Hearing on Memorial Day that Bill Buckner had died struck me oddly. Hadn’t thought of him in years. Had no idea that, at age 69, he’d been battling dementia. I felt badly he’d passed. But I couldn’t help but cast my memory back to a time when sympathy for Buckner was the last thing on my mind.
For me, his notoriety and his death offered a life’s lesson in growing up, or should I say in out-growing the ugly side of sports fandom.
My wife was pregnant with our first child during the 1986 World Series. Adulthood was staring me down. My maturity had a ways to go. I grew up a huge Red Sox fan — born in Massachusetts, weaned on Carl Yastrzemski — and when Buckner let that ground ball go through his legs and it ended up costing my team its first championship since 1918, I was incredulous. Unforgiving. A curse word or three might have flown in our small apartment at the time.
It took awhile for me to get that Buckner’s error, however costly, was neither intentional nor a crime, and that the weight of the guilt New England assigned him was too great a punishment. Boston has since won four World Series. It took the first of those, in 2004, for Red Sox fans to formally forgive him.
At the same time, I recoiled at the criticism I heard heaped on ESPN.com because the website’s news story on Buckner’s death had said — in the first paragraph — “whose error in the 1986 World Series for years lived in Red Sox infamy.”
That was not a cheap shot. It was fair.
The first rule of writing obituaries taught to any journalism apprentice is: For what is this person best known?
Is it fair that after seven good years and a Pro Bowl for the Buffalo Bills, Scott Norwood is most remembered for the game-losing missed 47-yard field in the January 1991 Super Bowl?
Or that Cubs fan Steve Bartman is forever notorious in Chicago for the inadvertent catch interference that may have cost the Cubs a spot in the 2003 World Series?
Is it fair that despite his NFL passing records and Hall of Fame Dolphins career, the “yeah but” of no Super Bowl rings will always be leeched onto Dan Marino’s name and legacy?
Well, yeah, actually.
Every negative must be placed and recalled in context. And no negative ever should lead to threats or other irrational reaction. But the burden placed on the Norwoods and Buckners is understandable, just as the ultimate forgiveness is natural, too.
Sports is a tough business, a bottom-line world. It holds you responsible for your actions, and for your failures, perhaps more than any other facet of life.
Of course, the Buckner obituary also will rightly note that he enjoyed a very solid 22-year career mostly with the Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox. He had 2,715 hits and a career .289 average. Made an all-star team. Won a batting title. He wasn’t Cooperstown-great (let’s not get glossy and carried away as eulogies are wont to do), but he was very good for a long time.
He also made one of the most infamous, memorable big-stage gaffes in sports history, later capitalizing on it with memorabilia including signed framed photographs of that ball rolling through him into short right field.
You cannot tell the story of Buckner’s life and career without all of why we’ll remember him.
The vilification turned reconciliation makes the Buckner story ultimately as much about being a sports fan — about us — as it is about him.
When we bid that this man rest in peace, we mean it, because we understand that he deserves that more than most.