"SO HE MISSED A GROUND BALL."
Red Sox fan Bob Perham says this as he watches a first baseman take infield at Winter Haven (Fla.) Senior High School's Jim Whitney Field. Perham is a retired history teacher from Eliot, Maine, and, some might say, a master of understatement. The first baseman is Bill Buckner, who is working out this lockout morning with an assortment of major and minor leaguers. The ground ball Perham is talking about is the one hit by the New York Mets' Mookie Wilson against Boston in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, the one that went through Buckner's legs at first base, the one that yet again sealed the unhappy fate of the Red Sox.
"That's life," says Perham. "He didn't miss it on purpose, you know. Besides, where would we have been without Buckner that year?"
Red Sox fans never forget, but they do forgive. That has seldom been more apparent than on Jan. 25 at the fan-filled Boston Baseball Writers' Dinner, when Buckner was introduced from the dais. He was given a standing ovation. After all, he did drive in 212 runs for the Red Sox in 1985 and '86, despite constant pain in his ankles. "The fans have always been great to me in Boston," says Buckner. "The media made more of the error than the fans did."
March 19, 1990
On the night of that dinner, Buckner, who had been released by the Kansas City Royals after last season, buttonholed Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman and asked him for a tryout. "I was reluctant to sign him," says Gorman. "But at the dinner he said to me, 'Just take a look at me,' and I figured, Sure, why not."
So Gorman had two of his scouts, Sam Mele and Frank Malzone, put Buckner through a tryout in Andover, Mass., where Buckner lives. After 21 years and 2,707 hits in the big leagues, the 40-year-old Buckner found himself in a prep school field house auditioning for a job. "I felt like I was trying out for my high school team again," says Buckner. "But I was very confident because I'd been working out every day since the season ended, and I felt better than I had in 10 years."
Mele thought Buckner moved better than he had when he was with the Cubs, and that was from 1977 to '84. "We had him run, field, throw and hit, and we were very pleasantly surprised," says Mele. "We reported back to Lou that he could still help the Red Sox."
Boston catcher Rich Gedman, a good friend of Buckner's, was also at the tryout. "All winter, Willy was telling me how good he felt," says Gedman, "but even I was skeptical. And believe me, if I didn't think he could play anymore, I'd tell him so. But he looked great."
The Red Sox signed Buckner to a Triple A contract, with a provision that he would earn more if he made the major league roster. "I would have played for the minimum salary," says Buckner. "This season is for pride. I know I should be satisfied with my career. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined finishing among the top 40 in career hits. But I didn't want to go out with the season [.216] I had last year. And another thing: Last year, my wife and I had a baby boy, and I was always a little envious of the players who brought their sons into the clubhouse. If I make the club, I'll be able to do that."
And making the club isn't outside the realm of possibility. The Sox have Carlos Quintana penciled in at first base, but he has very little experience at the position. And because Buckner was signed to a minor league deal, he was able to report to the Red Sox camp in Winter Haven last Thursday and get a head start on the locked-out major leaguers. Even if Buckner doesn't win the starting job, Boston could still use him as a lefthanded bat off the bench and, irony of ironies, as a defensive replacement for Quintana.
At the informal workouts at Winter Haven Senior High, Buckner was not only the hardest-working player, but also the friskiest. He sprinted around the bases, dived for ground balls, knocked countless balls over the fence. Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, the former Red Sox pitcher now with the Montreal Expos, was impressed. "I threw him my best stuff today—fastballs in, sliders away—and he handled them," Boyd says. "He's ready to play ball right now. The Red Sox need his leadership. They need his bat. They need his glove. I bet you by May he's the starting first sacker."
Says Gorman, "The minor leaguers working out with him tell me they can't believe the guy is 30, much less 40. We may have a minor miracle on our hands."
Last Friday, Boston manager Joe Morgan was looking on with interest as Buckner took fielding practice. On a line shot to his right, Buckner made a dive worthy of the highlight films and came up with the ball. The small knot of Boston fans watching the practice broke into hearty applause. Who would've thought that Red Sox fans would ever again be cheering for Bill Buckner?