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Buckner's always been welcome here

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  January 4, 2011 06:27 PM

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bucknerbill.jpgOn the occasion of Bill Buckner's hiring as the manager of the Brockton Rox, it's probably worth yet another reminder that Red Sox fans -- intelligent ones, anyway -- never held his error in Game 6 against him.

OK, maybe they did -- we did -- for a few days in the gray aftermath of the Game 6 devastation, and then the following rainy days to dwell on and wallow in it, before the anticlimactic Game 7 loss. But when our minds began to clear, when the evidence was reviewed, the autopsy performed, and the last agonizing innings replayed again and again, Buckner was somewhere down the list of culprits.

Few forgot that his efforts were always noble. You can't envision him as a Red Sox without seeing those black high top sneakers that kept his wobbly ankles from crumbling beneath the rest of him. And it was never forgotten that the Sox wouldn't have been there without him and his 102 RBIs. And . . . well, there's really no need to run through the agonizing sequence of stunning events the led up to that 25-year-old disappointment; we're at a different time and place now, a better one. Let's just agree, again, that he didn't deserve scorn, let alone to have his stellar career pocked by one moment. Most of us realized as much not terribly long after Vin Scully informed us of what we already knew: The Mets win it.

Nationally, of course, it was a different story, a cruel and deceptive one. The Boston-loathes-Buckner was a juicy and relentlessly emphasized plot point of certain national sports media monoliths, which, as you may have noticed, sometimes give in to the temptation to treat history as something that can be tweaked for the sake of story lines and Nielsen ratings. A select few rogue and clueless leather-lungs were always available to perpetuate that story line, to remind him of his error, and treat him as a punch line. He'll probably run into an inebriated few in Brockton this summer.

Curiously, that perception that Buckner required forgiveness was enhanced, perhaps unwittingly, by the Red Sox themselves, who took Opening Day 2008 and their celebration of the 2007 World Series title as an opportunity to give him catharsis or closure. The intention was mostly good -- only a cynic would note any hints of pandering or emotional manipulation -- but it did affirm the vocal minority.

It did seem that Buckner needed that reminder that Sox fans knew better than to cling to a petty, desperate grudge. Judging by the tears in eyes before he threw out the ceremonial first pitch, he probably did. But it also must be remembered that he was applauded and appreciated long ago.

Not how you remember it? Have Fox and ESPN revised the history in your mind, too? Well, let's go to the archives and dust off the truth. The following is from the April 10, 1990 edition of the Globe. The headline is "No Hard Feelings," and the story, written by Michael Freeman, describes the fans' reaction to Buckner on Opening Day upon his return to the Sox after three years of calling other AL venues (Anaheim, Kansas City) his baseball home:

The standing ovation in pregame introductions was something Bill Buckner didn't expect. After all, this was the man most associated with the Red Sox losing the big one. This was the man pinned with the responsibility of blowing a World Series. However right or wrong the perception was this: Buckner lost it all by his lonesome.

Then came yesterday's cheers and screams of support. Then came shock.

"I don't know what to say. I never expected a welcome like that.,' he said.

"It was a big thrill and I've been looking forward to that moment for a long time. I think everybody felt good about it. It was a good way to start things off. Now I just have to produce on the field."

Buckner got about a one-minute ovation, during which he tipped his cap to the crowd. At first when his name was called, he seemed almost shy in coming out of the dugout. Momentarily, the crowd forgot about the ball rolling through Buckner's legs in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. It seemed Boston would never forgive the error. Apparently, some have.

Said Dwight Evans, "It gave everybody goosebumps. That was a great moment."

(Coincidentally, Evans caught Buckner's first pitch three years ago and consoled his former teammate when the moment brought out his emotions. Must be brothers-in-mustache or something.)

If that's not confirmation enough, consider Buckner's final, weirdly appropriate memorable moment in a Sox uniform. It came 16 days into the '90 season, on April 26, when he hit an inside-the-park home run -- no, really -- in a 3-1 win over the Angels at Fenway. Again, Buckner was saluted with waves of cheers. Wrote Frank Dell'apa:

Four seasons ago, few could have predicted Fenway Park cheers for Bill Buckner, starting first baseman for the 1990 Red Sox.

But most of the 19,843 at Fenway volubly approved of Buckner during the Red Sox' 3-1 loss to the California Angels last night.

"If I play bad, the boos are all right," Buckner said after going 2 for 4 with an inside-the-park home run. "If I play good, there will be cheers. I want to be judged by the way I play . . .

"I always felt I would be the first baseman, I would have a great year and the team would have a good year."

The team had a good year, winning the AL East. But Buckner was long gone by the time the postseason arrived. The improbable home run turned out to be Buckner's final highlight in a career that had plenty among his 2,715 hits.

He was released June 5 after batting .186 in 43 at-bats and never caught on elsewhere.

By then, fortunately, most of us had caught on here and realized the truth. Buckner's error was nothing compared to the cruel error in judgment by those who held it against him or used it for their own tired story lines.

I don't know. Ask me, they're the ones who should have required forgiveness.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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