Red Sox Memory Lane: Remembering first baseman Bill Buckner

1990: First basemen Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox swing at a pitch. Mandatory Credit: Gray Mortimore/Allsport
1990: First basemen Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox swing at a pitch. Mandatory Credit: Gray Mortimore/Allsport /

After the passing of MLB great Bill Buckner we remember his time in the league, with the Red Sox, and the lessons he taught us on and off the field.

At the end of May, MLB superstar Bill Buckner lost his life much too early at the age of 69. Buckner lost his battle with Lewy body dementia (LBD). LBD leads to a decline in thinking, reasoning, and independent function. The former All-Star and Batting Title winner spent 5 years of his long 22-season career with the Red Sox.

Buckner accumulated a career .289 BA, .321 OBP, and .408 SLG. When he was a Red Sox member he had a .279 BA, .315 OBP, and .410 SLG.

Buckner spent many years on the top 10 lists for all of his offensive and defensive achievements. Including 7 seasons for Hits and Doubles; 6 seasons for his Batting Average, At-Bats, Singles, Assists (as a first-basemen), Outs Made, and Putouts;  5 seasons for Total Bases, Games Played (as a first-basemen), and Double-Plays Turned; 3 seasons for games played, Hit by Pitch, and Sacrifice Flies; and 2 seasons in the top 10 for Stolen Bases.

Buckner was both offensive and defensive minded, although his stats are overpowering on the offensive side. He was patient at the plate, often able to put the ball in play, a team player, and not afraid to use his speed to get inside a pitcher or catchers mind.

Many fans remember Buckner for an error in Game 6 of the World Series against the New York Mets. For those of us who don’t remember the life-defining game in 1986, picture this. Starting pitcher Roger Clemens lasted 7 innings, allowing 2 runs. In the 8th inning, his replacement Calvin Schiraldi allowed a run that resulted in a tied game.

The Red Sox came back swinging hard in the 10th, giving them a 5-3 lead. Schiraldi then gave up 3 singles. One of which ended up scoring. Replacement pitcher Bob Stanley allowed the tying score off a wild pitch. But what fans remember most was Buckner’s defensive error that allowed the Mets to drive in the winning run. The Mets won the series in Game 7 and fans forever remembered the error that Buckner made.

He was forced to face angry threats from Red Sox fans after the World Series outcome. Buckner is the perfect example of what an unhappy community is capable of. The community turned him into an enemy, a scapegoat for why the Sox didn’t bring home the title. The following year, he played the entire season in Boston being labeled as an internal enemy. As Buckner explained,

"“At some point, you have to realize that it’s just a game, even if people don’t understand that one person doesn’t lose the World Series, I had to live with the fact that I was getting blamed for something that really didn’t happen. It was just how the stars lined up, with Boston and New York, and Boston (nearly) 100 years from winning. You have to get the point where it doesn’t mean that much.”"

The entire course of his career was changed in that one defining moment. Was it justifiable? He was dealing with injuries. But he never used this as a crutch. There are 9 players on a baseball diamond at a time. Every single player is responsible for what he produces when he’s up at the plate. Every strikeout, ground out, pop fly plays a role in the outcome of the game.

Then you have the catcher who’s responsible for calling the pitches; the coaches who are responsible for offering guidance, signs, and insights for the catcher; the pitcher who’s then responsible for delivering the perfectly placed pitch to win the batter vs pitcher match-up. Is it fair that Buckner dealt with the blame when he wasn’t the only guy on the field or in the dugout that contributed to the game?

Years later, Red Sox fans later embraced him for all that he had accomplished for the team. Buckner clearly depicts immense strength and forgiveness. He returned to the Sox for a brief stint. It was in 2008, when the fans at Fenway were truly able to show Buckner the love they had for him. He walked on the field to throw the first ball of the game and drew a standing ovation. How was Buckner able to cope with the entire situation? As he explained,

"“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 for what they put me and my family through. So I’ve done that. I’m over that. And I’m just happy that I just try to think of the positive. The happy things.”"

The game of baseball should be defined by more than just one play. You’re constantly strategizing throughout a game, adjusting, developing ways to outsmart your opponents. If we look at any one game there’s always going to be hundreds of trials and errors that could have developed different outcomes, plays that could have been better, smarter, better played out. It’s close to impossible to make it through 9 innings with a perfect team game.

Mookie Wilson, the player who made the hit that resulted in the error, developed a 30 year friendship with Buckner. There’s no saying that IF Buckner hadn’t made the error, that the game would have been won by the Red Sox. Here’s what Wilson had to say about Buckner,

Buckner had the courage to play in Boston for an entire year after “the play”. He subjected himself to daily scrutiny. He found the internal strength to forgive. He was the bigger man when he decided to return to Boston. Buckner was a terrific player on the field, his achievements speak for themselves.

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But I think we can all learn the most about strength, forgiveness, mental toughness, humility, and leadership from Buckner. It’s unfortunate that he lost his life as early as he did. As a baseball fan, I’m thankful for all that he gave us as a player and a man off the field.