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A Better First Paragraph

Bill Buckner [1], one of the finest hitters of his generation, died Monday morning [2] at the age of 69. Buckner recorded 2,715 base hits in a career that touched four different decades. He won the National League batting title in 1980, drove in more than a hundred runs three separate times and helped two teams — the 1974 Dodgers and 1986 Red Sox — reach the World Series.

There. That needed to be done. Bill Buckner deserved a first paragraph of his obituary that didn’t include the one play every clever person at one point or another cavalierly declared was destined to soak up real estate “in the first paragraph of his obituary”.

Buckner’s passing, first reported obliquely via tweet from his former Dodger teammate and longtime friend Bobby Valentine, was confirmed as Memorial Day went along. Jeremy Schaap of ESPN tweeted that he spoke with Bill’s wife Jody, who told him her husband, after suffering from Lewy body dementia, fought it “with courage and grit as he did all things in life”.

When I think of Bill Buckner at his best, I remember him as a dangerous hitter I did not want to see come up against the Mets. If you’re old enough, think of Al Oliver or Bill Madlock. That’s where I place Bill Buckner as a Met opponent, especially during his Cub days. He was as tough an out as any who haunted our schedule on a regular basis.

Now, obviously, that’s not what I think of when I think of Bill Buckner in general. No Mets fan does, but today, you know, let’s give a great hitter his due first. Let’s keep all he accomplished in baseball in mind. No player with as many miles as Bill Buckner had accumulated by October 25, 1986, gets to a tenth inning of a sixth game of a World Series without having earned his way there. That maybe he shouldn’t have been left in to play first base on bad legs is another matter. He was Bill Buckner, an essential component of the American League champions. He was no accident or asterisk. He was Bill Buckner. I never felt good as a Met fan seeing him at bat.

Do you realize Bill Buckner batted in the first inning of the seventh game of the 1986 World Series and singled? Thanks to rain, he’d been left to dwell on his instantly legendary defensive mishap for nearly 44 hours. He didn’t need to be reminded that Mookie Wilson’s ground ball went under his glove and through his legs, allowing the Mets to complete a miraculous comeback that kept Boston from winning its first world championship in 68 years. All of humanity had made sure he was aware, including what sounded like the vast majority of 55,078 in the stands at Shea who accorded him the most sarcastic standing ovation in the history of applause when he was first introduced that Monday night.

To be fair, no Mets fan wasn’t grateful for Bill Buckner’s failure of commission, the whiff on that grounder. There just had to be a better way to show gratitude. Whether Bill could have possibly beaten Wilson to the bag had he scooped up that ball we’ll never know. He didn’t pick it up. Ray Knight scored from second. The Mets won, 6-5. Just as Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell, Knight and Wilson all combined to make the Met victory reality, Calvin Schiraldi, Bob Stanley, Rich Gedman and John McNamara was each partly culpable for the Red Sox defeat. Buckner, too, but only partly. Win as a team, lose as a team. But in the aftermath of Game Six, Buckner bore the brunt of blame.

Watching from home, more than a little bit of me groaned when Buckner was cheered by Mets fans. Bad form. Bad karma. Bad idea. The tiniest sliver of me — a microscope couldn’t have detected it — was actually some version of happy for the guy when he singled off Ron Darling with nobody on and two out in the first. He deserved to answer back in style.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want any Red Sock driving him in and I wanted to see nothing else out of the Red Sox that evening except them clearing completely from the scene so the Mets could celebrate ostentatiously. My empathy has limits. My desired scenario pretty much unfolded, though not without some angst. I’m not fully on board with the myth that after Game Six there was absolutely no way the Mets could lose Game Seven. The Red Sox took a 3-0 lead. Having experienced 108 wins in the regular season and all those innings in the Astrodome, I had faith coming out of my ears that the Mets could/would come back, but it didn’t feel like the kind of sure thing in which you don’t consider an alternative to what you prefer exists. Not after all it took to beat Houston, not after the way we’d fallen behind Boston too often for comfort.

The Red Sox yielded their lead in the sixth and fell behind, 6-3, in the seventh. At that point, I was certain we were good. You know who probably wasn’t so certain, though? Bill Buckner. He led off the top of the eighth against Roger McDowell and singled again. The national joke was 2-for-4 in the seventh game of the World Series. I wasn’t worried. Nor was I remotely perturbed when Jim Rice singled Buckner to second. Now, when Dwight Evans came up and doubled the both of them in and the Red Sox were within one and nobody was out…yeah, I was getting a little antsy.

McDowell had nothing left. Fortunately, Davey Johnson understood that and brought in Jesse Orosco, who retired the next three batters, keeping the Mets in front, 6-5, as we headed to the bottom of the eighth. Darryl Strawberry came up and homered to Mars, Jesse drove in an additional insurance run himself and, in a matter of minutes that were seventeen years in the making, Orosco struck out Marty Barrett to end the 1986 World Series with the Mets as champions and Bill Buckner on deck.

Our celebration was on. Buckner’s reputation was altered. That’s not what we were celebrating, of course, but you’ll take all the help you can get in October. Years later, it appeared the great hitter had made peace with the fielding moment for which he is most remembered. He appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm to make fun of it. He signed autographs alongside Mookie Wilson to raise funds from it. He went on with his life, definitely destined to be known for a dramatic error, but not needing to be defined by just one mistake.