He was a batting champion, an All-Star, and an ageless infielder who the 1986 Red Sox absolutely could not have done without.
Does anyone remember those things? Very broadly speaking, they do not. Should they? Absolutely.
There is a genre of tragic sports heroes who are only known for one mistake, one negative moment in their careers that often obscures their bevy of on-field accomplishments. “Wrong Way” Roy Riegels was an All-American back in 1929. Barbosa, the man who made all Brazil cry, was considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world throughout the 1940s. Leon Durham was a two-time All-Star at second base. Leon Lett played in two Pro Bowls. JR Smith was the Sixth Man of the Year on the last great Knicks team.
In cultural stature and arguably in skill, Buckner topped them all. Yes, he did miss a routine ground ball that trickled through his legs into right field, and yes, that error did allow the Mets to even the 1986 World Series at three games apiece. No matter that he was chronically injured the entire season (a season in which he still drove in 102 runs), and that Red Sox manager John McNamara had mismanaged his bullpen, and that Buckner was alertly trying to account for the speed of Mookie Wilson.
He was a convenient scapegoat, and that was all that mattered both to a frustrated Red Sox Nation and a nation at large eager to create a black-and-white sports landscape of heroes and villains, GOATs and goats.
However, people are more complex than that; Buckner was more complex than that. He was a terrific wide receiver on the gridiron in the state of California, and slid naturally into the Dodgers lineup, beginning with a cup of coffee in 1969 and catching on permanently in 1971. From 1969-1976, he hit .289. In 1974, he hit a home run in the World Series against Oakland.
Los Angeles dealt him to the Cubs in 1977; did he falter on the North Side? No, he became a Wrigley Field stalwart – in his seven full seasons in the Cubs’ uniform, Buckner hit .301, including a .324 in 1980 that earned him the National League batting title. The next year, he was in Cleveland for the All-Star Game, en route to a season where he would lead the NL in doubles. He turned that same trick in ‘83.
In 1984, at last, he found himself in Boston (how often does a player find such lasting success with three different franchises?). Buckner only spent two full seasons at Fenway, but they were great ones: 162-game averages of .283-18-109-84-13. In each of the Sox’s four most common batting orders of the ‘86 season, Buckner slots in seamlessly in the three-hole, flanked often by Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Jim Rice.
That’s at the heart of what Buckner did during his career – slotting in seamlessly. Was Buckner ever considered one of the best players in baseball? No, he was not – he mustered just two finishes in the Top 10 in either league’s MVP voting, both on subpar Cubs teams.
But were teams with Bill Buckner on them better off than they would be without him? Unequivocally – whether at first or in the outfield, he was dependable, productive, and, in his twilight years on and off the field when the shadow of the Series mishap hung over him, graceful to the last.
Featured Photo: Jerry Buckley