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My primary memory of Bill Buckner was of him lashing the ball down the right field line. It was amazing how many of those beautiful line drives one-hopped the wall near the corner. I felt like practically every time I tuned into a Cubs game in the early '80s he was good for a double, and was pleased to confirm that he led the National League in two-baggers in both '81 and '83.
I will have a little something to say about the rest of his career later on.
Buckner, who was afflicted with Lewy Body Dementia (as was Stan Mikita late in his life) and died over the weekend at the age of 69, also won the batting title in 1980 and made the All-Star team in '81. The Cubs traded him to the Red Sox during the magical year of 1984 (until the end) for Dennis Eckersley, who was still starting back then. That capped off a great, eight-year stretch of a career from 1969 to 1990 that featured a total of 2,715 hits.
When I was a kid in the city, I was a little torn about which local team would earn my primary allegiance (my dad preferred the White Sox but mostly he didn't care). But by the time the '80s rolled around I was in high school and I had sat in the bleachers enough times with my brother to have decided on the Cubs.
I have to admit I don't remember coming home and watching day games after school in the '70s or '80s. When we came home from school to the townhouse on the Lincoln Park block (2100 N. Hudson) where we lived, we went out to play or we went to our rooms to study. There was no after-school TV. And in middle school we were playing organized sports after school. When school got out, though, that's when we must have seen Buckner ripping line drive after line drive down the line.
And we lived close enough to the ballpark that when we had a chance, we could walk a couple short blocks to Clark Street and take the 22 bus up to its intersection with Addison.
Our first favorite player was Rick Monday, who coincidentally enough was part of the 1977 trade the brought Bill Buckner to the Cubs from the Dodgers. So we always sat in the right-centerfield bleachers. The cool kids, like Eddie Vedder, sat in left and then right field behind Jose Cardenal. After Monday was gone, Buckner was one of our primary guys.
The first baseman played for four other teams during his career. And here, eight paragraphs in, we finally note that what he was most famous for was of course allowing a meandering little ground ball to roll under his glove and score the winning run in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Mets.
Others have written in the past 24 hours that Buckner deserved to be remembered for something other than that play. But that didn't stop them from leading their stories with that single, stupid play.
He deserved better because A) Did we mention he amassed over 2,700 hits in parts of four decades in the Bigs? Also, A) he shouldn't have been on the field. He had suffered numerous ankle injuries at that point in his career (17 years in) and could barely wobble anywhere on the diamond. He was the Red Sox's primary candidate for a late-game defensive substitution. B) Even if he had fielded the ball, he probably wouldn't have beaten speedy Mookie Wilson to the bag. C) Even if he somehow had, the game was already tied and the Mets could have won in extra innings. And D) That was only Game 6 of the series. The Red Sox lost it in Game 7.
In fact, the situation was eerily similar to what happened at Wrigley Field in 2003 in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. In the eighth inning, Steve Bartman tried to catch a foul fly down the left field line and . . . you know the rest. The next night, the Marlins won Game 7 to go to the World Series.
In 1986 and 2003, the human capacity for identifying scapegoats and letting them have it came crashing down on Buckner and Bartman with massive fury completely out of proportion to what had actually happened. I happen to believe that if Bartman was ever interviewed, one of the reasons he has stayed in seclusion since 2003 is that he thinks he should have known not to deflect that ball. But even if that was the case, the Cubs had opportunities to win that game after that and Kerry Wood started on regular rest in Game 7. The loss of that series was a total team effort.
So was the Red Sox' loss in 1986. People in Boston started to figure that out as time went by, but they didn't forgive Buckner 'til they won the Series in . . . 2003.
Bill Buckner was a great Cub and had a great, great career in baseball. Full stop.
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.
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Posted on May 22, 2020