Bill Buckner threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park on Opening Day and you don’t have to be Red Sox fan to know what that means. Most any baseball fan can tell you that Buckner is the first baseman who let a dribbling grounder roll through his legs and past his glove in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and began the momentum shift in favor the New York Mets.
It was unfair, really, to blame it on Buck because the whole team lost Game 7 (not to mention the pitcher didn’t get over there to back up Buckner on that play). Unfortunately, for the hapless Sox and their fans who had been waiting since 1918 for that elusive World Series championship, Buckner became the symbol of that ignominious defeat, synonymous with goat. (A late night joke of the era: “What do Michael Jackson and Bill Buckner have in common? They both one glove for absolutely no reason.” Another one: “Did you hear Bill Buckner tried to kill himself after Game 6? Yeah, he stepped in front of a bus… but it went between his legs.”)
It wasn’t the first time Buckner had been applauded by Boston fans since that fateful day.
On Tuesday, however, Buckner was received with applause and cheers by a hometown crowd as it celebrated the second World Series win since that day of nightmares. Some cynics might say that the fans would not be so magnanimous had the Sox not won the Series yet but I would point out that it wasn’t the first time Buckner had been applauded by Boston fans since that fateful day.
I don’t remember exactly when it was but it was sometime in the 1988 or 1989 seasons, when the wounds were still fresh. A group of guys I was working with in a factory in my hometown decided to take off into town that night and get standing-room tickets to the Sox game against the Kansas City Royals. We got in well before the start of the game, while on-field warmups were still underway and we stood above the left field foul line, near the Green Monster, watching the fielders work. Bill Buckner was playing for them now and the abuse rained down on him from bitter fans as he fielded some balls. But then on one grounder hit right at him, he pretended to flub it, lifting his glove comically and with obvious intention. It was not malicious, but humorous and it was the perfect antidote. Immediately the cheers turned to laughter and then applause as the fans in the stands understood that Buckner knew. He knew where he stood in the annals of baseball history and made clear that he was willing to acknowledge the label that had been attached to him.
It couldn’t have been easy being Bill Buckner for the past 22 years, although it probably got a little easier when the pressure came off in October 2004. Perhaps now, in 2008, Buckner can finally leave that burden behind. For the fans, it’s only a game and our jeers at the TV and the ballpark get left behind when the rest of life comes around. But for a man who made baseball his life, being made the goat would be a bitter pill you’d carry with you every day.
Good on you, Bill Buckner, for showing some class, and good on you, Red Sox fans, for returning the favor with a standing ovation. Now let’s enjoy the fruits of the labor of the current crop of boys of summer and leave the past where it belongs. Play ball!