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Error doesn't weigh

He's been a Sox scapegoat for 17 years, but Bill Buckner is at peace in Idaho

BOISE, Idaho -- When Bill Buckner strides to the bar at Murphy's Seafood and Steakhouse, nobody notices. It's a crisp October Saturday afternoon, and the half-dozen televisions around the room are all tuned to soccer and college football. The bartender has to be asked to change the station to the Red Sox-Yankees American League Championship Series game, a classic Roger Clemens-Pedro Martinez matchup at Fenway. Even so, it's ignored as a moldy potato by the pregame Boise State football crowd, all dressed in Day-Glo orange for the homecoming game against Tulsa.

Buckner originally had consented, reluctantly, to a 10-minute interview and a photograph of him in the trophy room of his 5-acre mountain home. But this is a broken play. The trophy room shot is out, and so is the home visit. His wife, Jody, forbids it. She is sick of the press who harp on Buckner's error of a routine ground ball that skipped between his legs and gave the Mets the Game 6 victory over the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series to tie the series. In Game 7, the Sox blew an early lead and lost despite Buckner's two hits. Jody has good reason to be angry. A reporter once called the house to inquire if Bill was contemplating suicide.

Billy Buck looks fit and youthful for 53 -- no stomach, no gray, and no limp. He looks as though he could still grab a bat and bang a double off the Green Monster. As Buckner sits down in the bar, Martinez uncorks his first pitch. On the bar's jukebox, Tom Petty sings, "No, you don't know how it feels to be me."

If he is bearing any demons, Buckner is hiding them well. He's relaxed, smiling and sociable. Nor is he living in his own private Idaho, 2,200 miles from Boston. "No, I'm not in exile," he says as he orders a Big Horn Light, a local microbrewed beer. "I bought a ranch here in the '70s. I planned on moving here then. I just didn't have the opportunity.

"I just came back from elk hunting, 10 days in the woods. I bagged a six-point elk, with a bow and arrow. I spend a lot of time in the woods."

Ernest Hemingway wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in a Sun Valley, Idaho, cottage. Buckner, a Hemingway fan, fishes and hunts in some of the same Silver Creek streams and Sun Valley woods that Hemingway used to frequent before he took his own life with a shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961.

Buckner is amicable and forthright, comfortable in his own skin.

"I got a great life," he says. "I like the way things are going. I don't sit in the woods and think about it. Ever."

Career overshadowed This Saturday will mark exactly 17 years since that ground ball off the bat of the Mets' Mookie Wilson went skip, skip, and scoot. (Coincidentally, Game 6 of this year's Series is also Saturday.) A whole generation has reached the age of consent learning about the error through grainy, black-and-white photos and replays every October at World Series time. It's been called the Zapruder film of baseball. Buckner never thought the miscue would take on a life of its own and make him the poster boy for the Curse of the Bambino.

"It's unbelievable," he says. "You know what? This is the honest-to-God's truth. My first thought was, `Oh [expletive], we lost the game.' The second thought was, `Oh man, we get to play the seventh game of the World Series.' I mean, I was having so much fun. You're trying to win, obviously, but I mean, if we won the game, it was over with. I'm thinking, `We get to play another game, and we'll win.' There was no doubt in my mind we were going to win the last game."

Buckner played in four decades. His 2,715 hits are more than Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio accrued and more than the majority of players enshrined in Cooperstown. He won a National League batting title with the Cubs in 1980 and set a league record for assists. He was an All-Star in 1981 and twice led the league in doubles, in 1981 and 1983. He played 22 seasons with the Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Angels, and Royals. He knows the ground ball sealed any chance he had of making the Hall of Fame.

"I think if I had two good legs, I would've done enough to get in," he says. "I would have had the 3,000 hits. But I got a staph infection in my ankle in '76. I was basically playing with one leg for 14 years. Yeah, it was tough. My ankle put a lot of stress on the rest of me. It was tough. I don't know how I did it."

