Kevin Buckley was a highly sought athlete at Braintree High School in Massachusetts.
Until Oct. 30, 1976.
That’s when he broke his leg playing football his senior year. Scholarship offers quickly disappeared.
“I dropped off the map on everybody’s radar. Except coach Winkin,” Buckley said, referring to the University of Maine baseball head coach John Winkin.
Buckley hadn’t had any contact with Winkin prior to his injury, but Braintree baseball coach Don Fredericks reached out to him and the men visited Buckley at his home while he was recuperating.
“I had a cast from my toes halfway up my hip. Coach Winkin offered me a scholarship. He really took a chance on me when everyone else [ditched me],” Buckley said.
Fredericks told him he would be crazy not to jump on the opportunity.
“It wasn’t necessarily because of my circumstances. It was because he respected coach Winkin and knew the baseball program was first class,” Buckley said.
Winkin’s faith in Buckley paid big dividends.
Buckley led the team in hitting his sophomore (.322) and junior years (.346) and then batted .431 his senior year to finish second on the team behind Brad Colton (.438).
He was chosen a third-team All-American his senior year and was the co-Most Valuable Player along with teammate Joe Johnson at the NCAA Northeast Regional.
UMaine beat Central Michigan and St. John’s in the four-team regional before losing to St. John’s which forced a winner-take-all championship game.
UMaine won 15-0 to advance to the College World Series.
“One of their [St. John’s] players popped off in the newspaper after they had beaten us. He guaranteed they were going to win the [deciding] game. That got around to our team quickly. What was special about that game is we were up 7-0 before they even got an out,” Buckley recalled.
Even though UMaine dropped its two CWS games, that team set the stage for a run of four consecutive appearances and five in six years.
Buckley was a left fielder who could also pitch, play first base and catch. He was a career .340 hitter who in 2007 was inducted into the UMaine Sports Hall of Fame. He hit a school-record .526 in nine NCAA Tournament games with three home runs and nine runs batted in.
He said the most memorable part of his UMaine career was the camaraderie with his teammates.
“All the friends I made and all the things we experienced together. There isn’t a game that stands out … it just really encompasses all of the players,” Buckley said. “And you bring it back full circle to Coach Winkin for really taking a gamble on me. I owed him the world and I’d like to think it worked out for him, too.”
The 61-year-old Buckley has spent the past 32 years working in Massachusetts for Universal Wilde. The company was recently acquired by DS Graphics, which features several marketing communications services.
Buckley remembered Winkin’s pride in having Maine natives occupying six of eight starting positions on the 1981 team. Only he and center fielder Colton, who also was from Massachusetts, were the exceptions.
“If you’re going to ask people in Maine to support the program, they want to see guys from the state playing at Maine,” Buckley said of Winkin’s philosophy.
Those UMaine teams provided that they could compete with the best teams in the country, he said.
Buckley, a right-handed-hitting slugger, was drafted in the 17th round by the Texas Rangers. He played three seasons in the minor leagues in which he hit at least 23 homers and drove in at least 92 runs.
He was called up by the Rangers in 1984 and played in five games, going 2-for-7 with a double.
“The first person I called was my mother [Katherine],” Buckley said of being called up.
“Even though it was a short stint, it is still something I accomplished that I am very proud of.”
Buckley eventually was traded to Cleveland and spent two seasons with the Maine Guides in Old Orchard Beach in the Class AAA International League.
He retired a year later, in 1987, after playing for San Diego Padres affiliate Las Vegas in the AAA Pacific Coast League.
Buckley said it was interesting playing in Old Orchard Beach.
“When it was hot and humid, the fog would roll in halfway through the game. And there were a lot of bugs,” said Buckley, who liked The Ballpark.
“The fans treated us great and Doc Edwards was a good manager,” said Buckley, who spoke at Winkin’s celebration of life in 2014.
Buckley, who lives in Abington, Massachusetts, is single and enjoys playing golf.
“It is definitely a passion of mine,” Buckley said.