My memories of baseball great Bill Buckner are more than just that play of the ball going through his legs more than three decades ago.
After learning that Buckner died Monday due to complications from dementia, thoughts from my childhood in Chicago as a lifelong Cubs fan raced through my head about how much I admired the bushy-haired mustached first baseman–and the super cool dude who always waved back when I saw him on my way to school.
I remember Buckner, who played virtually every day for nearly 8 of his 22 seasons, playing for really terrible Cubs teams. Number 22 was a constant in my life for several summers from the ages of 6 through 13. He was always batting third, usually getting a hit. He was a steady, calming presence as the Cubs regularly lost (hence the term the ‘Lovable Losers’).
“He was exciting to watch,” Gromer M. Jeffers, a fellow Chicago native, and a veteran Dallas Morning News political writer told me on Tuesday. “Buckner became a fan favorite because he seemed like an everyday guy.”
Unfortunately, “Billy Buck,” as fans and the hall of fame Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse used to call him, is best known for his fielding error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series while playing for the Boston Red Sox which helped the New York Mets tie the series and eventually win Game 7 and the world championship.
But I remember running home to the TV to catch Buckner chase and win the National League batting title in 1980, with his crouched batting stance and the bat waving off his left shoulder. I recall how it looked like he ran (or lumbered) side-to-side, instead of in a straight line after he lost much of his speed due to a leg injury while previously playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Still, I thought he played with as much hustle as baseball’s all-time hits leader Pete Rose. “He was Rose without the flash,” according to my college fraternity brother and fellow former longsuffering Cubs fan, Zuniza Jones [cq].
But I really remember Buckner briefly living across the street from my grade school, Abraham Lincoln Elementary, on Chicago’s Near North Side in the early 80s. How Buckner would come out in his bathrobe with a cup of coffee in hand to get his newspapers off his front stoop and wave when I or my classmates would say, “What’s up, Billy Buck?”
Or when my classmates during morning recesses would wait outside Buckner’s house and he would patiently sign baseballs or those spongy white-painted rubber baseballs that we bought for $1 at Esther’s corner store before heading off to play at Wrigley Field for those countless day games (we attempted to play hooky to attend some games, despite a high risk of being caught by school detention officers).
When asked if he was going to get a hit, Buckner would simply say, “Yup.”
For the record, I Ioved Miss Esther and her sister, Daisy, but I think they jacked up the price of the rubber balls after discovering Buckner was their neighbor.
I was devastated when the Cubs traded Buckner just days into the 1984 season to the Red Sox so that Leon “Bull” Durham could finally play first base for Chicago (Ironically, Durham made a similar error – two years before Buckner did – when the Cubs lost to San Diego Padres in the ’84 National League Championship Series. I remember hearing Cubs fans say “Buckner would’ve caught it!”)
On Monday, I also recalled how I was celebrating my 16th birthday while visiting colleges in Iowa and watching Game 6 of the ’86 World Series when I saw the ball go through Buckner’s legs and the Red Sox lost to the Mets. I felt extremely sorry for Buckner – almost to the point of tears. Buckner was traded to the California Angels the next season and eventually returned to Boston to finish his career in 1990. Eleven years ago, Buckner was given a standing ovation when he took the field at Boston’s Fenway Park throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Red Sox’s season opener.
Former Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson, who hit the infamous ground ball to Buckner nearly 33 years ago, said in a statement Monday that Buckner’s career is far better than just a bad play.
“I felt bad for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play,” Wilson said.
My buddy, Jeffers agrees. Ever the reporter Jeffers began to rattle off some of Buckner’s accomplishments including that he ranks 66th in all-time hits (2,715), 50th in career at-bats (9,397), 149th in career RBI – runs batted in (1,208) and, of course, that he never struck out more than two times in one game.
And, of course, we both talked about how Buckner was even a good sport when he was on a classic episode of HBO’s “Curb your enthusiasm.”
“Buckner wasn’t your typical superstar,” Jeffers said. “It’s just a shame that he’s remembered for the error.”
Nope, not by me. Not by me.
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