Love is in the air at Fenway Park. The Red Sox are world champs, Neil Diamond will sing on a Hot August Night, and Sox Appeal is back for a second season of flirtations and libations. Yet nothing aimed more for the heart than the Bill Buckner love-fest.
The former Red Sox first baseman - and object of baseball lore - returned to Fenway yesterday for the 2008 home opener, his first trip to the Fens since 1986 ... no, actually '87 ... er, '90 ...
... his first trip to the Fens since 1997 and received a warm welcome from the Fenway fans, who apparently have "forgiven" Buckner for his gaffe in the '86 World Series. It all struck me as a little odd, especially considering those who actually remember the whole incident will instead forever place blame on John McNamara's shoulders. But I guess Buckner is easier to blame because his error was dramatic and tangible evidence of the choke while McNamara's buffoonery at Shea Stadium was largely ignored.
However, flash forward to 2003, and only a small percentage of the population holds Pedro Martinez liable for what happened a few miles to the north of Queens, directing their venom instead at Grady Little. Little never managed another game in a Red Sox uniform after Game 7. McNamara was on the bench for another 1 1/2 seasons, helped largely by the fact that Buckner's error snowballed into an almost mythical sign of consistent failure. It was easier to blame "curses" rather than stupid managerial decisions.
Little will forever go down in Boston history the way that McNamara should have. Buckner's name will live in baseball infamy; that will never change. But anyone who actually remembers watching that game had a similar thought as a hobbling Bucker stood near first base: "Uh, where's Stapleton?"
So if we're "forgiving" everyone, when do McNamara and Little get their ceremonial first pitches?
Sure, you were angry with Buckner. But even back then you couldn't understand McNamara's move. So he could celebrate? Really? In the bottom of the ninth inning in 2004, your eyes immediately focused on first base in St. Louis to make sure Doug Mientkiewicz replaced Kevin Millar. You think that stopped Millar from an extra helping of JD?
That is not to deny yesterday's fine moment, when Buckner walked to the Fenway mound. Let's just not make more out of it than it was. After all, this was Buckner's first appearance in Boston since 1997, back when he was the hitting coach for the White Sox. It's not like once we all watched that grounder bound through his legs that Bostonians immediately cast a banishment spell on him. The man was already feted upon his return in 1990. I was there. There were scattered boos on that day, but mostly it was an extended welcome back for Buckner, letting him know that bygones were bygones and such, even though a World Series title wouldn't come along for another 14 years. 1990.
Why is it now, 18 years later, that he should know that he's "always welcome", as Joe Castiglione put it during his introduction? He was "welcome" in 1990. McNamara wasn't. Probably still isn't. Ditto Grady.
Red Sox fans saluted Buckner 18 years ago. But yesterday's events made it seem to the national sports fan that it took two World Series titles in order for them to finally lift their grudge against him. How's that for gratitude? "We got what we want, so now we'll absolve you of your sins. Sorry we ruined your life, man."
In reality, Buckner was a media creation, a centerpiece for the trials and tribulations of the Red Sox' struggles over the years. It was easy to pinpoint his error as the turning point in Game 6. Easier than charting the incompetence of Calvin Schiraldi or calling Roger Clemens a liar years before it was fashionable to do so.
It's the peripheral fan who needs catchphrases and silly eighth-inning anthems in order to enhance their baseball experience who felt a perceived warm and fuzzy closure yesterday at Fenway. Red Sox fans who actually remember the realities of the situation didn't need it all to be convinced that Buckner's place in team history need not be tainted.
If we really want to test this "forgiveness" at Fenway, let's see what kind of response McNamara and Little receive. Buckner wasn't the goat. He was the scapegoat. That's why he was greeted so warmly.
Would the same be true for the infamous managers?