Buckner Gaffe Never Fades

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

There is no shortage of tales of heartbreak in the world of sports. The Munich Olympic Games, 1972, when confusion over time left on the clock rendered the USA men's basketball team silver medalists, instead of gold. Jim Thorpe, the greatest all-round athlete of the first half of the 20th century, stripped of his Olympic medals because he took some petty amount of money for food. But in the category of errors, no matter how many interceptions are thrown, how many foul shots missed, the Bill Buckner between-the-legs ground ball is the number-one, all-time gaffe. It happened twenty years ago yesterday and has grown to become cultural legend. Beyond legendary, the error is now mythical. Beyond mythical, it's actually crossed over at this point to cliché.

It was the 1986 World Series. Buckner was at first base for the long-suffering Boston Red Sox. A wild pitch was thrown by relief pitcher Bob Stanley. A pitch that allowed the Mets' Kevin Mitchell to score the tying run. Why has Bob Stanley not been shamed all these years? The catcher on that wild pitch, Rich Gedman, couldn't wrangle what was a catchable ball. Why hasn't Gedman been maligned all these years? The game was tied when the Mets speed demon Mookie Wilson stepped into the batter's box. His ground ball took a couple of iffy bounces in the dirt and slipped through Buckner's legs but Wilson could have well reached first, even if Buckner had scooped up the ball. For twenty years now, Wilson has been asked, "Would you have beat Buckner to first, had he fielded the ball?" He doesn't know. We'll never know. And had Buckner fielded the ball and gotten Wilson out, the game still would have been tied and carried on. As it was, Buckner's error allowed the Mets the winning run. But that was Game 6 of the Series. The Red Sox and Mets went to Game 7. Boston blew a three-run lead. One lone error, in a team sport, doesn't take the heat for a loss. It's never the case that two teams are absolutely equal in every single aspect and then one player commits an egregious error and that's the whole ball game. It never happens and yet Bill Buckner's error twenty years ago yesterday has taken on the status of national memory. In the non sports world, when you're looking to categorize the extent of a significant blunder... you've inadvertently given the boss' spouse information about the boss' extramarital affair... you refer to the error as a Bill Buckner-level foul.

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Buckner played 22 years in the Major Leagues. He won the batting title in 1980. Some of his stats, such as 2715 hits, exceed many players who have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But books and films and articles have been written by the dozens about Bill Buckner and the only story ever told about his career is that pesky error off Mookie Wilson's line drive. The hatred for Buckner was so intense, so vocal, including many death threats, after that '86 World Series, that the Red Sox drove him out of town. He's in Idaho now. And the only autograph he's ever asked for is at the bottom of a picture of that ball escaping between his legs into right field. He tried back then, and he's continued to try all these twenty years, to diffuse the lore. He keeps repeating that those are just the hard knocks of the game. Every infielder has experienced a bad bounce. It sounds right but you can tell by the defeat in Buckner's eyes that it's been hell to live with this virtual scarlet E for Error on his chest all this time.

And that ball that careened into right field that day in 1986? Actor Charlie Sheen paid $93,000 for it.

I say it's about time we gave up the Bill Buckner story. No more associations between our everyday mistakes and Buckner's bad bounce. Let's simply give it up.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad