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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.

9 Responses to “The Myth of Bill Buckner”

  1. Lyndsay says:

    well said. I was so angry to hear people say we were ‘forgiving’ him. the media AGAIN completely missed the point! WE were forgiving HIM? how about a huge public apology, and maybe giving him his life back. but yeah, throwing out a pitch and “allowing” him to walk in to a place he has every right to be in should do it. the guy received death threats because of our stupid 86-year drought. oh wait – so now we feel kinda bad about it – so its CLEMENS’ fault! blame the guy everyone else hates now anyway! thats convenient. one day we’ll “forgive” Grady Little for trusting his ace pitcher in a key situation and turn on Pedro for the whole 2003 ALCS fiasco, right? because we feel collectively guilty for being so stupid as to see one small error or miscue as the ultimate reason everything went south, instead of maybe, I dont know, an entire team letting a game get to a Game 7 in the first place!

    but really, why is everyone afraid to say where the blame REALLY belongs for the entire 86 year drought- on CRAPPY YAWKEY OWNERSHIP!!!

    maybe one day the Cubs will bring back Steve Bartman to “forgive” him for essentially ruining HIS life.

  2. melissa says:

    Sarah, This is really a nice summation of a rational Boston fan’s perspective of Buckner. There is no doubt the media has propagated the myth that Buckner was to blame for the failure to win in ’86 but don’t you think there have been a great many fans that truly believed this before it was blown out of proportion? I think when you refer to it as a fable it negates the fact that a lot of fans saw that play as the catalyst for the team’s collapse. It was such a glaring error that they couldn’t see beyond it to the other factors that led to the defeat. Don’t you think a lot of Boston fans saw that play as the embodiment of their disappointment? The play wasn’t just one error but an example of the fans having their hopes dashed by their beloved team one more time. It is also easier for all to forgive and forget now that the rings have been won. Would this scene have occurred on opening day in 2004? I’m sure many Boston fans share your perspective but plenty were complicit in the media’s scapegoating of Buckner.

  3. Sarah Green says:

    Melissa, thanks. Yes, undoubtedly there are some fans (mostly the aforementioned douchebags) who really did blame Buckner at the time. However, it seems to me that the passage of time has gradually caused ever more blame to shift onto Buckner’s shoulders (rather than vice versa), and that this shift can largely be traced to the increase of hype around “the curse” from the mid-90s to the early 00′s. People who actually watched the team back in the mid-80s remember Buckner as a very valuable contributor. They also remember that the manager, John McNamara, was in the habit of using a defensive replacement for Buckner *regularly* throughout the season, but bizarrely opted not to for that one game. Yes, they fault Buckner for the egregious error, but they don’t vilify him for it.

    As Eric Wilbur pointed out on the Boston.com blog, all Red Sox fans completely expected Millar to be replaced by Mientkiewicz in the 9th in 2004. And he was. And the Red Sox won. Yay for smart managerial decisions! Unfortunately, Eric Wilbur is always too quick to blame “peripheral fans” and “pink hats” and assert his claim to True Fanhood in a way that is a real turnoff to me (and I don’t own a pink hat and I’ve been going to games at Fenway since 1982…when I was 7 months old). Wilbur’s not alone—a major trope of the sportswriting at the Boston Globe seems to be hating on the fans. I feel like maybe this blatant disdain for their customer base is part of the reason newspapers are in so much financial trouble? But I digress. Anyway, maybe some of these newer fans blamed Buckner, but I feel like a lot of them don’t even really know who he is, just the way that they don’t know why there’s a “9″ hanging in right field. They just know the broad outlines: there was a curse, it was bad, it lasted a long time, then we won in 2004, we got to set trash cans on fire, it’s really fun to shout “YOOOUUUUK!” and sing along to Sweet Caroline, the Dropkick Murphys are really rad, and Papelbon is a great dancer. Buckner doesn’t even really register with them. And that’s fine! I mean, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? No one is born knowing their team’s entire history. And I’m sure fifteen years from now, these “new fans” will be complaining about the latest crop of fans. Anyway. Tangent.

  4. This is the best piece I have read about the Buckner first pitch. It was good for Billy to see genuine fan reaction to his presence, as opposed to what the media perceived it to be.

    I have always felt a connection with Buckner since my dad woke me up at the end of Game 6 when I was 5 years old so that I could see the Sox win a World Series. After the end of that game was the only time I remember seeing my father cry throughout my childhood. I’m glad that he got to be on the flip side of that passion once again.

    Also Sarah > Coley. You’re welcome, Coley.

  5. I’m glad they asked Buckner to throw out the first pitch – that kind of acknowledgment should finally bring some closure to this nightmare.

  6. Coley Ward says:

    While it’s true that Sarah doesn’t own a pink hat, she does own a camoflauge Sox hat. And I just can’t get on board with that fashion statement. Sorry Sarah.

  7. Sarah Green says:

    Coley, that jungle camo Sox hat is badass. It makes me feel like Mike Timlin. That’s got to be a good thing, right?

  8. Nick Kapur says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to vote with Coley on this one. That jungle camo sox hat = thumbs down.

    It’s the equivalent of the pink hat for guys, and you don’t get to get off scot free just cause you’re a girl. Wear the team’s real hat just like god intended.

  9. Sarah Green says:

    I do have an authentic, fitted, wool cap, but I find it sort of hot and uncomfortable. Hence, in addition to the aforementioned camo cap, I also have a “2007 Division Champions” cap, a hat with a “9″ on the front to honor Ted Williams, a regular cotton fitted cap, a “2003 Spring Training” cap signed by Nomar, Trot, El Tiante, and Johnny Pesky, and two Red Sox visors (one tan, one blue). Are these other variations also unacceptable because they are not the team’s real hat? I would like to explore this further.

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