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For Boston, Bill Buckner's '86 World Series blunder was personal

(This story first appeared in SI in 1993.)

He is a character from a modern Nathaniel Hawthorne novel about the harshness of village life in New England. A scarlet letter and a scarlet numeral adorn Bill Buckner's chest, the poor man consigned forever to wear the symbol E-3 on the local streets in remembrance of his momentary fall into sin. There is no forgetting what he did. There, alas, can be no forgiveness.

He has to leave.

"I'm out of there," he says about New England. "Maybe Napa Valley. Maybe Idaho."

Napa Valley? Idaho? So be it. He can no longer live where he has been living.

A convicted felon, the perpetrator of the most heinous crime, can return from a stay in any prison and attempt to remake his life. This happens every day. Bill Buckner cannot be rehabilitated. No amount of good works or public penance can repair the damage he has done. He let a bouncing baseball slip through his legs.

His image will never be allowed to change. There are people who view him as worse than Sacco and Vanzetti put together, worse than Lizzie Borden and Albert DeSalvo, worse than any and all of the Brinks robbers and worse than Marky Mark, the pride of Dorchester, Mass., who now poses in his underpants. This is serious stuff. Buckner cost the Boston Red Sox a World Series. This is personal.

Seven years have passed since that "tragic and fateful day" -- to borrow words from the song about another Boston man looking to get home, Charlie on the MTA -- when the ball went through the first baseman's legs in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6, under the harsh lights at Shea Stadium, opening the floodgates for the accursed New York Mets. In other places, at other times -- heck, just about any place at any time -- this would have been a routine bobble, not even worthy of a mention on ESPN's SportsCenter. In this place, at this time, it was more reprehensible than treason, more contemptible than anything Benedict Arnold ever did.

To understand the magnitude of Buckner's mistake is to climb into the tortured New England mind, to wander through the labyrinth of perennial defeat and winter despair. The Red Sox were going to win the thing! After all these years, all this time, they were finally going to win. The last time the Red Sox had won the Series, as even the most casual baseball fan knows, was back in 1918. Sons of suffering fathers had died, even grandsons had died, waiting for the golden moment when a lifetime of perseverance would be rewarded. Now their progeny finally could put the monster to bed, to celebrate the end of all this agony.

"I had this bottle of champagne," the typical story goes. "My father gave it to me. His father had given it to him. I'd removed the little foil wrapper. I had my thumb on the cork. There was this guy I knew in college, a Yankee fan. He always busted me about the Red Sox. I called him on the phone. I wanted him to hear the people in the background when our sad times ended. I wanted him to hear the party...."

Gone.

The Mets won the game. The Mets won the next game. The Mets won the World Series. The succeeding years have not been kind to either the Red Sox or to Buckner. The Red Sox have not returned to the Series. Buckner, who grew up in Northern California and played for the Dodgers, Cubs, Angels and Royals, in addition to the Red Sox, nevertheless chose to remain in the Boston area when his career ended. What was he thinking? Sure, the fans had doled out a measure of civility -- a standing ovation when Buckner was introduced at Fenway Park in 1990 at the start of a short-lived comeback attempt with the Red Sox -- but the hard memory remained.

"At least once a week during the season, something is said," Buckner recently told the Boston media as he explained his reasons for packing up his wife and their two kids and leaving town. "Why put up with it? I'm tired of it. Too many good things happened to me. Playing in the World Series. The All-Star Game. A batting title. A lot of good things."

The final public incident happened a couple of weeks ago in Pawtucket, R.I. Buckner is employed as a roving minor league hitting instructor for the Toronto Blue Jays. After working with the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs and watching their game against the Pawtucket Red Sox, he stopped to sign autographs in the parking lot. A boy gave him a ball to sign. A man advised, "Don't give him the ball. He'd just drop it." Buckner signed, took his equipment to his truck, then returned and grabbed the man by the throat. There was no injury to the man, no charges filed, and assorted baseball officials offered apologies. Buckner simply decided enough was enough.

"I don't want my kids hearing about it all the time," he said. "Moving will be a little harder for my oldest daughter, but we're going."

No doubt there will be some clucking about this situation around the country, over the idea that one error in one game seven years ago could cause a man such anguish that he has to move his family. Isn't this silly? Isn't this sad? All about a...game? There-will be little clucking in New England. There the injustice that is being served to the ill-fated Buckner is understood, but the comments of the grouchy louts who dog him are understood, too.

No world championship since 1918? This is serious and personal. This is Red Sox baseball.

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