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Remembering Bill Buckner

and a look back at the real goats of the '86 Series

As you sit down tonight to watch the Yankees and Red Sox go at it again, whether at Yankee Stadium, or at a bar, or in your living room, think back to that classic 1986 World Series showdown between the crosstown New York Mets and Boston. This past Memorial Day felt a little bit sadder with the passing of former Major League All-Star, and member of the 1986 Red Sox, Bill Buckner. He was just 69 years old and suffered from Lewy Body Dementia. Life and Death were cruel to “Billy Buck”.

Unfortunately, Buckner will always be remembered for Game 6 of that ’86 Series. With the Sox up three-games-to-two, Mookie Wilson’s 10th inning grounder scooted between Buckner’s legs at first base to give the Mets the win. What’s forgotten is that the Red Sox had taken a 5-3 lead in the top of the 10th only to see pitchers Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley blow the lead. Had Buckner fielded the ball cleanly, the game would have moved to the 11th inning and we have no idea what might have happened then.

While Buckner was the object of ridicule for decades, the onus should have fallen squarely on the shoulders of Red Sox manager John McNamara. Buckner’s body had broken down and was no longer the smooth fielder he once had been. But, instead of subbing Dave Stapleton at first base as he had in the three previous Red Sox World Series wins, McNamara stuck with Buckner. Afterward, Johnny Mac said he wanted Buckner to be out there for the celebration. Oops.

Because of that single play, most younger fans don’t realize that Buckner was a fantastic ballplayer. A second-round selection (1968) by the LA Dodgers out of high school, Buckner made his debut one year later at age 19.

In his first full season in the Majors (1971), Buckner struck out just 18 times in 383 plate appearances. There are sluggers today who strike out more than 18 times in a single week.

A lack of “the whiff” was a trend throughout his Major League career. Buckner’s highest total of strikeouts in a season was 39…in 518 plate appearances. Those are Joe DiMaggio-esque numbers.

Buckner was also a speedster. In 1974, he swiped 31 bases in 44 attempts and finished with 183 for his career. Injuries and ensuing surgeries curtailed his speed and mobility.

That same season the Dodgers won the pennant and Buckner finished 25th in the NL MVP voting.  He was the Dodgers’ primary left-fielder at the time and hit .314 with 58 RBI, 40 extra-base hits, and more walks (30) than strikeouts (24).

Unfortunately, Buckner’s first experience in the World Series wasn’t an enjoyable one, as the dynastic Oakland A’s won their third straight championship.

Buckner moved to the Chicago Cubs in January 1977, along with Ivan DeJesus. Rick Monday headed west to LA in return. Chi-town is where Buckner enjoyed his best seasons.

He finished 14th in the NL MVP voting in 1980 after winning the batting title (.324) and hitting 10 home runs and 41 doubles. And, yes, Buckner walked 30 times and struck out just 18 times.

In the work-interrupted 1981 season, Buckner led the league in doubles, as he would again two years later, and made his only All-Star appearance. A year later, he topped the 100-RBI mark for the first time in his career.

The Cubbies made Buckner a full-time first baseman when he first arrived and in May 1984 Boston needed someone to man the less-hot corner. Buckner headed from one team with a tremendous World Series drought to another, when he was shipped up to Boston for Dennis Eckersley.

Buckner finished his eight-year Chicago “phase” with a .300/.332/.439 slash line and a 1.18:1 walk to strikeout ratio. His hard-nosed play made him beloved by Chicago’s Bleacher Creatures.

In his first two full seasons with the Red Sox, Buckner topped 100 RBI and tied and set career highs in home runs (16, 18). The ’86 Red Sox wouldn’t have been in the World Series without the stellar play of the 36-year old native Californian. 18 years into his career, he still ranked 12th defensively among Major League first baseman (per Fangraphs).

Things were different between the Yankees and Red Sox in 1986. The rivalry had petered out because one or both teams weren’t competitive at the same time. It didn’t fully ignite again until the mid-to-late 1990s. That being said, Yankees fans hated Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs back then.

