In Defense of Bill Buckner

Umpire John Kibler calls the ball "fair"; what happened after that wasn't fair.

Yes, he should have had it.  The little dribbler that Mookie Wilson hit toward first base should have resulted in an out.  Bill Buckner should have scooped it up and hustled to first, stepping on the bag just ahead of Wilson.  That would have ended game 6, making the Boston Red Sox World Series champions in 1986.

Of course, that’s not what happened.  Somehow the ball managed to get through Buckner’s legs, the New York Mets scored the winning run and ultimately went on to win the World Series in Game 7.  Buckner was villified in the Boston media and fans turned on him.  “To Buckner” became a verb meaning “to make a critical mistake”.

It’s my view that Bill Buckner doesn’t deserve the blame for losing the World Series — certainly not all of it, anyway.  There’s plenty of blame to go around.

To begin with, the Red Sox were extremely fortunate to even be in the World Series that year.  In the American League Championship Series, Boston was down 3 games to 1, and one out away from oblivion.  But lightning struck — Dave Henderson hit a home run off Donnie Moore in the 9th inning of game 5, reviving Boston’s chances.  (Buckner had started that miraculous rally with a single, by the way.)  Two innings later, Henderson’s sacrifice fly off Moore won the game.  The Sox subsequently won the next two games and made it into the World  Series.

Luck is fickle, though, and it turned against them on October 25, in game 6 of the Series.  So who, besides Buckner, deserves blame?  Well, almost all of the Red Sox hitters, who left a total of 14 runners on base that night; future Hall-of-Famer Jim Rice was 0-for-5, striking out twice.

There are some who blame manager John McNamara.  He often put in a defensive replacement in the late innings since Buckner was playing on two bad ankles, but he didn’t on that fateful night.  

Another guilty party was pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, who had a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the 10th with 2 out… and then gave up 3 straight hits, the last on an 0-2 count.  The Sox were 1 strike away from expensive rings, but didn’t close the deal.

Bob Stanley came on in relief of Schiraldi, with the Sox still clinging to a one-run lead.  Mookie Wilson was the Mets’ hitter.  During that 10-pitch at-bat, Stanley threw one too far inside; maybe Catcher Rich Gedman should have caught it, but it was ruled a wild pitch.  Whatever — it sailed past Gedman, allowing Kevin Mitchell to score from third base, and moving Ray Knight into scoring position at second base.

The count on Wilson was 3-2 when he hit the grounder with which Buckner is forever associated.  Knight raced around to score, winning the game for the Mets and tying the series.

The Mets won game 7, giving them the opportunity to dump champagne on each other.  By the way, Bill Buckner managed a respectable 2-for-4 night at the plate in the finale.  Others were to blame for that loss, notably hapless pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, who yielded 3 runs in one-third of an inning.

My point is that on any team, responsibility for success or failure is shared.  And let’s face it, no one makes it through life error-free.  (Divorce statistics are but one example).  Buckner had a solid career — .289 average, over 2700 hits — so it doesn’t seem fair that he’s known for that one mistake.

And maybe that’s an important life lesson that we learn from the world of sports:  Make plenty of mistakes, so you won’t get blamed for just one.

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9 responses to “In Defense of Bill Buckner

  1. He has plenty of company after this year’s NFL playoffs. Did you see his turn on Curb Your Enthusiasm? Nice to see him laugh at himself.

  2. I’m with you about Schiraldi and the rest of the Sox sharing Buckner’s load. The 2003 Cubs should also be blamed much more than Steve Bartman, the fan who got in the way of a foul ball, for not making it to the World Series that year. The problem (for the fan’s brain – mine included) is that in these brief moments of infamy, the failure is so personified – so concentrated – that it’s hard for us to rationally look outside of each incident. I’d say the same is true for NFL kickers. Most of the time, their job seems easy compared to what their teammates endure. However, when they miss a last second field goal that would have won the game, they shoulder the blame for the loss, and the rest of the team is off the hook. Just ask Scott Norwood.

    • Great point, Brian. What fans focus on is that single decisive moment when victory or defeat is determined. However, it’s the running back who failed to gain a first down with less than 2 minutes to go — or the wild pitch to the screen — which have just as much impact on the eventual outcome of the game. For some reason, fans don’t seem to remember those turning points.

  3. Billy Bucks was one of my all-time favorite Dodgers. He always played his ass off. By the way, Tom, are you the Tom Reeder from SBVC?

    • That was a long time ago, Omar. Did you study at San Bernardino Valley College also?

      As a Dodger fan, you probably remember that Buckner was traded to the Cubs (along with Ivan DeJesus) for Rick Monday. It’s hard to say who came out better in that deal, but Bill Buckner did lead the National League in batting a few years after the trade.

  4. Tom: Send me an email and I’ll explain our old and odd connection

  5. To further exonerate Buckner: contrary to what is written at the beginning of this article, Buckner making the play would not have ‘ended game 6, making the Boston Red Sox World Series champions in 1986’ – it would have kept the game tied and sent it into the 11th inning.
    The Red Sox lead was gone before the ball ever got near Buckner. And, it’s far from a given that he would have beaten Mookie Wilson to 1st base, anyway.

    • You’re right — as mentioned in a later paragraph, Bob Stanley’s wild pitch allowed the TYING run to score from third base. Good catch, Jason; my error.

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