Bill Buckner, caught on the thorns of history

OK, when it comes to baseball, I have to be a Boston Red Sox fan. I have to be. Given my family history, I don’t have a choice.

As any other Red Sox fan, Bill Buckner’s 10th inning error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series remains indelibly seared into my soul. The very mention of it makes me twitch a little. But I don’t hate Buckner, who died May 27 at 69 of Lewy Body Dementia, and I don’t blame him for the Red Sox losing the series. I don’t believe in the curse of the Bambino, either. Come on, Buckner gave baseball his all, and that’s all we can ask of any player on any team. Unfortunately, along the way he made that monumental and historic error that surely will be remembered as long as the Red Sox play the game.

Don’t you remember? Leading the series three games to two, the Olde Towne Nine come up in the top of the 10th tied 3-3 with the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Boston’s Dave Henderson blasts a homer to break the tie, and a mighty cheer rises from Beantown. My humble abode rumbles, too. Then Wade Boggs doubles, and Marty Barrett drives him home. Wonder of wonders — the mighty Red Sox lead 5-3 going into the bottom of the 10th.

Relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi retires the first two Mets’ hitters, but then the demons and ghosts of Boston’s 1946, 1967 and 1975 nightmares reanimate to haunt them once again. With just one out to go for the championship, the Mets’ Gary Carter hammers a single. Kevin Mitchell bashes one of his own. Ray Knight makes contact, scoring Carter and moving Mitchell on to third. It’s OK.

We’re still OK. 5-4 Sox.

Bob Stanley takes the mound to face Mookie Wilson, but a wild pitch scores Mitchell and Knight scampers to second. Arggg! 5-5. Oh, baby, hang on. We’re just one out away from an 11th inning.

Don’t give up now.

With a full count, Wilson taps an easy, routine grounder down the right field line that bounces under his mitt and through his legs. Mitchell scores. And just like that it’s game over, man.

A dejected Buckner stares shell-shocked as the dribbler rolls a few feet past him into right field. The Mets storm from the dugout to celebrate as Mitchell jumps triumphantly on home plate. I know how Buckner feels. I’m in shock as I stare blankly into space trying to process that last play.

Alright. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, they say. There’s always Game 7. But as fate would have it, the Red Sox lost that one 8-5, and the Mets were crowned World Champions.

Now some observers — and both Buckner and Wilson themselves — point out that even if Buckner had fielded that ball correctly, Wilson probably would have beaten him to the bag anyway, leaving the winning run on third with two out.

And as Stanley noted, “People always remember the last thing that happened. They don’t remember the other parts of the game — that we left 14 men on base.”

Ah, the truth is the Red Sox had plenty of chances to score more runs. They stranded 14 runners and just didn’t get the key hits when they needed them. Without trying to diminish anyone or anything, any loyalty or any obsession — professional baseball is, after all, just a game played by the best players in the world.

Consider this — over his 22-year career (he made the Big Leagues with the Dodgers at just 19), Buckner also played for the Cubs, the Red Sox, the Angels and the Royals. So as a Red Sox fan I’m not ashamed to shout it out loud for everyone to hear. Hey, people, waz rong wit chu? Don’t cha know bums don’t have careers like this?

You’ll always be one of the best in my eyes, a heroic player who took the field in that ill-fated World Series despite your injuries, a grown man playing that ancient stick and ball game you loved so much.

So long, Bill, and well done.