Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Bill-y Buck-ner!

My allegiance and my blood are forever dedicated to the Chicago Cubs, in case you hadn't noticed. But that doesn't mean I can't take note of other big goings-on in the world of baseball that have nothing to do with the eventual 2008 World Series champions. For example, there's what happened today in Boston as the 2007 World Series champs were being honored at their home opener. After the Red Sox' epic and perhaps unfair mega-road trip that saw them cover 16,000 miles over three countries and a 3-4 start, the best awards for the team may have been a soft pillow and a glass of warm milk. But there was the matter of the distribution of the hardware - the presentation of the World Series trophy, the World Series rings, the World Series banner hoisted above Fenway Park. And it wasn't just Red Sox who were honored: representatives of the Celtics (including Bill Russell), the Bruins (including Bobby Orr) and the Patriots (including Tedy Bruschi) also were on hand with their respective championship trophies from days gone by, as if to remind the rest of the universe of Boston's exalted status as Titletown, U.S.A. And, for an added pinch of pomp, the Boston Pops played in the outfield.

The best, though, was saved for last. The Sox organization had kept a secret who was to have the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, but by the time the individual in question emerged from the Green Monster to walk out to the mound, most of the crowd there had an inkling what was up. Still, that didn't squelch the heartfelt enthusiasm when Bill Buckner, wearing a Red Sox jersey (and nothing else! - just kidding), walked onto the Fenway grass to a rousing four-minute ovation before he threw a change-up to former teammate Dwight Evans.

Now, there are some caveats to this feel-good story. Even non-baseball players know why Buckner's return to Boston is such a big deal. (Two words: Game Six). But of course the Sox losing that game and eventually the Series to the Mets in '86 wasn't really his fault, just as Bartman didn't cause the Cubs to miss out on the Fall Classic in 2003 after being only five outs away from Glory.* Everyone forgets that Boston had already blown a two-run, 10th inning lead to New York (after being one out away from winning it all for the first time in almost 70 years) before Mookie Wilson's slow grounder went down the first-base line and through Buckner's wickets. Or that the Sox blew a three-run lead the following night to give the Mets the title. Buckner was the fall guy, the goat**, the player who let down an entire region of the nation. A solid, reliable career had been sullied by one play - a play he probably should have made, but a single play nonetheless. Within a year he was with another team, and though he would return to play his final season with Boston in 1990, the stigma was on him like a scarlet letter - the letter being "E" for "error".

He retired and moved to the relative seclusion of Idaho, some say after his family received death threats from fans who had too much to drink or too little time on their hands. But Baseball and the Red Sox were never out of his universe - he would develop a housing subdivision named after Fenway Park in his adoptive state - and it wasn't long before overtures of forgiveness would come from Red Sox Nation. They were tentative at first, but after Boston finally put the Curse of the Bambino to rest for good, the tempo picked up: It is said that as the team celebrated in the clubhouse at St. Louis' Busch Memorial Stadium in 2004, one of the first calls they made was to Buckner.

So some cynics might say that it's easy to forgive Buckner now that his "stain" has been washed away with the champagne of two World Series titles; cynics on the other side might chime in that there was nothing to forgive in the first place, that baseball is a game of inches, where even Hall of Famers fail more than 60 percent of the time at the plate, that Buckner's error was compounded by poor pitching and managing in that fateful inning - that, in what should be plastered onto ever clubhouse wall in every stadium, shit happens. But the emotions expressed at Fenway this afternoon, both from the crowd and in the tears on Buckner's face, were very real, and you can't beat that with a stick.

* As a Cubs fan, you don't know how it pains me to admit that.

** Goats - another sensitive subject for me!

1 comment:

Flax said...

Good for him and all, although as has been pointed out a number of times, he wasn't booed when he returned to the Red Sox in 1990 either; the Buckner hatred was largely fueled by the media, as are most of these curses and such. (We have the media to blame for posting Steve Bartman's home address the night of Game 6, for example.) I do think it was kind of amusing how he was announced as having amassed "Hall of Fame-caliber credentials" in his career, which seems like a bit of a stretch for a guy who was a completely average hitter for the bulk of his career, barring his 1980-82 run with the Cubs. Not to down him or anything, that just sort of stood out.