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It's all behind him

25 years later, Buckner is handling things flawlessly and with a firm grip

By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / October 28, 2011

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NEW YORK - On Tuesday, the 25th anniversary of the most infamous day of his life, Bill Bucker woke up at 5 in the morning. He appeared on “The Early Show’’ on CBS with Mookie Wilson. Together, they did radio, more television, and ended the night with a fund-raiser for families affected by cancer.

Time, and a couple of Red Sox championships, heal all wounds. Shea Stadium - the scene of the infamous Game 6 moment - is now just a parking lot. Baseball fans are talking more about Billy Buck’s hilarious appearance on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm’’ than about any ground ball.

“It doesn’t hurt,’’ says the former Red Sox first baseman.

Buckner and Wilson are eternally linked. On Oct. 25, 1986, the Red Sox held a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the World Series against the New York Mets. There were two outs, nobody on base, and Sox were one strike away from clinching their first world championship since 1918.

Then a series of horrors unfolded, and the score became tied. With the Mets’ Ray Knight on second base, Wilson hit what TV announcer Vin Scully described as “a little roller up along first,’’ that skipped between Buckner’s legs and allowed the Mets to win. Two days later, the Sox, despite taking an early 3-0 lead, lost Game 7, and Buckner had his obituary headline sealed.

A quarter-century later, Buckner, 61, looking relaxed in a brown sports jacket with suede elbow patches and blue jeans, sips Coors Light and signs his name, over and over and over at a Times Square bowling alley.

“It’s all good, life’s good,’’ says Buckner, his hair streaked (naturally) silver on this silver anniversary.

Two hundred (mostly Mets) fans paid either $199 or $299 to attend the 25th anniversary reunion. Grandstand Sports donated a portion of the profits to the Ronald McDonald House of New York, which supports families coping with childhood cancer.

When Buckner arrives onstage with Wilson for a question-and-answer period, the spotlight lights only half his face; he looks like he’s in the shadows of a witness protection program. Wide-screen televisions show the error several times over in slow motion and from multiple angles.

But Buckner tries to put things in perspective.

“People’s lives, health, family are much more important,’’ he says. “You’ve got to enjoy the good when you’ve got it.

“But life is not all good things. You’ve got to rebound.’’

This summer, Buckner left his Idaho home to manage the Brockton Rox to a winning season in the independent Can-Am League, although they were ousted in the first round of the playoffs.

“I liked it a lot,’’ he says. “I had a fun summer. I enjoyed managing and the players and being back on the field.

He says the long bus rides were not a problem.

“I knew what I was getting into,’’ he says. “It didn’t bother me.’’

But it does bother him that he’s listed as one of the all-time scapegoats in baseball history.

“The punishment didn’t fit the crime,’’ Buckner insists. “But the bottom line is, we might not have won the Series if I caught that ball or not. We still might not have won. There was still another game.’’

Buckner got two hits in the Game 7 loss.

“If I lost the World Series, then hey, I can take that abuse,’’ he says. “But I didn’t. I had something to do with it, but I didn’t lose it. It was a team thing.

“But because it was New York and Boston, and under the circumstances - Boston hadn’t won and New York has crazy fans - so because of that, 25 years later I’m signing pictures and you’re asking questions.

“If something happened in the game between the Cardinals and the Texas Rangers, two months from now nobody is even going to think of it.’’

Partnering with Mookie

Most people don’t know that Buckner amassed more hits in his career (2,715) than Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. He was a National League All-Star with the Cubs, won a batting title in 1980, and was a career .289 hitter.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the Series,’’ he says. “I know I was a good player with an outside shot at the Hall of Fame.’’

He says he doesn’t enjoy watching replays of the error on television, “but it doesn’t bother me.’’

“He watches it,’’ says Wilson. “He already saw it earlier today.’’

At this moment, it’s on yet again on the wide-screen. When a reporter gives him a compassionate smile, Buckner blurts out, “I think you’re a jerk.’’

A flash of anger, and then a quick return to Mr. Nice Guy.

But even the recent Buckner-mania has its limits. An auction for a private dinner with Wilson and Buckner at Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant & Sports Bar for a minimum bid of $5,000 whiffed.

So, too, did the tobacco-stained “Buckner Ball,’’ signed by Wilson, that was placed on eBay with a starting bid of $1 million.

But Buckner and Wilson have formed a partnership of sorts and are laughing all the way to the bank.

“We competed, and now we are kind of like partners in crime,’’ says Wilson.

The duo became fast friends in 1989 when Buckner, then with Kansas City, approached Wilson, then with Toronto, and asked him if he wouldn’t mind hitting him some ground balls.

“It was funny at the time,’’ recalls Wilson. “It kind of broke the ice. It was the first time we actually spoke. I thought, this guy’s not so bad.’’

The pair inked a deal to sign enlarged photographs of the play. Buckner is asked about his fee, but he doesn’t want to get into specifics.

“I made more this weekend than I did my rookie year, $10,500,’’ he says.

He told a fan he once made $70,000-$80,000 for a single weekend just signing his name in the Big Apple.

Asked if he finds it demeaning to sign a photo of the play, he becomes defensive.

“No,’’ he says. “Why should it? If doesn’t bother me. Does it bother you?’’

Now they are selling autographed copies of a painting of the scene for $399, including framing and delivery.

Wilson says their relationship is different from that of the late Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca, who appeared together for decades after Thomson hit a pennant-winning homer off Branca in 1951.

“It’s not like I did anything great,’’ Wilson says. “I was just kind of there.’’

A funny episode

Buckner says he long ago made peace with Red Sox fans.

He got a standing ovation at Fenway Park in 1990 after he returned to Boston as a free agent and made the team. On Opening Day 2008, he received a four-minute standing ovation when he threw out the first pitch.

Buckner even attended a 1986 Mets reunion held at Darryl Strawberry’s restaurant in Queens last Friday night.

In the “Curb Your Enthusiasm’’ episode, he misses a baseball that is soft-tossed to him but later redeems himself by making a life-saving diving catch of a baby tossed from a burning building.

He also defends Cubs fan Steve Bartman, the subject of ESPN’s recent documentary, “Catching Hell,’’ who was vilified for trying to catch a foul ball during a key moment of the 2003 National League Championship Series.

“He didn’t do anything different than you would’ve done or I would’ve done,’’ Buckner says. “You go to a game to catch a foul ball. The ball’s in front of you, you try to catch it.’’

Buckner says he enjoyed doing “Curb Your Enthusiasm.’’

“I was happy with it,’’ he said. “It was fun.’’

He says the “dropped baby’’ scene was filmed “probably 7,500 times. It took a long time to even get it into the playing field.’’

Did he ever drop it?

“No - NO,’’ he says.

Asked if he learned any karmic lesson from the infamous grounder, Billy Buck keeps his head down and his Sharpie moving across yet another photo.

“Catch the ball, I guess,’’ he says.

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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