CHICAGO – In a letter published in the Idaho Statesman last November, Red Sox fan Brian Crounse of Concord, Mass., issued a public plea to Bill Buckner.
“Please come visit us in Boston, all is forgiven,” Crounse wrote. “We owe you and your family an apology.”
Seven months later, Buckner sounded more willing to accept an apology than an invitation. But it seems unlikely for Bostonians to expect Buckner to return to a place where they want to forgive what he would rather forget.
“It’s not any different for me since they won the World Series,” Buckner said on the phone last weekend, when the Chicago Cubs and Red Sox were playing an interleague series at Wrigley Field. “Not much has changed at all.”
He lives comfortably on a 130-acre ranch in Idaho he bought in the ‘70s, sells real estate and cars, hunts and fishes with buddies, supports Boise State football and enjoys helping his 16-year-old son, Bobby, develop into a switch-hitter.
Acknowledging any of the offers that have been extended to forgive him since the Red Sox finally ended 86 years’ worth of futility would suggest to Buckner that he did something that required forgiveness.
And, 19 years later Buckner does not put into that category his error on Mookie Wilson’s ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series that allowed the New York Mets to win the game and eventually beat the Red Sox in seven games.
“I’m happy with my life,” Buckner said. “I’m happy with baseball. I have no bad thoughts about that anymore.”
That would be the moment that hung as obviously as the humidity over the historic weekend series at Wrigley Field, where Buckner played for seven years before the Cubs traded him to the Red Sox on May 25, 1984, for Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley.
The name Bill Buckner has come up often on radio talk shows and TV reports, and not because they were recounting past National League batting champions.
Buckner would have been the ideal person to throw out the first pitch for a game between two of his former teams, but never considered coming himself. He remains to Red Sox history what Steve Bartman is to the Cubs, a face that symbolizes failure no matter how many other hands contributed to the demise.
“I didn’t grow up in New England and I only played there three years,” Buckner said. “I was disappointed we didn’t win the World Series. But I got over it. That’s baseball.”
In the Cubs’ dugout, first base coach Gary Matthews started shaking his head the moment he heard Buckner’s name. Matthews looked forward to seeing his buddy next month when Buckner shows up to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch, but relishes even more the day when people focus on what he accomplished the other 2,539 games of his career.
“One play does not make you lose an individual game – it’s nine innings,” Matthews said. “And one play does not make a career. He has just about Hall of Fame numbers and if he wouldn’t have broken his ankle, he would have 3,000 hits.”
In 22 injury-plagued seasons with the Dodgers (1969-76), the Cubs (1977-84), the Red Sox (1984-87, 1990), the Angels (1987-88) and the Royals (1988-89), Buckner compiled a .289 career batting average and 2,715 hits. Only 52 major-leaguers have more.
“I think people have the tendency to forget a little bit about that,” Buckner said. “I think a lot of people remember I made that play in the World Series and also that I was a pretty good player who had 2,715 hits.”
Asked which team he most identified himself with, Buckner never hesitated: “The Dodgers or the Cubs.”
The only noticeable change in Buckner’s voice came when he talked about the atmosphere at Wrigley Field today compared to his days on the North Side. The pregame crowd at Murphy’s Bleachers before Saturday’s game might have been bigger than the ones Buckner remembered.
“There were times I’d look up and see 500 people,” Buckner said. “But Cubs fans are the best. They’re just happy to be there and support their team no matter what. Red Sox fans, they’re much more fickle.”
Boston’s World Series victory last October reminded Buckner how fickle fans are more than it relieved him. He watched the clinching victory on TV with his son but when replays of his error popped onto the screen moments before the final out, his healing heart felt heavy again. A sleepless night followed.
But those moments are the exceptions to the perspective that usually rules Buckner’s life these days.
“I dealt with it a long time ago,” he said.
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