He awakened on the morning after the morning after, knowing that he had two more rivers to cross. First, there was a parade in downtown Boston. Then he would drive 40 miles to Worcester, check into the University of Massachusetts Medical Center hospital and, after 10 years of ice, acupuncture, DMSO and holy water, have an operation to clean out his junkyard left ankle. As he started to get out of bed, he heard some mention of the Mets' parade on the radio. "More than two and a half million people honored the world champions yesterday in New York," said the announcer, "and the parade finished with the Mets' team bus going through Bill Buckner's legs."
"Here I just experienced the best year of my life with a team, and I feel rotten," Bill Buckner said to his wife, Jody, as they drove down Route 93 toward Boston last Wednesday morning. "This whole city hates me. Is this what I'm going to be remembered for? Is this what I've killed myself for all these years? Is a whole season ruined because of a bad hop? I've got to go through the humiliation of this parade, partly because I know I don't deserve it. Oh well, there'll only be two or three players and about 50 people who'll show up to boo us."
When Buckner got to the Red Sox clubhouse, he found at least 15 teammates and coaches waiting for the parade. It was a crystal-clear autumn morning as the Red Sox climbed aboard the flatbed truck that would take them to the rally. When the truck turned onto Boylston Street, Buckner heard the bells of the Arlington Street Church pealing, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and when the truck neared Copley Square, he saw that the street was lined with faces and banners as far as he could see. Buckner had asked not to speak at the rally at City Hall Plaza, and so he stood at the end of the stage. But when he heard the ringing one-minute ovation that followed his name, Buckner stepped forward and thanked the crowd.
"That was the most incredible experience of my career," he said to Jody as they drove to Worcester, past a THANKS, RED SOX sign on the Mass Pike and a HOMETOWN OF HERO MARTY BARRETT sign at the city limits of Southborough. When the Buckners stopped at traffic lights in Worcester, people in other cars beeped their horns and waved at them.
While Buckner was checking into the hospital, the clubhouse kids were piling up his mail at Fenway Park. "He normally gets no more than one actual letter a week," said batboy Dean Lewis. "He's gotten almost twice as much World Series mail as anyone else." A New York City policeman told Buckner he was "a symbol of courage." A California polio victim called him "an inspiration," a New Jersey man said he was "a true model for all our children," and a 70-year-old lady in Illinois wrote, "because of you, I watched my first World Series." Among the hundreds of pieces of mail, the most negative was a letter from a Rhode Island doctor who chastised Buckner for risking permanent damage.
In an exhausting World Series that ended in New York with the Mets as world champions, the Red Sox became this generation's Brooklyn Dodgers. And former L.A. Dodger Bill Buckner, 36, with 2,464 hits and 16 major league seasons behind him, became baseball's Walter Brennan. He often looked as if he were running in galoshes, and after he staggered around third and belly flopped across home plate in Game 5, he admitted, "I didn't slide—I died." He crawled like an alligator into one base. He went after a pop-up, fell down and did a backstroke trying to make a catch in Game 4. He scurried on hands and knees to tag the first base bag with his glove. He limped out for the national anthem, bat in hand, just in case he needed a cane. He wore a high-topped right shoe for the Achilles tendon he pulled in the seventh game of the playoffs, but it was the pain in two parts of his left ankle that had created the original limp and had necessitated nine cortisone shots since April. Little wonder Buckner ended up hitting. 188 for the Series, finished 18 innings, stranded 31 runners and made the error on Mookie Wilson's ground ball that gave the Mets their dramatic 6-5 victory in the 10th inning of Game 6.
"I just want to tell you that you'll always be my inspiration," said a small boy who ducked into Buckner's hospital room Wednesday night. "Thanks for a great season." Then the boy disappeared.
"Today cleared a lot off my chest and my mind," said Buckner as he settled back in his hospital bed. "From my perspective, I didn't think the error was such a big deal. Letting them tie up the game was more important. There was no guarantee we would have won. Hell, there was no guarantee that Bob Stanley or I could have beaten Wilson to the bag if I had caught the ball. When Jody and I got back to the room that night, I watched the replay and I was right there, head down, glove down, completely relaxed.... It just took a funny sideways bounce between my legs. By the time I watched it, I wasn't bothered because I was completely geared towards the seventh game.
