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Buckner’s blame is also our own

Why does one bad play blot out a lifetime of excellence?

Bill Buckner
Bill Buckner was a star for the Cubs, winning the 1980 batting championship. But deathless shame was waiting for him when he was traded to the Red Sox.
AP photo

He had more hits — 2,715 — than either Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams.

But Bill Buckner also blew one important play, and was smart enough to know what that meant.

“The headline on my obituary will say I missed a ground ball in Game 6,” Buckner once said. “A little note at the end will say, ‘He was a pretty good player.’”

He got that right, the first part anyway. The obituaries for Buckner, who died on Monday, did try not to let his 22 stand-out seasons be eclipsed by one bobbled ball.

“A MIXED LEGACY,” read the headline in Tuesday’s Sun-Times. “’80 NL batting champ with Cubs committed big error in ’86 Series.’’

“2,715 Hits, Eclipsed by One Miss” is how the New York Times put it.

They tried, but they failed. Because Bill Buckner was a goat, the biggest goat in baseball for the past three decades. If the term doesn’t pluck a heartstring, then you’ve forgotten your “Peanuts.”

“If I catch it, we’ll win the championship, and I’ll be the hero,” Charlie Brown says to himself, looking up, glove at the ready, as the baseball flies in his direction. “If I miss it, I’ll be the goat!”

Spoiler alert: Charlie Brown misses it.

Sports writers went through the motions of highlighting Buckner’s excellence — 174 home runs, an All-Star in 1981. But those statistics seemed flimsy compared to the glowing permanence of letting Mookie Wilson’s dribbler bounce through his legs.

“The only thing more unforgiving than the last hop and the error itself might be that Bill Buckner likely will be remembered forever for that one moment...” is how Buckner’s obituary in the Sun-Times, written by Gordon Wittenmyer, begins. “Might be” is a kindness — it should be “is” — and “likely” is just wistful. Nothing likely about it. Take it to the bank.

Buckner wasn’t the first player to blow a big play. These stains endure.

“If you kill someone, they sentence you to life,” Ralph Branca once said. “You serve 20 years, and you get paroled. I’ve never been paroled.”

If you know Branca at all, it is as the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who served up the “Shot Heard Round the World,” the ball that New York Giant Bobby Thomson parked into the Polo Grounds bleachers to win the 1951 pennant.

It’s a distinctly baseball phenomenon. No basketball player who ever botched a routine layup, no football player who ever dropped an easy pass, found himself as saddled with goat horns as Buckner was. (Though Cody Parkey, the Bears’ former star-crossed kicker or, more precisely, misser, comes close.)

Is it fair? Of course not. The Red Sox blowing the 1986 series against the Mets was a collaborative effort. Boston reliever Bob Stanley threw a wild pitch, yet his name carries no shame. There was an entire seventh game for the Red Sox to drop but, like the game after Bartman’s famous reach, it might as well not exist.

Then again, life is not fair, and the trouble here is, we’re so busy weighing Buckner’s merits, we ignore our own. We never pause to ask what remembering that one play above all else says about us.

For all its concern about athletic prowess, the public has balance problems. Focusing on the bad part is automatic, maybe even natural. I use a phrase: “It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup.” You have to see it go in to know it’s there, and that is the lesson of Buckner, et al.: We are remembering the context of the mistake, what it felt like to us, as much as the mistake itself.

It isn’t always malicious. Pirate pitcher Harvey Haddix, known entirely for one loss: May 26, 1959 — 60 years ago this week. Haddix threw 12 perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves and still lost, because the Pirates were shut out. Not his fault. Haddix did exactly what he was supposed to do. His team let him down.

Otherwise Haddix wouldn’t be remembered at all, and that’s the problem. We pretend like notoriety is a gift, a good thing, when it’s really a double-edged sword. Fame is often the process of people who know one thing pretending they know everything.

Glory passes quickly, the blot lingers. We should realize that it condemns the condemners as much, if not more, than it does the condemned.