Bill Buckner passed away Monday at age 69. Buckner had a fine career with 2,715 major league hits, a feat surpassed by only 65 other human beings in major league history. Not too bad. He also won a batting title with the Cubs, and never struck out more than 39 times in a single season, a feat equaled or surpassed by Aaron Judge four times — in a single month.
It’s too bad Bill Buckner is not remembered for any of that.
While it became gospel that Buckner’s infamous 10th inning error in Game 6 cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series, the reality wasn’t so neat. Even had he made the play, many believe the speedy Mookie Wilson would have still been safe.
Even had Mookie been thrown out, the Red Sox still could have lost that game since it was already tied before the error. And the Red Sox were up three runs before losing Game 7, a game where Buckner also had two hits. There was a whole series of events that would have altered Buckner’s error to an afterthought.
So when the Red Sox won the World Series 18 years later in 2004 and a sign said “Bill Buckner: We Forgive You,” he had the only sensible and proper response: “[Expletive] You.” Yes, I’m paraphrasing.
More specifically, Buckner said: “I feel like the guy who got put away for a crime he didn’t commit, and then the DNA evidence comes back 30 years later and the guy gets out of jail. What do you say for the 30 years he spent suffering? I don’t feel like I’ve committed a crime.”
Being scapegoated is the very worst social stigma in all of male team sports. Even worse than a crime. In general, a male athlete can take ‘roids, snort coke, drive drunk, beat women, shoot guns, bet on games and even kill people, and redemption is usually a few apologies away, or a few wins. In a sports world where Buckner was exiled to Idaho, and Steve Bartman nearly had to enroll into a witness protection program, being a sports scapegoat is very serious business.
How serious? Buckner didn’t even have the worst fate of players in the 1986 playoffs. The Red Sox only reached the World Series because Buckner’s teammate Dave Henderson hit a series-saving home run with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5 against Angels closer Donnie Moore. Had the Angels won Game 6 or 7, Moore’s mistake would have been forgotten, and Buckner’s never known. Instead, just three years later, Moore was out of baseball and committed suicide.
Moore’s agent, Dave Pinter said at the time: “He couldn’t get over it. That home run killed him.” Moore’s teammate Brian Downing blamed the media and fans. “You destroyed a man’s life over one pitch. The guy was just not the same after that,” Downing said, “No one was sympathetic.”
As with Moore, it wasn’t just the fans who did Buckner wrong. It was the media who acted as prosecution and deliberately withheld evidence for decades. Every baseball playoffs, we would see 3,295 replays of the ball going between Buckner’s legs. Context be damned. Sports has always been TV’s greatest reality show, and the drama was just too good to pass up.
The generations of Red Sox misery up to that point cloud the details, of course. Looking at just the effect Buckner’s blunder had on the series, the championship, it barely rates at all. Had the Red Sox won Game 7, Buckner’s error would be a World Series footnote. It wouldn’t even be Byung-Hyun Kim. Remember him Yankee fans?
In the 2001 World Series, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim gave up game-tying home runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in successive games to Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius in one of the unlikeliest sports comebacks in history. Yankee Stadium went crazy — twice.
But Kim was saved from baseball infamy. In Game 7 of that same series, Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball postseason history (0.70 ERA in 141 innings), lost his only playoff game in his career while registering the greatest save in sports scapegoat history. Mo let Kim off the hook.
If Buckner has been Major League Baseball’s most well-known goat moment, what about the NFL and NBA? You might have forgotten two blunders on a similar scale, one by Super Bowl champion Jerome Bettis and the other by the greatest winner of them all — Bill Russell.
The only thing separating Bettis from Buckner was Ben Roethlisberger’s right forearm. In the 2006 playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts, the normally sure-handed Bettis fumbled the ball near the Colts goal line, and the Colts’ Nick Harper picked up the fumble, a la Herm Edwards, and was inches away from breaking free for a long open field touchdown and historic playoff lore.
But that’s when Ben made his season-saving, off-balance, one-armed tackle of Harper to change the course of NFL history and Bettis’ life. Bettis was playing in his final season and the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit after being granted an official “Jerome Bettis Week” by the mayor. Since then the hero became an NFL broadcaster, was cast in a series of commercials, wrote two books, and made the Hall of Fame in 2015. It’s fair to guess that there would be no Jerome Bettis Show filmed weekly at Heinz field had Ben missed that tackle.
Was “The Bettis Blunder” worse than Buckner’s? Absolutely. Even had Buckner recorded that out, the Red Sox could have still lost Game 6. Without Ben’s arm, the Steelers season was over. And Jerome’s current charmed life too.
Is there a worse blunder in Boston history than Buckner? Yes. Try the great Bill Russell.
That’s right, sports history’s greatest winner barely escaped sports scapegoat infamy. The Celtics were playing Wilt Chamberlain and the 76ers in Game 7 of the 1965 NBA Finals. The Celtics were leading 110-109 with 5 seconds left and they had possession. Russell, looking to inbound the ball, threw it over Chet Walker’s head but hit a wire that was used to stabilize backboards in those days. The ball bounced off the court. Turnover.
The Great Russell then “dropped to one knee pounding the floor with his fist in frustration, and shouting, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, it’s their ball!’ In the huddle, Russell told his teammates: “I blew it. Somebody bail me out. I don’t want to be wearing these horns.” What happened next?
“Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! … It’s all over! … Havlicek stole the ball! … Johnny Havlicek stole the ball! …”
These would go down as the most famous words in the legendary broadcasting career of Johnny Most. But what would have been Most’s signature call had the 76ers scored the Game 7 winner? It came just moments earlier as a frenzied Most screamed into the microphone:
“He hit the wire! He hit the wire! By God. He hit the wire!”
But no one remembers those words. And if can happen to Mr. Ten Rings — then it could really happen to anyone.
Buckner’s death has brought another round of sympathy and corrective history, and though well-intentioned, many have just shifted the scapegoat blame to pitchers Bob Stanley, Calvin Schiraldi or manager John McNamara for contributions to that epic 10th inning collapse. That’s not the best answer either.
The lesson of Buckner, or the even more tragic fate of Donnie Moore, is not to find new sports scapegoats to shame into misery or death. It’s to start shaming the cruelty and absurdity of scapegoaters themselves, whether it be the blind haterism of fans or sports media that gladly caters to it.
Being Bucknerized has less to do with the size of the blunder, but the generosity of your teammates. After their lowest points in time, Bettis and Russell simply had better friends. Not decades later, but moments later.
When the next Bill Buckner arrives upon us, the real lesson is for the rest of us to do the same.
This commentary was originally published in the New York Daily News.