"Then Monday I agreed to do an interview for The NBC Nightly News, and all the guy kept asking me was, 'How can you look at yourself in the mirror? How can you face your teammates?' I went out for batting practice, and I thought one sign that said, 'Nice legs,' was funny, but when I got the standing ovation from the Mets' fans during the introductions, it wasn't so funny." Neither was the Mets' management's decision to replay the error on the Shea Stadium message board before the bottom of the fifth inning. Nor were the post-seventh-game questions from the press about manager John McNamara's decision not to pinch-hit or bring in a defensive replacement for Buckner in Game 6.
"I hadn't been pinch-hit for all season, and the only time [Dave] Stapleton had gone in for me on defense was when the Achilles was killing me back at the start of the Series," Buckner said in the hospital. "The one thing anyone has ever said about me defensively is that I have good hands. And, while my average stunk, [hitting instructor] Walter Hriniak figured out that I hit the ball hard for outs 11 times in 32 at bats. When I hit the line drive to deep left center with the bases loaded that ended the second inning of the final game, I thought I had knocked in three runs. Ron Darling was pitching me inside, and Lenny Dykstra always played me to right center, but for some reason Mookie played me to left center. Dykstra never would have caught the ball. That's when we should have won the damn thing. Right now, that hurts more than anything."
That, even more than the ankle. Buckner has won a batting title (1980), hit .300 or better seven times and knocked in 212 runs in the last two seasons. He has a good shot at 3,000 hits, which means the Hall of Fame, and he has always had a big and justified reputation as a clutch hitter. And people who know him wonder what he might have been were it not for the ankle. "He could get down to first base with anyone when he was young," says Tom Lasorda, who signed Buckner, took him to the Rookie League and had him in Triple A. "Dick Vermeil, who recruited him for Stanford, was once asked which recruit he most regretted not coaching," says Lasorda. "And he answered, 'Wide receiver Bill Buckner.' He could fly."
Buckner batted .314 and stole 31 bases for the Dodgers in 1974. Then on April 18, 1975, when they were playing the Giants in Dodger Stadium, he tried to steal. "I remember it as if it were yesterday," Buckner says. "John Montefusco was pitching, Marc Hill catching. I'd just been trying to learn to slide from Davey Lopes, the way he barely hit the ground. I never did hit the ground, my foot caught under the bag and I flipped right over." He struggled through the season, had a tendon removed in September and bone chips taken out in October. After a .301 average and 28 stolen bases in '76, he went back in for yet another operation that winter. That surgery resulted in a staph infection. Then came the preseason trade to the Cubs in 1977 for Rick Monday, and when Buckner reported to the Cubs' training camp hobbling on a cane, Chicago asked the National League to annul the deal on the grounds that he was damaged goods. "I was damaged goods," he says. "But I wanted to prove them wrong, so I played the first half of the season. It was a painful mistake. I never walked right again."
Says Buckner, "I always said that I'd wait until after I retired to have the cleanup operation because I learned to cope with it, and it didn't get any worse. This year it got worse." For the last eight seasons, Buckner has soaked his feet in ice for an hour before—and 30 minutes after—every game. In 1978, he began working in Chicago with bodybuilder Bob Gadja and chiropractor George Ruggerio, who created a series of machines and exercises for the ankle. "They saved me," Buckner says. Buckner has tried vitamins, acupuncture, DMSO and, before Game 5, holy water from a fan.
His diet helped. He is the same 185 pounds he was when Vermeil sought him for Stanford in 1968, and he and Jody are health food nuts. Buckner, who owns a 1,000-acre, 300-head cattle ranch in Star, Idaho—it's run by his brother, Bob—says, "I may be the only cattle rancher in America who doesn't eat red meat."
But then, as his closest baseball friend, Bobby Valentine, says, "Buck is unique, thank goodness. When we were freshmen at USC, he would challenge me to a race every day. Every day I beat him, and as soon as we had finished, he would swear that he'd beat me the next day. Every day." Says Buckner, with a laugh, "There are a lot of Bill Buckner stories."
