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CROWE'S NEST

Pain of error fades for Buckner and Red Sox

July 14, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

You don't just make a monumental error on baseball's grandest stage and expect it to be easily forgotten.

Ask Bill Buckner.

The countless television replays won't let him or anyone else forget: Two out in the bottom of the 10th inning, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Mookie Wilson at the plate for the New York Mets against the Boston Red Sox. Wilson hits a grounder to Buckner at first base, the ball rolls under Buckner's glove and between his legs into right field, the winning run scores and the Mets square the series.

The Mets, of course, go on to win Game 7 and Buckner never hears the end of it, one misplay all but eclipsing an otherwise exemplary career: more than 2,700 hits, a .289 lifetime batting average, a batting title -- all on damaged ankles.

"I thought it was kind of stupid," Buckner says of the relentless scrutiny that dogged him. "The ignorance of people sometimes amazes me."

It has been written that Buckner, 58, moved his family to Boise, Idaho, to escape the glare of the spotlight. But the veteran of 22 major league seasons, most spent with the Dodgers, Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, says that's not true.

"I had an uncle that had a ranch here, so we used to come up and visit," says Buckner, who grew up in Vallejo, Calif., and says he moved to Boise from Massachusetts a few years after retiring in 1990. "It was kind of a boyhood fantasy to have a ranch, and when I got a couple bucks, I bought one."

Buckner tends to his car dealerships and commercial real estate holdings but says he spends most of his time enjoying outdoor pursuits: golf, fly fishing, bowhunting, horseback riding. He and Jody, his wife of 28 years, have three grown children: Brittany, an actress living in Los Angeles; Kristen, a TV news reporter in Boise; and Bobby, a redshirt freshman infielder at Texas.

In April, Buckner returned to Boston -- tentatively, he admits -- to throw out the first pitch before the Red Sox's opener. With the Red Sox having won the World Series title twice in the last four years, their 2004 title ending an 86-year drought, Buckner is no longer unwelcome, it seems, and was greeted with a prolonged ovation.

"I was a little apprehensive about it," says the former first baseman, whose eyes welled up that day, "but the people were very nice, and the Red Sox organization was pretty first-class. I was impressed with the whole thing."

The reception, he says, "took away a little bit of the bitterness" he'd felt toward fans and media who continually harped on his miscue.

This Sunday, Buckner's career will be celebrated by the Baseball Reliquary when the Pasadena-based group inducts him into its Shrine of the Eternals along with Negro Leagues great Buck O'Neil and umpire Emmett Ashford, bringing to 30 the number of individuals honored since the Reliquary's founding in 1999.

"Statistical accomplishment is not the main criterion for election to the Shrine," says Terry Cannon, executive director of the Baseball Reliquary. "Rather, our electees are chosen based on the distinctiveness of their play, their uniqueness of character and personality, and the imprint the individual has made on the baseball landscape."

Of Buckner, Cannon says, "Here's a man who had a fabulous career . . . yet much of his greatness as a ballplayer and competitor is overlooked because of one miscue in the World Series. The harsh shadow cast by that error has prevented most people from a fair and reasoned assessment of his career."

Buckner doesn't disagree.

"I know baseball and I know why we didn't win the World Series," he says. "I don't need to deal with that anymore. In fact, I'm getting a little tired of talking about it."

What Buckner doesn't say is that without him, the Red Sox might not have even reached the World Series in 1986. He hit eight of his career-high 18 home runs in September of that year, with a .340 average and 22 runs batted in. In Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, with the Red Sox on the verge of elimination against the Angels, Buckner started the ninth-inning rally at Anaheim that culminated in Dave Henderson's famous home run against Donnie Moore.

"I was a pretty good player, played hard," Buckner says.

But that, of course, is not why the ball that rolled between his legs sold at auction to actor Charlie Sheen for $93,500, or why Buckner was later able to capitalize himself, autographing baseball items with Wilson.

Buckner played until he was 40, a shoulder injury finally forcing him to retire after 22 games with the Red Sox in 1990, 285 hits short of 3,000.

"It was a motivation," Buckner says of the milestone, "but I just enjoyed playing, so I played as long as I could. I was running on no cylinders at the end. A lot of guys feel like they can still play, but I got everything out of it. In that way, I didn't feel too bad, and it was nice finally being home too.

"It's a great life, a great way to make a living, but there's a lot of baggage that goes with playing baseball, a lot of pressure."

Doesn't he know it.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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