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Buckner Was Much More Than “The Play” That Made Him Famous

Bill Buckner

(Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The truth of the matter is, Bill Buckner should have never been on the field in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

All season, Boston Red Sox manager John McNamara had followed the same script. When the Red Sox carried a lead late into a game, McNamara would replace Buckner at first base with Dave Stapleton, a more mobile defensive specialist.

But this time, McNamara chose sentimentality over practicality. With the Red Sox three outs away from their first World Series championship since 1918, McNamara wanted Buckner on the field to celebrate with his teammates.

What happened next will remain frozen in the minds of Red Sox fans until the end of time. Mookie Wilson’s groundball slithered under Buckner’s glove and through his legs to allow the winning run to score and set the stage for the New York Mets to win the series in Game 7.

Buckner died on Monday at age 69 from Lewy Body Dementia, a terrible disease which strips dignity from its victims. And as we always suspected they would, each and every obituary began in some form with a reference to the play which branded Buckner’s career for those who didn’t bother to look deeper.

“After battling the disease of Lewy Body Dementia, Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family,” his family said in a statement. “Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

As a result of that play, Buckner’s career and life were thrown into turmoil, Red Sox fans considering the error a personal affront, casual fans seeing it as way to belittle one of the game’s great hitters. He was verbally attacked with a relentlessness that forced his family to move from Massachusetts to Idaho where he bought a ranch.

The Athletic pointed out two particular incidents that seemed to characterize what Buckner was put through.

Bill Buckner

(Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In an ESPN documentary on the 25th anniversary of the ’86 World Series, the tape of an sports talk-radio caller exclaimed that “Bill Buckner can rot in hell.” And some dumbass on television asked him if he was “going to jump off a bridge, or shoot myself.” It was an incredibly sad and vicious time.

Buckner was much more than that play. He spent 22 seasons in the Major Leagues and hit everywhere he went. In fact, he never struck out more than two times in any game he played.

Still, here’s what you may always remember: The Red Sox carried a 5-3 lead into the 10th inning at Shea Stadium and then retired the first two Mets hitters to put  them on the precipice of a title. But the Mets rallied at tied the game.

Then Wilson, the Mets speedy centerfield, worked the count to 3-2 against reliever Bob Stanley with the winning run on second base before dribbling a slow roller down the first base line. Buckner moved his glove down to field the ball, but it rolled passed to score Ray Knight.

Informed of Buckner’s death, Wilson issued a statement: “We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years. I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play.”

Of course, Wilson was right.

Buckner had 2,715 hits and only Pete Rose collected more during the 1970s and ‘80s.  He began as the answer to a trivia question, the outfielder who climbed the fence in left-center field at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta to try and catch Hank Aaron’s record 715th homer.

“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,” right fielder Dwight Evans later said.

Buckner’s emotional gashes did not heal for a long time. When the Red Sox celebrated the 20th anniversary of their 1986 team he declined an invitation to attend. But once the Red Sox ended their curse by winning the 2004 World Series, the animosity many still harbored for Buckner began to dissipate.

On the occasion of the Red Sox 2008 home opener,  the another World Champion held a celebration and this time Buckner was at Fenway Park with the likes of Bobby Orr and Bill Russell. The team introduced Buckner to the fans and he was greeted by thunderous applause as he walked to the mound. He threw the ceremonial first pitch. Buckner and Boston were healed.

“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,” Buckner said of why he decided to return to Fenway. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Buckner played eight seasons for the Dodgers before being traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1977. In 1980, he won the National League batting title (.324). He soon would be an All-Star. Then the Cubs dealt him to the Red Sox in May 1984 and he played there until 1987 after which he made stops with the California Angels and Kansas City Royals. He would return to Boston once more as a free agent in 1990 but was released in June. His career was over.

Once his playing career ended, Buckner spent a couple of seasons as hitting coach of the Chicago White Sox before disappearing from the MLB scene.

“It was really unfortunate to see a lot of people grow up in that generation thinking Bill Buckner was a villain of sports in Boston,” Dodgers pitcher Ricj Hill, who grew up in Massachusetts, told Yahoo Sports. “He went massively underappreciated because of that one play.”