His brother, Bob, says, "Bill gets his mind set on something, and won't accept that it doesn't work out the way he wants. One Christmas he thought he was going to get a shotgun. He didn't, and he stayed in the bathroom for five hours."
The Buckners grew up in a small California town called Rancho del Mar, halfway between Napa and Vallejo, where, Bob says, "All there was to do was play baseball and hunt." Bill was both an exceptional athlete and student whose college choices came down to USC and Stanford. When he went to visit Southern Cal, he met Valentine, who was another football/baseball recruit. A week later, Valentine was selected in the first round of the 1968 June draft by the Dodgers, who then made Buckner their second pick. Though Buckner attended USC, he never played sports there.
After the draft, Lasorda, who had scouted in the spring and was going to manage the Dodgers' Rookie League club in Ogden, Utah, went to sign the 17-year-old Buckner at a doubleheader in San Rafael. Buckner had seven hits in the two games, and afterward Lasorda asked him, "Do you like to fight?" Buckner nodded. "Then you're coming with me to Ogden, where we're going to fight and we're going to win."
"We fought," says Buckner, "and we won." Lasorda and his players developed a special camaraderie in Ogden, so special, in fact, that it is not inconceivable that someday the Dodgers will have Lasorda as the general manager, Valentine as the manager, and Buckner, Tom Paciorek, Joe Ferguson and Charlie Hough as coaches. Ogden was also the place where the legend of Bill Buckner, with an assist from Lasorda, was established. The manager wrote letters to then Dodgers Wes Parker, Willie Davis and Ron Fairly, promising to take those players' jobs away, and signed the names of Buckner, Valentine and Paciorek, respectively. "I visited the clubhouse after the season," Buckner recalls, "and you should have seen the look I got from Parker."
"Buck was always getting thrown out of games," says Lasorda. "Throw helmets? He broke one a night. Finally I told him I'd fine him if he ever did it again. He made an out and I heard this banging. I look over and he was smashing his head against the wall so hard he was bleeding. One night in Triple A , he and Valentine collided going for a pop fly. Buck broke his jaw, and the front office told me to sit him out for five weeks. Buckner missed only one game and wound up hitting .335 and learned to spit and swear with his jaw wired shut."
Buckner didn't stop battling all the way to Boston. He once fought Cubs manager Lee Elia on the top step of their dugout. His fight with Gary Carter is legend. Buckner got so mad at popping up in a 1980 game in Montreal that he smashed his bat down, accidentally breaking Carter's mask. The next week in Wrigley Field, after Buckner got a hit, Carter picked up Buckner's bat and broke it over home plate. So after Carter rounded the bag after a hit, the two of them ended up rolling on the ground, swinging.
Buckner would never be accused of being California mellow. He still yells at the wind, the hitting background or line drives that get caught. But ever since his first winter in Boston in 1984-85 when Hriniak told him, "If you'll shift your weight, you can hit homers," his fire has been devoted to hitting. In his 14 seasons before 1985, Buckner never hit more than 16 homers and only once did he drive in more than 75 runs, but in the last two years, he has hit 16 and 18 homers and knocked in 110 and 102 runs. Last year, when his ankle didn't bother him as much, he stole 18 bases, played 162 games and amassed 201 hits.
In 1986, Buckner's body finally broke down, and after hitting in the low .200s for two months, he limped to a low .267. It wasn't unusual to see him before games with ice taped to his ankle, Achilles tendon, lower back, elbow and shoulder. "This is weird," he said last Friday, 24 hours after the operation. "I hardly hurt. I won't know what it's like."
After Dr. Arthur Pappas removed a large chunk of bone from the top of the left foot and cleared bone chips and other debris from the ankle, he told Buckner that he should feel better than at any time since 1976. "I used to think, 'One year at a time,' " said Buckner, his left ankle in a cast and his right foot in a bandage. "Now I'm thinking three years and 3,000 hits. There's no reason I can't do it now if I'm healthy. Not only that, but I'll be wearing the high tops. Maybe they'll do for me what they did for Y.A. Tittle."
Maybe he can even get people to forget about a certain ground ball.