Over the past few years, he has felt good enough to coach his son's Little League team, still runs a baseball camp, and does a lot of community work, never saying no. But he still gets heckled here on the other side of the Continental Divide. Darren Braden, Buckner's assistant Little League coach, recalls one loudmouth at a tournament and, more importantly, remembers Buckner's demeanor.

"I wanted to take his head off," Braden says. "Bill stayed calm. He didn't say anything. He's awesome. He teaches the kids respect and to always hustle. You win and lose as a team."

Buckner acknowledges that all is not forgotten. "I still hear stuff," he says. "I laugh at it. Sports are for teaching young people to deal with success and failure. The saddest thing is, what are you teaching kids today? That you can't make a mistake? You make an error and you don't win, so you say, `I don't want to play.' That's not what sports is all about. It's not about creating villains. It's about competing and having fun. Do the best you can, and strive to be the best you can be.

"I hope the kids in Boston aren't taught that if you make a mistake, all the good things you've done all your life go out the window. You're not going to win all the time. They look at it like I did something bad. Just 'cause you're on a winning team doesn't make you a better person." Buckner doesn't want to pass the blame on to his teammates, either. The Sox blew a 5-3 lead and were one strike from winning their first championship since 1918 on four occasions. With two outs, the Mets delivered three successive singles, and then Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that might have been a passed ball by catcher Rich Gedman. "It's immaterial," Buckner says, shrugging. But he says it's unfair to blame him alone for the Sox' collapse.

"I didn't lose the World Series," he says. "Everyone knows one play doesn't decide a seven-game series. I can find 30 plays more important than that. That wasn't the only error or unearned run in that [game]. I give the Mets credit for winning, for not giving up."

He doesn't dream about what might have been had the Red Sox won, to finally taste the champagne.

"You'd like to be there, only it didn't work out that way," he says. "Was that the worst moment of my life? No. My dad passing away when I was 14. Now, I just look back on it as a great experience to be able to play that many years. Now I've enjoyed coaching my son Bobby in Little League."

Buckner has three children; two of his daughters are in college. This will be the first year he will not coach his 14-year-old son's games.

"I want him to know he's batting third because he can hit, not because his dad's the coach," he says.

Accepting his fate

Buckner smiles, sips his beer, and glances back at the television. He's not going to watch the end of the Red Sox-Yankees series, or Cubs-Marlins either. He'll be fly fishing with buddies in British Columbia. Buckner owns a piece of several car dealerships in Idaho and Montana. He says he has made more money on real estate than he did playing baseball. Currently, he's selling commercial space to Albertson's, a giant food-and-drug retailer expanding into area malls. He's also been successful in selling homes. One of the Boise subdivisions is named Fenway Park. The streets all have baseball names.

"It sold out," says Buckner.

His allegiance for the Red Sox today is mixed because Roger Clemens, his former 1986 Sox teammate, is pitching for the Yankees. He would have preferred a Red Sox-Cubs World Series and would have gone to Wrigley to watch, but not Fenway.

If the Red Sox had beaten the Yankees and reached the Series for the first time since 1986, maybe they'd stop showing the bounce-bounce-skip play ad nauseam and he could live in peace. After all, Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez, who served up the infamous Bucky Dent home run in 1978, was at Game 6 in 1986, and when Buckner trumped him with his faux pas, Torrez was heard yelling, "The monkey is off my back." Buckner hadn't heard about that. "Oh, really?" he says. "What monkey is he talking about? The rally monkey?"

But Buckner isn't looking for any forgiveness from Red Sox Nation.

"I don't really care about forgiveness," he says. "The people of Boston gave me that standing ovation when I made the team in 1990."

The Sox released Buckner midway through the 1987 season. He played for the California Angels and the Kansas City Royals before returning for 22 games in 1990 in Boston at the age of 41.

"That was probably my biggest accomplishment. [Sox manager Joe] Morgan didn't want me on there, but I hit the hell out of the ball in spring training. He had no choice," says Buckner. "Then that ovation from the [Opening Day Fenway Park] crowd. How cool was that? It brought tears to my eyes."

Buckner grows silent and thinks about the suggestion of redemption for him when/if the Sox ever win the Series.

"Yeah, but I don't know if it would or not," he says. "I mean look at [Ralph] Branca [who gave up the home run to Bobby Thomson on Oct. 3, 1951, to give the Giants the pennant]. How many times have the Dodgers won since then? How old is Ralph? They're still doing that [expletive]. They promote it now."

Buckner has done something similar. He has been paid to do several card shows with Wilson. They sign 8 x 10 photographs of the miscue. "We're good friends," he says. Years after the grounder, Buckner broke the tension by going up to Wilson during batting practice and asking him if he would like to hit him some grounders. "That's a true story," he says. "Mookie's a good guy."

Reflecting on moment

"I think Boston's a great baseball town, and it'd be great for them to win, just like Chicago," Buckner says. "Wrigley is the best place, fan-wise. I have a lot of friends there. I hit better there. Chicago's a great place to play, just like Boston. It's not like I'm rooting against them."

Buckner missed the era of high-priced athletes. "I made $10,500 my first year," he said. "After five years, I was making $35,000. I didn't think I was getting screwed. It's not like it was today."

April 8, 1974, while playing left field for the Dodgers, Buckner tried to scale the wall and retrieve Hank Aaron's 715th home run. "They were saying the ball was worth $30,000," Buckner says. "I wasn't making $30,000."

Actor Charlie Sheen paid $93,000 for the 1986 World Series Game 6 ball. "I guess I should have turned around and gone after it," Buckner says.

He sipped another beer, shook his head, and dabbed his mustache. Outside the restaurant, the bare Idaho foothills resembled the color of a baseball infield.

"I had a bad feeling about it," Buckner says, the smile gone. "I mean, we had the game wrapped up and then all of a sudden it's tied, and the other team has momentum.

"The whole play was bizarre. Marty Barrett was standing on second base to try and pick off Ray Knight. We had him picked off. I saw Marty move over to second, so I moved way over toward the hole. Normally with Mookie, you would play up with a runner on second base. You play a little deeper because you don't want the ball to go through. So then he dribbled the ball down the first base line. The reason he would've beat it out had nothing to do with Stanley getting over there. It's because I was so far out of position, trying to cover the hole over there. An infield hit still would've had Knight on third base. I had run up a long way, but I don't remember feeling like I was rushed." He takes a sip and continues.

"I didn't feel any kind of tension to catch the ground ball. Usually, when you miss a ground ball, it's because you look up. I didn't look up. The ball hit . . . I'm pretty sure the ball hit something . . . because the ball didn't go underneath my glove. It went to the right of my glove. It took a little bit of a funny hop, bounced to the right a little bit. It wasn't like, you know, you feel rushed and you look up. It took a funny hop. I mean, it's funny. It's funny. What do I chalk it up to? Fate. That's part of the game.

"I had a pretty good fielding average. I don't think I missed a ground ball for three months or something like that. I was pretty steady on ground balls, but I did play a lot deeper than most first basemen. That's why I had so many assists, because I didn't want the ball to get through the infield.

"Funny thing, the next year we went to Yankee Stadium and played the Yankees early in the year, and [Don] Mattingly hit a ball -- of course, being in New York, you're hearing all this [expletive] -- Mattingly hit a ground ball, it was the exact same ball. And I did the exact same thing. That was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. It was crazy. I mean, I was pretty good at ground balls."

Setting the record

Critics say Red Sox manager John McNamara should have replaced Buckner defensively with Dave Stapleton in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6. Buckner's ailing ankle had been a subplot in the postseason, and Stapleton was his usual replacement. When he left Buckner in, many thought McNamara was rewarding the veteran Buckner. "I didn't think so," Buckner says. "McNamara kind of left that up to the players. Marty Barrett was standing right there. Marty was a friend of mine, but he wanted to win and was a straight shooter. Mac said, `Marty, should we switch?' And he said, `Nah.'

