Bill Buckner was the surprise mystery guest who threw out the first pitch yesterday at Fenway’s Home Opener. As I’ve previously admitted, I greeted the late-breaking announcement with cynicism. Can’t we just get on with the pennants and the rings and the parades and leave all that crap behind us?
But then, noshing on my reuben at the diner around the corner from my office, I watched on television as Buckner took the field. His knees, as you may remember, are bad, and it took him a while to get from left field to the pitcher’s mound. He reached up and casually brushed something from his eye—was it a tear?—as he slowly crossed that heartbreakingly green grass. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. With the Fenway Faithful on their feet and going wild, Buckner again brushed a tear from his eye. He looked towards home plate, where his old teammate Dwight Evans waited for the pitch. He leaned in, shook off Dewey’s signal, laughed, and threw a strike. Fenway Park was still erupting—the fans couldn’t get enough. In fact, I got a little damp-eyed myself. Who wouldn’t? Baseball! In Fenway! Bill Buckner! World Series rings! A big, effing banner! Johnny Pesky! David Ortiz! The Boston Pops! Any Red Sox fan would have to be made of iron not to feel the swell of emotion at such a moment.
But today, we’re treated to a bunch of articles on what this Buckner ovation really means. Buckner is Absolved! All is Forgiven! The Joy of Sox has a great rundown of several such snippets, to which I would add this lazy AP article.
Everyone, especially this guy, seems to have forgotten that Buckner:
- Returned to Fenway in 1987 as a member of the Red Sox and got a standing O then, too;
- Returned to Fenway in 1990 when he was reacquired by the Sox, also to a rousing cheer;
- Has, with Mookie Wilson, signed and sold autographed posters of his famous miscue in the intervening years;
- Has appeared at Fenway as recently as 1997, 11 years after the error;
- And moved to Idaho not because he was chased out of Boston by an angry mob but in order to pursue a business opportunity there.
This is not to say that Bill Buckner and his family haven’t been harassed or heckled by douchebags. Unfortunately, there are too many douchebags in this world. And Buckner has not been treated fairly by the national media, whether you’re talking about AP reporters who write the easy feel-good story instead of reporting all the facts or late-night comics going for a cheap punchline. Certainly, as the years went by, Buckner became a convenient “face of the Curse,” along with Johnny Pesky (he held the ball!), Grady Little (he left Pedro in too long!), and Bucky Dent (@#$%!!). In fact, maybe that’s the real Curse of the Bambino: eighty-six years of hype.
That said, it’s really a dumb-looking error. My dad went to Japan on business that fall, and Japanese people on the street would see his Red Sox cap, point excitedly, and then imitate Buckner letting the ball through his legs. I mean, that’s not the media ginning something up. That’s just a really embarassing play on an international stage.
It was such a memorable play, that years after the Series ended, the national guys felt no need to repeat the famous game’s other coulda-woulda-shouldas: That there probably should have been a defensive replacement for Buckner; that Roger Clemens asked to be taken out, and later changed his story; that losing Game 6 didn’t cost the Sox the Series, but only forced a Game 7. In Boston, way more people have had barstool arguments over these details than have irrationally blamed Bill Buckner for years 68 through 86 of our championship drought.
But ten years after the ’86 World Series, Buckner became the media’s official goat. The peak Anti-Buckner era lasted from the the late 90s, when Boston started contending again, to 2004, when Boston’s World Series drought ended. Even so, real Red Sox fans knew that the BoSox wouldn’t have even made it to the ’86 World Series without Billy Buck. Real Red Sox fans remember how Buckner carried that team on his back in September of that year. So the Herald may have some big stupid headline about “forgiveness” in the paper today, and Dan Shaughnessy, who turned the Curse into a career, may speak of him being “absolved,” but I say there was no “forgiveness” going on at the Fens yesterday. If anything, the fans were apologizing. Apologizing on behalf of the media, who all too often would rather be glib than right.
By so frequently describing Buckner as a pariah, the media seems to actually have made it true through repetition. In a way, inviting Buckner to Fenway to throw out yesterday’s first pitch was only necessary because of the media’s successful mythmaking and, at the same time, the ultimate ratification of that same Boston-blames-Buckner myth. Yes, I was moved. Buckner was moved. Forty thousand cheering Red Sox fans were moved. But what moved us? Our own false cultural memory, a fable that had been retold so many times that it eventually supplanted the true story—and, in the process, gained a sort of creepy reality all its own.