Being remembered for a mistake is hard. Being the living symbol of 86 years of futility is just about impossible.
But that’s exactly what Bill Buckner was to Boston Red Sox fans for nearly 20 years.
Buckner, an All-Star and Gold Glove baseball player who played in the major leagues for 22 years, died Monday. He was 69.
“After battling the disease of Lewy Body Dementia, Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family,” according to a statement from his family shared by the Red Sox. “Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Buckner built up an impressive record as a player, with more than 1,000 runs scored during his career. He was an All-Star in 1981 while playing for the Chicago Cubs. But Buckner found it hard to shake a mistake he made during game six of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets.
The Sox had a two-run lead, and were one strike away from winning their first World Series championship since 1918. But the Mets clawed back from the brink to tie the game in the 10th inning. With a runner on second base, a base hit would give the Mets the win and force a game seven.
It turns out they only needed the most famous error in baseball history.
Mets player Mookie Wilson hit a grounder toward first base — as the announcer called it, “a little roller up along first.” Buckner ran toward the ball, took a wide stance, reached down to scoop it up — and the ball rolled right between his legs.
“It gets through Buckner!” the announcer says, shocked, as a Met crosses home plate. “The Mets win it!”
The error forced a game seven, which the Mets won. And the error turned Bill Buckner into New England’s scapegoat.
“People always ask me what I thought about when I missed the ground ball,” he told NPR in 2011. “My first thought was, ‘Wow, we get to play in the seventh game of the World Series … We’ll get ’em tomorrow.’ ”
Buckner played for a few more years, retiring in 1990 and moving his family to Meridian, Idaho — where most people hadn’t heard of him, or his World Series gaffe. It wasn’t until 2004 that Buckner finally found redemption, once the Red Sox finally won their first World Series in 86 years.
Time and winning heal all sports wounds — and the fans and media were no longer so angry at Buckner. When Buckner returned to Fenway Park for the 2008 Red Sox home opener, he was greeted with open arms — and a two-minute ovation.
“It was awesome,” Buckner told NPR. “The real cool thing about it was the fans … were sincere,” he said. “I think they understood all the crap I went through, and they were always good to me.”
Perhaps the fans’ sentiment was best summed up by the the next day’s cover headline in the Boston Herald: “All is Forgiven.”