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Billy Buckner: Finding Forgiveness at Fenway

In 1986, Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner committed an error at a crucial moment in a World Series game. A squirting ground ball slithered underneath Buckner’s mitt as the winning run scampered home, giving the Mets the victory and ensuring a World Series loss for the Ruth-accursed Red Sox.

Errors are part the game; everyone makes them, even the best. But that error became a symbol of the notion that there are just some things for which one can never atone. But yesterday, Boston fans had a chance to forgive Bill Buckner.

Yesterday was opening day at Fenway, a day when the Red Sox would unfurl their World Series Championship flags and hand out the World Series rings and all of Boston’s favorite stars of the past were introduced before the game. But for twenty years, Buckner found it hard to be part of that. Just the mention of his name could produce boos and flying objects or mean videos.

So Buckner suffered for two decades, though there were brief returns in 87 and 90. A proud man humbled by a single error after an otherwise fine career, Billy Buckner had been haunted by the memory of that stupid ground ball, dodging his glove, passing between his legs and down the first base line. In local pubs the old timers might say the memory crushed him, and if you’ve ever played baseball at any level and knew the Red Sox history — no World Series Championship since Babe Ruth put the curse on — you understood how that could be true.

I moved to Boston in the late 1990s, long after the "error," and because I was a Dodger fan — since the Brooklyn days of Snider, Hodges, Reese, Furillo, Campanella, Robinson (yes, that Robinson), Gilliam and Big Don Newcombe — I never felt the same way about Billy Buckner as Boston did. I felt badly for him, because I remembered him before his knees gave out, before he wound up his career with Boston.

Back then he was the fleet left fielder for the L.A. Dodgers, the guy who would dive for line drives and crash into walls and steal bases. I saw him play in LA and against the hated Giants at Candlestick. He was a slash hitter who hit line drives to all fields, and when he’d slap one down the line or to the wall, you just knew that he’d try to stretch a single into a double, a double into a triple.

It was a thing of beauty watching him then, playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played. None of this doped up BS you see today. But in 1986, the man who used to dive for liners and steal bases could hardly bend his knees, and they betrayed him one more time. Every baseball fan knows the moment as simply, "Buckner’s error," and it hurt him; it hurt his kids growing up.

Boston has won two World Series in recent years, including last year, and with victory has come magnanimity. For two decades Bill Buckner lived with his heartbreaking error, and some said that Boston would never forgive him. But on opening day, Tuesday, the Boston Red Sox management not only invited Billy Buckner to be introduced along with Boston’s greatest, they asked him to throw out the first ball. Classy. And he accepted, not knowing how the fans would react.

As soon as his name was announced, they rose to their feet and cheered as he walked to the mound. They didn’t boo the man they once hated. They cheered him like a long lost hero, like the fine player he was. He threw a strike to the catcher, and they cheered again. After the game, fan interviews almost universally talked of forgiveness. A thing of beauty.

Welcome back, Billy Buckner. I loved watching you play.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley