Buckner Got My Vote

December 06, 2004

So the Sportsmen of the Year are the 2004 Boston Red Sox? Big freakin' beans. You want to know who deserves the Sportsman urn more?

Bill Buckner, that's who.

Bill Buckner, for never having taken out a Boston columnist with a hunting rifle. Bill Buckner, for not having choked one of the thousands of drunk accountants from Providence who've come up to him over these last 18 horrible years and said, "Gotta get that glove down, Billy Buck!"

Bill Buckner, for not having holed up in a Tuff Shed in East Nowhere, Mont., and started a letter-bomb delivery service.

Oh, now you want to make nice? Now you want to carry around your We Forgive Bill Buckner banner at the Sox' sweep of St. Louis? The Red Sox even wanted to bring Buckner back to Boston for the victory parade--"to give him his moment of glory," according to their spokesman.

You know what Bill Buckner says to all of that? Forgive what?

"My first reaction to that sign was, That's not very nice," says the perpetually polite 54-year-old Buckner, who is retired and living in Boise. "It really bothers me that people think that somehow I lost the World Series."

Buckner doesn't like to talk about it. He doesn't like to think about it. And he doesn't want to be reminded about it. "I'm talking to you," he says, "but that's it. I'll never do another interview on this again. Ever."

You think he sounds bitter? Wouldn't you be?

Wouldn't you be a little torqued off that of the thousands of ground balls you fielded--99.2% successfully--fans only want to talk about that One Ground Ball? Over and over they remind you of One Ground Ball that no-hopped through your legs in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, allowing the New York Mets to beat the Red Sox that night and go on to win Game 7?

"You blew the Series!" they decided. They threatened Buckner, cursed him, tormented him. It got so bad that he moved permanently to a ranch in Idaho.

He hunted. He fished. He bought pieces of a few car dealerships. He tried to go on with his life.

But the world wouldn't have it. It wanted to ask about how that One Ground Ball turned his legs into wickets and extended the Curse.

This is a guy who hit .289 lifetime. This is a guy who played 22 seasons. This is a guy who set the alltime record for most assists by a first baseman (184), in 1985.

"We would've got nowhere near the World Series without Billy," says his old teammate Oil Can Boyd. "He's had 18 years of hell for nothin'."

And lest ye forget: Buckner's Boot wouldn't exist had Red Sox manager John McNamara made his usual late-inning defensive switch, replacing Buckner with the more nimble Dave Stapleton. And Buckner's Boot didn't come until after Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi had given up three straight singles and McNamara had brought in Bob Stanley to try to get that last out.

Buckner's Boot didn't blow the three-run lead that the Sox had in Game 7, either.

But you'd never know it. Buckner's name went on the list with Typhoid Mary and Mrs. O'Leary's Cow.

Score it e-life. It's the single most unfair thing to happen to an athlete since Vinko Bogataj's fall during a ski jump became "the agony of defeat" for Wide World of Sports.

"I got the raw end of the deal, and I'll always get the raw end of the deal," Buckner says.

Yet somehow he's shown the patience of Hillary Clinton. He's never once gone triple Bobby Knight on anybody. "I've wanted to punch people quite a few times," he says, "but I just figured that'd be more trouble."

In fact Buckner could barely watch the 2004 World Series on TV. "I was trying to watch it with my buddies, but I couldn't even enjoy it," he says. "I kept getting pissed off--them showing that play. I don't think that's what sports should be about. I finally got up and said, 'Forget this.'"

But when the Sox finally won their first title in 86 years, suddenly it was Bill Buckner Amnesty Day. Overnight, Buckner was being remembered for his fine career instead of that One Ground Ball. There was this massive flood of forgiveness that reached him in Idaho: Won't You Come Home, Bill Buckner?

And Buckner's basic reply was: Won't You Go to Hell, Boston, Mass.?

All is not forgiven. Buckner still has to forgive the fans.

"I'm glad the Sox won and all," he says, "and I hope people will stop bugging me now, but they won't. It never changes."

So let's give the poor man a lifetime Sportsman of the Year award.

He's urned it.

• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com

You want to know who deserves to be Sportsman of the Year even more than the Red Sox? Bill Buckner, that's who.

COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLER

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