day 38: billy buck

Today is 38 days, which is three days and five weeks of the omer: tiferet she’b’yesod.

What’s that you say? First baseman Bill Buckner didn’t wear #38? In fact he did, in 1969, his first year with the Dodgers.

And since Buckner wore five different numbers over his 22 year career; and since for a good while no one was interested in his #6 Boston jersey; and since on Day 34 after I watched Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS in honor of Big Papi and then right afterwards Game 6 of the 1986 WS started playing automatically — I decided I wanted to follow the greatest moment in Red Sox history with one of its worst. (This result of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is the sports version of the the oft-noted path to right-wing extremism that the site enables. The manipulation that gets you from that first game to the second will indeed put you in an emotional hole that’s hard to climb out of and will likely radicalize you against the Red Sox.)

This post might well be entitled “In Defense of Bill Buckner,” because, as Bryan Stevenson teaches us, “Each of us is more than the worse thing we’ve ever done.” And that E-3 in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 WS was generally considered the worst thing that Buckner had ever done — or could ever do, or would ever do!

I’m far from the first to make this case. Mercifully, Buckner had been mostly rehabilitated by his death last year (helped in no small part by the four WS titles the Sox had won by then). But I thought it would be nice to include Buckner in the line-up of tzaddikim this week.

I paid attention to that 1986 WS because the Mets got there by beating the Astros in the NLCS in six games, culminating with New York’s improbable 7-6, 16-inning triumph in Houston, at the Astrodome, in Game 6. It was the first time the Astros broke my heart, at the tender age of 8, and it would not be the last. And the WS hurt, too, because I was definitely on #TeamRedSox, ready to see them crush Dykstra, Mookie, Hernandez, Strawberry, Backman, Hatcher, Ojeda, Gooden, and the rest of that damn Mets crew.

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Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe, via Associated Press

I didn’t grow up with Red Sox lore, but I learned the irrefutable baseball gospel that in that one play Buckner cost the Sox not just that game but the entire World Series, extending the Curse of the Bambino. Rewatching that game with eye towards Buckner’s final-seconds error is rough. He’s in such a good mood the whole game, joking around with the first base runners, pretending to have lost the ball to try to catch one of them off base.

But the fact is that the Sox had to go on to lose Game 7, too, before they lost the series. And the Mets’ win that Game 6 was anything but assured: The Rocket pitched seven decent innings for Boston, giving up just one earned run on four hits, with two walks and eight strikeouts. As Vin Scully remarked when the camera panned to him in the eighth inning, Clemens was probably wondering at that point how he ended up with a no-decision that evening. Plus, the Sox had Bobby Ojeda on the ropes early, with two runs scoring in the first two innings —  two runs that could easily have been five. Dwight Evans‘ single-run double in the first missed being a three-run homer by just inches, and Darryl Strawberry made an impressive catch of Buckner’s fly ball in the second to keep two more runs from scoring.

Clemens’ performance turned out to be the highlight of Boston’s game, as they scored only five runs on 13 hits with 14 LOB and 3 errors. Buckner’s error was the last and most devastating, but Evans’ bobble of Mookie’s fly ball to RF in the bottom of the 5th, which allowed Knight to advance to third and then score on the next play, tying the game at 2, was the more decisive error. The game should never have gone into extra innings. In the bottom of the 10th the Mets shellacked Calvin Schiraldi for three straight singles before Mookie Wilson stepped up to the plate, and it was a wild pitch during Wilson’s at-bat that allowed Kevin Mitchell to tie the game again. Plus, even had Buckner caught Wilson’s dribbler up the first base line, it’s not clear he could have beaten out Wilson’s incredible speed, and Schiraldi sure wasn’t covering the bag.

Joseph is the character associated with yesod, as he’s the only of the ancestors described as a tzaddik. He, too, was unfairly maligned — by his brothers in Canaan, and then later by Potiphar’s wife in Egypt. And tiferet is sometimes understood as “truth” — certainly what Buckner deserves. As Ian Crouch wrote in a beautiful tribute in The New Yorker upon Buckner’s death:

The truth about baseball and its slow accumulations is more mundane than any of the stories—of failure, or of misunderstanding, or of redemption—that attached themselves to Buckner. For him, it was a mile of eye black and thousands of bags of ice and shredded knees, bickering with team executives about contracts and managers about playing time. It was appearing in a major-league game for the Dodgers at nineteen and winning a batting title with the Cubs at thirty-one. It was the great satisfaction not of being hailed by the fans on Opening Day, in 1990, but grinding to make the team in the first place. It was running the bases that season to leg out an unlikely inside-the-park home run, looking like “a suitcase falling downstairs,” as Roger Angell put it at the time. And it was being cut for good that June, finally too old to do it anymore. And it was a cruel trick of the ball on a night in October in 1986, a trick made crueller because it yielded an image that so perfectly encapsulated the seeming sports tragedy that had unfolded for the Sox, which was irresistible, in its way.

So let’s count Day 38 in honor of this unfairly impugned player whose truth struggled to be made known.

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