to forgive.
Buckner’s epiphany will do more, ultimately, for all of us, than it can possibly do for him. He was the Michael Dukakis of baseball, the diligent workingman who plodded to the pinnacle, until, on the brink of glory, disaster struck. The governor stopped by the broadcast booth to look in on announcer Sean McDonough, who was too polite to draw the obvious parallel when the Duke talked of how the Sox have broken their fans’ hearts in four lost World Series.
“When they let us down, it doesn’t do the state’s mood a lot of good.” No kidding, Duke; does that remind you of anybody else?
But yesterday was a day for Second Chances, if not Second Comings. Who among us cannot think of a time we needed one, in life, in love, in health, in sorrow? Would life not be a better thing if Bank of New England could do it over again, or Wang? Second chances don’t come often enough for all who could use one. Billy Buck is all of us who try and fail, banker, computerman, bankrupt developer, misguided mediaman.
And in that sense, yesterday’s opener at Fenway was a spiritual event, when Sherm Feller intoned “Number Twenty-twoooo . . .” It was a ritual, played out in a hallowed shrine, in the season of renewal, the week of resurrection, when the Prodigal was forgiven, because he was a brave soldier on that pennant-winning war, who gimped out his clutch hits on aching pins.
Bill Buckner, won’t you please come home? First base beckons. New England doesn’t forget. But New England forgives. You are us. We are you. Only by forgiving you do we forgive ourselves. That’s why it was so important that you made it back. One thing more, William: on a ground ball hit straight at you, make sure you touch your glove-tip to the earth before you come up on it. Now, go get ‘em.