Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Return of the Blog... Part Two: Finally Forgiven -Buckner Returns

Imagine having to face a contingent, nay a hovering swarm, of people you inwardly and completely despised.

This is not an individual hatred of one person but rather a piercing vitriol for a collective mass. A group of ever-changing, ever-criticizing, ever-present people. A faceless bunch that has collectively dragged your name in the mud for 22 years.

And now suddenly, they wish to embrace you. To pardon you of a punishment you did not earn. A simple mistake that, while important, was not deserving of such treatment.

That's what Bill Buckner faced last night at Fenway Park.

After infamously playing the role of scapegoat for the national media since the Red Sox's crushing loss to the Mets in the 1986 World Series, he sat in front of a cadre of microphones and reporters and struggled to maintain his emotions.

Bill Buckner was back in Boston.

For the younger generations of baseball fans across the United States and the world, this moment meant relatively nothing. But for anyone remotely associated with Red Sox Nation, or avid fans of that era, yesterday's ceremony honoring Buckner was long, long overdue.

When Buckner emerged from the Green Monster and slowly strode to the mound, all of Boston quivered. As did those living vicariously around the globe. You have to know the background of the story to understand the significance of this moment. You have to go back to October of '86.

The Boston Red Sox, led by young righty Roger Clemens and an incredible lineup featuring Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, Don Baylor, Dwight Evans, and Buckner, were 95-game winners and took the American League Pennant. Buckner was second on the team in runs batted in (RBI) and fourth in hits. He was one of the guys that "got them there." And 'there' was the World Series against the other baseball team from New York.

After taking games one and two, the Sox seemed poised to roll to a title. But they dropped games three and four in Boston. However, game five went to Beantown and the Red Sox were on the verge of their first World Series championship since 1918. All they had to do was win one of two at Shea Stadium and 68 years of waiting would be over. But in game six, Buckner's life changed forever.

Up 3-2 in the 8th inning, Mets catcher Gary Carter hit a sacrifice fly to tie it up and eventually send the game into extra innings. Boston scored two in the top of the 10th to go up 5-3 and, after getting two straight outs to start the bottom half of the inning, Mets fans began filing out. It should have been over.

But Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi imploded. Three straight singles made it 5-4. Schiraldi's day was done, relieved by Bob Stanley. On his seventh toss to the plate, a wild pitch brought the tying run home. And three pitches later, Mookie Wilson hit a dribbler to first base.

Buckner was there, as always. He was an incredible fielder. Despite injuries to both of his knees, Buckner played 1,191.7 innings over the course of 138 games at first base that season and fielded a total of 1,067 plays. Out of those, he had made just 14 errors. A fielding percentage of .989. He simply didn't make that many mistakes. He was solid. If you were going to pick one guy to field that ball, Bill Buckner was the guy.

Then it happened. It got past him. Mets win 6-5 in 10 innings.

Two days later, New York won game seven and the World Series. The Sox faithful were crushed. The 'Curse' continued. And every time Boston's unique propensity for coming up short was brought up at dinner tables across the country, one man was to blame. Bill Buckner. His name was usually followed by expletives. Or laughs.

It was easy to blame him...especially for the national media. You could sum up all of Boston's woes in one twenty-two second video/audio clip. His name became recognizable with error, with the loss of hope, with failure.

After the following season, the Red Sox released Buckner. The stigma attached to that one play was enough to dump him a full year after the fact. He spent a season each with the Angels and Royals before coming back to Boston in 1990.

You read that right, he came back. He wanted to retire in a Boston uniform despite his longer MLB tenures with both the Dodgers and Cubs. It was because the Red Sox fans never blamed him. They never stopped appreciating all that he had done over his career.

He was the misunderstood friend at a party that everyone else in attendance was ignoring. But you went up and greeted that friend because you knew everyone else's perception of him was wrong. He was an alright guy. Right place, wrong time.

Yet for over two decades Buckner's name remained the golden standard for futility. But, when Boston finally won the World Series in 2004 and then again in 2007, the need to blame anyone for previous 'sin' became unnecessary. Bill Buckner was washed clean of his wrongdoing. Acquitted by his fickle judges from afar. He had served his sentence. It was time to be released back into the good graces of baseball fans.

But Bill Buckner was rightfully too proud to come running into their hypocritical open arms. Two years ago, the Red Sox held a reunion for the 1986 team to celebrate their accomplishments. It was saying, "See, we won one now. It's okay! You can come back; we won't hurt you anymore!" to all of those men. But Bill Buckner wouldn't come back. He sat far, far away, bitterly watching his old teammates return to glory. He was in real estate in Boise, Idaho. Far away from prying eyes and stabbing memories. An All-Star, a borderline Hall-Of-Famer hiding in obscurity. Not hiding from any one person...not a coward. Just a tired man looking for catharsis.

But he knew he had to come back to get that. To add closure. And he finally did yesterday on a beautiful Boston afternoon.

After watching Buckner walk to the pitcher's mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, the man that now plays the very same position reflected on the moment for ESPN. "I've probably never almost been in tears for somebody else on a baseball field," said Kevin Youkilis. "I wanted to shake his hand because that's a true man."

A true man faces both his friends and his foes the same way. Head on. It probably helped that his daughter Christen, ironically now a television reporter in Boise, was on hand covering the press conference. Buckner, dignified yet very human, fought through tears in admitting that he had to "forgive the media" in order to finally receive the credit he was due. A stark moment that hopefully causes today's 'shock them all' media to pause and consider the effects of their accusations and opinions.

As Buckner walked to the mound at Fenway, fans showered him with praise. Some of them were probably sending him death threats just a few years ago. But for many, he was a hero they were so often told they could not embrace. Now he was opening his arms to them.

Buckner rose above all of our human flaws and our collective inability to forgive him. Our fickle and meaningless errors. By doing so, he finally allowed us to bury his.

Bill Buckner is no longer 'E3.'

He's forever #6.

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