And, the ’86 Mets were about as arrogant as you could get. While young stars Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Ron Darling were among those admired, fans loathed Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez.

So, when the two teams met, many Yankees fans, myself included, were rooting for the Red Sox. Or, perhaps, it was more of an anti-Mets sentiment. Either way, no one who rooted for the team from the Bronx wanted the Mets to win the title.

Watching the Red Sox take the first two games was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The Mets captured the next two but Bruce Hurst outpitched Gooden in Game 5 to put the Red Sox one game away from ending their then-68-year title drought.

Clemens and the Mets’ Bob Ojeda locked horns in Game 6 with the Sox taking a 3-2 lead into the 7th inning, due in no small part to an error by the Mets’ Ray Knight. “The Rocket” struck out eight in seven innings, but then things went sideways for Boston.

Clemens claimed afterwards that he wanted to go back out for the 8th inning. McNamara claimed that Clemens begged to come out of the game. No matter what actually happened, McNamara pinch-hit rookie Mike Greenwell in Clemens’ spot with a runner in scoring position. Greenwell struck out.

The Red Sox would go on to load the bases with two outs in the 8th. With Buckner due up, Mets’ manager Davey Johnson called on his closer, lefty Jesse Orosco. McNamara could have countered with either Don Baylor or Stapleton to pinch-hit. Instead he stuck with Buckner, despite Orosco’s prowess against left-handed hitters.

Buckner flew out to end the frame and the game remained 3-2, Boston.

McNamara brought in Schiraldi to start the 8th inning. The former Mets reliever had been acquired by Boston as part of a seven-player trade that saw Ojeda move to New York. Schiraldi’s regular season was magnificent. His Game 6 performance was anything but that.

He gave up a leadoff single to Lee Mazzilli and then made a poor throw to second base on Lenny Dykstra’s sacrifice bunt attempt. A good throw probably would have gotten Mazzilli out. Wally Backman then bunted the runners over and McNamara opted to intentionally walk Hernandez to load the bases.

Schiraldi fell behind Carter 3-0 and had no choice but to throw a strike. Carter hammered it to left for a game-tying sacrifice fly.

After a scoreless 9th inning, the Red Sox took the lead in the 10th on a Dave Henderson home run and a Marty Barrett RBI single. The Red Sox were three outs away from Nirvana.

McNamara sent Schiraldi out for a third straight inning of work and the right-hander quickly retired the first two batters. Then, the Mets woke up. Consecutive singles by Carter, pinch-hitter Kevin Mitchell, and Knight cut the lead to 5-4.

Veteran Bob Stanley came on to face Wilson. With the count 2-2, Stanley threw a pitch well inside that just ticked off catcher Rich Gedman’s mitt and ricocheted to the backstop. Once again, the score was tied.

On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Wilson’s grounder eluded Buckner’s grasp and the rest was history. Well, not until the Red Sox blew a 3-0 lead in Game 7 and Schiraldi was the losing pitcher once again. (Don’t worry…while we were disappointed the Mets won, we continued to laugh at the Red Sox’ continued misfortune.)

Though fingers could be pointed at many of the Red Sox players and their manager, Buckner bore the brunt of the vitriol. The Red Sox released him in July 1987 and he finished the year with the California Angels.

Buckner spent 1988 and 1989 with the Angels and KC Royals before finishing his career back in Boston in 1990. On June 5, the Red Sox released him, effectively ending Buckner’s 20-year career.

He finished with 2,715 hits, a .289 lifetime batting average, and only 453 strikeouts in over 10,000 plate appearances.

After the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series, Buckner threw out the first pitch the following Opening Day. He received a standing ovation from the Fenway Faithful. After the game, he was asked if he had any second thoughts about a Red Sox reunion.  Buckner replied, “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 for what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Bronx Pinstripes sends its condolences and best wishes to Buckner’s wife Jody and to his family and friends.