"I mean, I had no problem either way. I think I was probably [OK] at that point. Early in the series, my Achilles' tendon was really sore, and I was having trouble. But by the end of the sixth game, I was moving all right. I felt like I was probably the best player to have at first."

Buckner said Stapleton was not error-proof, either. "I mean, he probably would have caught that ball, and I would've caught it 99 times out of 100, too. That's not on McNamara at all. He made the right choice. That's the way he managed. If you needed to take a day off, that was up to you. John did a good job for us."

Did he remove Clemens, who developed a blister on his pitching hand and was replaced by a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth inning of Game 6, or did Roger ask out?

"He didn't take Clemens out," Buckner recalls. "I think that was more Roger's decision, although I don't know for sure."

The pain of Game 7 is still etched in Buckner's memory.

"We jumped out to a lead early," he says. "I got a couple of hits. [Bruce] Hurst just didn't have it. Oil Can [Boyd] was supposed to pitch then, but after the rainout, they moved Hurst up. He was our hot pitcher. He just ran out of gas."

The Curse? "That's just something to talk about for the fans," he says. "It's a little bad luck. The Red Sox have had good enough players and teams to sneak in there. I mean, look at what the Angels did last year. The Red Sox have had a much stronger organization over the years than the Angels."

He's asked about Donnie Moore, the California Angels pitcher who gave up the winning home run to Red Sox outfielder Dave Henderson in Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series, then committed suicide three years later.

"It's unfortunate," he says. "I played with him twice. I started with him in Chicago. I knew him very well. I had an inkling. There was a lot of things. His wife left him. He lost all his money, plus his arm was hurt, and he was about done. It wasn't the home run."

Buckner's wife, Jody, was infuriated that a reporter contacted Bill after the Moore suicide and asked if Buckner had ever contemplated suicide.

Buckner wants none of it.

"That's a dead horse," he says.

And he regrets the incident in Rhode Island when he reportedly grabbed a heckler by the collar after he said Buckner would probably fumble an autograph.

"The guy was real rude," Buckner says. "It was bad timing. Wrong thing, wrong time. I was signing 100 autographs, and he makes that comment."

Buckner says the error isn't all a minus.

"In one sense, it's unfortunate it happened. But on the other hand, it kind of draws your family together. My son, he knows his dad was a good player. He doesn't think his dad lost the World Series. He's smart enough to know what's going on. I mean, hey, it's a growing thing."

Buckner says he goes to church and believes in spreading good karma. For the record, he says he's never sought psychological help.

He blames the media for simplifying public perception of the error, but he proudly gushes about his daughter, Christen, 19, majoring in broadcast journalism at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California.

"Over the long term, it's the media," Buckner says. "It's just the way the replay looks. You miss a ball, everybody walks off the field."

On the television set, Martinez has just plunked Karim Garcia.

"He fired it right at his head," Buckner says. "That's gonna add fuel to the fire when Clemens gets out there. Pedro's a head-hunter. Roger has a tendency to get a little jacked up. Roger got mad at me, when the Mets and Yankees played. I was in New York. I said I couldn't believe [Mike] Piazza didn't charge the mound. Nothing against Roger. He got [mad] at me, and I haven't talked to him since."

The scene on the TV gets uglier. Manny Ramirez yells at Clemens when one of Clemens's pitches rises high. Buckner says Ramirez is overreacting. Soon, a melee is in full force, and Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer is charging Martinez.

"Zimmer should lose the boxing gloves," Buckner says. Billy Buck abruptly has to get ready to go to the Boise State football game. He knows a little bit about bad endings.

He says he knows the miscue is "part of my obituary, but the rest is up to you guys.

"I think God does things for a reason. You got choices to make. There could be somebody in my shoes who would think that life sucks. I chose to look at it that life is great. You can make those choices. Everyone in life has things that don't go according to plan.

"That's the way it is. I think baseball helped me in that life. I've always thought I've been blessed. I've got nothing to wish different.

"What do I want on my gravestone? Just a bunch of dirt. Make sure you got me covered up."

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