Bill Buckner had more big league hits than either Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. He was an All-Star and won a batting title. Playing on ankles that had to be iced almost round the clock, he knocked in 102 runs for the pennant-winning Red Sox in 1986.
He played 22 seasons in the majors and twice made it to the World Series. He was a good teammate and a solid family man. He aged better than most retired athletes and always looked like he could still give you a couple of innings when he’d return to Fenway Park tanned and fit.
But for the final 33 years of his life, Buckner was best known as the guy who missed the ground ball. For many fans and media members, it defined him. And it was unfair.
Buckner died of Lewy body dementia Monday morning, surrounded by family. He was only 69 years old.
Word of Buckner’s death spread on a sun-splashed Memorial Day afternoon as Boston was readying for the first game of the Stanley Cup Final between the Bruins and Blues at TD Garden. For Hub sports fans of a certain age, it was shocking news and a startling reminder of how much things have changed around here.
Today Boston is a city of champions, the envy of sports fans everywhere in North America. We’ve witnessed 12 championship parades since 2002, and the Bruins have a chance to give Boston the reigning champion in three of the four major sports — something no city has done in more than 80 years.
We have watched our teams participate in 18 championship events in 18 calendar years. The Patriots have won six Super Bowls since 2002, and the Red Sox have won four World Series in this century, more than any other franchise.
This was not the regional sports climate on the night of Oct. 25, 1986, when Buckner failed to field Mookie Wilson’s Little League three-hopper down the first base line.
You have seen the video. It’s been synonymous with “the agony of defeat” for more than three decades. Buckner shuffles to his left, the ball shoots between his legs and under his glove, as Vin Scully exclaims, “Behind the bag!’’ Mets third baseman Ray Knight scores the winning run from second base.
On the night this happened, the Red Sox had not won the World Series in 68 years. It was eight years after Bucky Dent. The Bruins hadn’t won a Cup in 16 years. The Patriots had never won anything. Except for the Celtics, Boston was Loserville.
Buckner’s error did not lose the World Series. Not even close. It was merely the final play in a game that was already tied. And it was only Game 6. The Sox did not lose the Series until two nights later. The Sox had a million other chances to win that World Series. But Buckner’s error became the worldwide metaphor for cataclysmic failure. It was cinematic sports shorthand for hideous defeat.
“Bill fell on the sword. The sword was thrown on him for what happened to us in that World Series,’’ teammate Bruce Hurst said Monday. “It wasn’t right. Without Billy, I don’t think we even make it there.’’
“That always bothered me,’’ Red Sox legend Dwight Evans said Monday. “Everyone thinks that’s why we lost, and it’s not. Bill was a great ballplayer. He was one tough man, and we would not have been there without him.’’
Buckner had no idea how his life would change after that single stupid play. Indeed, before Tom Brady was the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), Bill Buckner was The Goat, instantly ushered into the Mickey Owen/Fred Snodgrass/Bonehead Merkle pantheon of baseball fall guys.
“I don’t think it ever entered his mind at the time that he was going to have to wear this for the rest of his career,’’ Hurst said.
Infamy stalked Buckner. Jokes and replays. Over and over.
When he was released by the Sox the following year, he said, “I think everybody in this town, including the Red Sox, holds that against me. I think I deserved better. I don’t think it has to be brought up the way it was.’’
Buckner played for two teams after leaving Boston but came back for a final season in 1990, slugging his way onto the squad out of spring training. He got a huge ovation when he was introduced before the home opener. It was his final season in the majors and it was brief (22 games). He retired at the age of 40 and became a minor league hitting instructor.
But the grounder followed him into retirement. In 1993, Buckner got into a dustup with a wiseguy fan outside of Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium. A week later, he abandoned baseball and moved his family to a ranch in Meridian, Idaho.
He found peace after that. Allowing himself to be the butt of the joke, he filmed a Nike commercial with Spike Lee and Willie Mays. He did autograph shows with Mookie Wilson, signing photographs of the play. He appeared with Larry David in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.’’ In “Curb,” Buckner’s error is the running joke. Buckner ultimately saves the day at the end of the episode, catching an infant thrown from a burning building.
There was even ultimate forgiveness at Fenway, much of it owed to the Red Sox’ new image as champions.
In April 2008, on the day the 2007 world champion Red Sox received their rings, Buckner received a standing ovation before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
Evans was Buckner’s catcher that day.
“I went out to the mound after catching that pitch and he was crying like a little kid,’’ Evans said Monday. “It meant so much to him.’’
It was cathartic. For Buckner. And for us.
“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,’’ Buckner said. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.’’
And now he is gone.
“I’m so sad,’’ said Hurst, who probably would have been MVP of the ’86 World Series if the Sox had won. “I didn’t know he was that sick. Bill was the one who taught us what a pro looked like.’’
“Bill called me about a year ago and told me about his illness,’’ said Evans. “And now this. It just shows you how horrible this disease is.’’
Whenever something unfortunate happens to a famous person, it’s customary to say, “That will be in the first paragraph of his obituary.’’
Bill Buckner died Monday. The Associated Press report that moved Monday afternoon started with, “Bill Buckner, a star hitter who became known for making one of the most infamous plays in major league history . . .”
First paragraph. First sentence.
Life is unfair.
Even in death.