Thursday, April 10, 2008


On October 25, 1986, the Red Sox stood at the doorstep of championship. In St. Cloud, a young man stood at the bar of the Americana Inn and, as the bottom of the 10th inning started, leaned over to the bartender, who he knew from the local university, and said "we're about to witness something special." Calvin Schiraldi got the first two outs and the young man said "let's make sure everyone in the bar has something to drink to salute the Sox if they win." Almost immediately the man, young but first steeped as a lad in the Red Sox during the Impossible Dream season of 1967, knew he had done something wrong, as Schiraldi gave up two hits.

The rest of the story you know. Bob Stanley came in, dueled Mookie Wilson for ten pitches, and then got a ground ball that looked like an out. Except it wasn't. It went through Bill Buckner's legs.

The scorn heaped on Buckner by bitter Red Sox fans is of course legendary. (My favorite story is the person who tied a baseball to a string and the string to his back belt loop and wearing a Sox jersey went to a costume party. When asked who he was he bent over and looked between his legs and announced he was Buckner.) Buckner apologists insist that the fault laid at the feet of manager John McNamara for not pulling the injured Buckner -- he had had a horrific post-season due to his bad ankles, and Dave Stapleton was on the bench specifically for replacing Buckner in the field and was available -- but few will note that the Red Sox still had a Game Seven, where Schiraldi gave up a bomb to Ray Knight that broke a tie in the seventh inning.

But it wasn't Buckner's fault. He didn't buy the drinks in the bar in St. Cloud. (A few years ago Michael Keaton was in a movie called Game 6 as a playwright missing his opening night to watch that game. I ruined it for him too.) And he didn't hang a slider to Ray Knight.

Buckner has had real difficulty coming to grips with the angst of Red Sox fans over that night, As most will know, he went to Idaho and didn't talk about the event for years. Even when he started signing photographs on tour with Wilson, he would not discuss the night, or the reaction of the fans.

Until Tuesday, when after the World Championship rings were handed out, the first pitch belonged to Billy Buck:

After all the ceremony, the handing out of rings and hoisting of the championship banner and introducing of Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics legends, there was Buckner walking out from left field to the mound. He walked slowly, perhaps a remnant of those aching ankles and knees that marred his career. And as he walked, the fans cheered.

They stood, their ovation carrying him from the outfield through the infield to the mound, where he acknowledged them and clapped. They stood after that, still cheering, as he looked around, as he readied himself, as he threw a strike to Evans at home plate.

"Just seeing him walk out, I couldn't have been happier for him," Evans said. "This guy had tremendous numbers, total stats, and I don't even know if he got a couple votes for the Hall of Fame, which I really think is a shame.

"No one played harder than Bill. No one prepared themselves as well as Bill Buckner did, and no one wanted to win as much as Bill Buckner.

I saw him at the Metrodome once after 1986. He was with the Royals then, and as he walked to the plate I felt myself first getting a little angry, the frustration of the '86 Series still right there below the surface. Glad I was in Minnesota, where you don't boo players much. That probably kept it in check.

He grounded out, laboring up the line, running it out even though at his age and in his hobbled state it would have been fine for him to trot 50 feet and turn right to the dugout. But no, that wasn't the right way to play. He played the right way. He always had played the right way.

And one young guy from St. Cloud stood up and clapped.

And silently apologized for buying those drinks.

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