Published May 30, 2019
By Keith Landry
It was spring of 1989, but it feels like yesterday. I stood just to the left of center in the cavernous North Reading High School outfield in the late innings, a sixteen-year old Yastrzemski fan from Massachusetts. My Hornets were up a run with two outs and runners on base. I can’t recall if the hitter at the plate was left-handed or right-handed, but I do remember that the ball that came off his bat was hit straight at me, and it was hit hard. I should’ve taken a step back. I took a step in. The ball sailed over my head. Two runs scored. We lost, it was my fault, and I knew it. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
By the time I arrived at school the next day, I’d done my best to process the loss. I had other things to worry about. My pre-calculus and physics classes were killing me, not to mention the social dynamics I had no idea how to navigate. It must’ve been midway through the day when one of my teachers approached me in the hall to ask what he likely felt was a harmless question.
“So what happened on that ball over your head yesterday?”
I don’t exactly remember how I answered, but I’ll never forget how I felt. I had just made the biggest baseball mistake of my life, and though I had done my best to put it behind me, there it was again, right in front of me. I spent the rest of the day avoiding eye contact with teachers, classmates, and teammates for fear of being asked that same question again. And only after a handful of ensuing errorless games did I feel the world had forgiven me for my game-deciding mistake in a relatively meaningless high school contest witnessed by a few dozen casual observers. I’m pretty sure that as I write this, I am the only person on Earth (other than my father who lived and died with me on every play) who remembers that error.
Bill Buckner wasn’t so lucky. Three years earlier, he’d hobbled to his left on two bad ankles and let a ground ball skip through his legs. His miscue, however, hadn’t happened in front of his dad and a few high school students and faculty members. It happened in Shea Stadium, and it was the final play of a World Series-clinching game the Boston Red Sox should have won – a game that would’ve ended decades of Beantown futility. And while his error was merely the last in a series of pitching and fielding miscues that day, it was the most memorable.
His error was seen by millions when it happened, and seen by millions more in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. It felt like the replay, shown from multiple angles and broken down by countless commentators, was on display somewhere on the planet at any given moment. I can’t imagine the mental anguish Buckner endured. I know he had to move his family out of New England when his kids started taking heat from classmates.
The winter after my infinitely less costly error, on an ordinary winter day late in 1989, word spread through my high school that Bill Buckner was in the building. I don’t know how he’d come to hear about our subterranean batting cages, but when I raced down the metal spiral stairs to see for myself, there he was, larger than life, spraying line drive after line drive. I only watched for a minute, having to hustle to my next class, but I was struck by how businesslike his approach was. He’d already collected more than twenty-seven hundred major league hits, and here he was entering his forties, grinding to earn what would be only eight more knocks before his eventual retirement in 1990.
I would say that I’d long since forgiven Bill for his world-renowned error, but like so many true Red Sox fans, I had never blamed him for the Game Six loss in the first place. He’d made the kind of mistake every ballplayer makes, and it wasn’t fair how much the media had crucified him for it. Don’t even get me started about what I think of those despicable individuals who sent him death threats.
I was among those thrilled to see him round the bases for an inside-the-park home run when California Angels outfielder Claudell Washington tumbled into Fenway’s right field stands that spring in his final stint with the Red Sox, and I cried when his ceremonial first pitch to open the 2008 season was preceded by a four-minute standing ovation.
As the last decade has slowly slipped away, my appreciation for Buckner’s career has steadily grown, and while I’m not sure he’d have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame had he not mishandled that fateful October ground ball in 1986, I do think he would’ve been mentioned among those deserving of consideration. Maybe I’m biased since my modest baseball career has mirrored his. I was a young base-stealing outfielder who, due to age and injury, has since accepted my role as a corner infielder. I have always grinded to try to help my teams win even when injured, although I never suffered the pain that Bill’s ankles reportedly provided on a daily basis. And while I have to admit to never facing the caliber of pitching he did, I have always taken great pride in being a difficult hitter to strike out.
I guess, like all Red Sox fans, I idolized Williams, Yaz, Rice, and Boggs, but the truth of the matter is that Bill Buckner should have always been my hero. I didn’t know it then, but he was the very ballplayer I wanted so desperately to be.
To hear that Bill lost his battle with a form of dementia may have been the hardest news of all yesterday. My family, like so many, has a history of mind-stealing diseases, including my grandfather on my mother’s side and my uncle on my father’s. I must admit that there are times when I forget something I’ve just heard, and I fear that my cognitive abilities have already begun to slip. Hey, we all get old, but to think that someone so sharp, so focused, and so driven like Bill Buckner can succumb to such a terrible illness scares me more than I’d like to admit.
Father time, as the sportswriters like to say, is undefeated. It catches up to us all. But time, famously, is also said to heal all wounds. I am glad that so many of Bill’s emotional scars had time to harden if not heal, but ultimately I am saddened that, like baseball, life is a game of failures – and like all things, that game must end.
I will miss you, Bill. I will miss what you stood for as a ballplayer and as a man. I hope that in your final decade on Earth you felt the love and admiration that you so deserved. I hope your family felt that love from Red Sox Nation, too, in the final years of your life, and now after your death. I hope we all learn from the pain you endured that people should never be judged based solely on their worst day, and that we all must strive to recognize the humanity in others that we would so desperately want recognized in ourselves.
For years after his fateful error, no one wanted to be Bill Buckner, but looking back now with clear (though watery) eyes, it is evident that there is no other ballplayer I could aspire to emulate. This Sunday, I will take the field with my forty-five and up league teammates, and try – as always – to play the game like Bill.
I will almost certainly fail.
The author is 1990 graduate of North Reading High School