“Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family. Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Bill was 69.” A statement from Bill’s wife, Jody Buckner.
Yes, on Memorial Day last week, the great Bill Buckner died. Over his career with five teams, notably the Dodgers, Cubs and the Red Sox, he amassed a total of 2,715 hits which puts him in the top 65 players of all time — “rarified air” indeed, according to one sportswriter. That’s top 65 out of over 20,000.
But in spite of the accolades that should be easily his, he is, instead, mostly remembered for one botched play in the 1986 World Series that ended up costing the Red Sox the Series. Mookie Wilson of the New York Mets hit what Vin Skully called “a little roller” up the first base line that should have been the final out of the game, but went under Buckner’s legs allowing the winning run to come home. The ball was hit so slowly that it died on the grass in right field, only a few feet behind him. A little leaguer could have made this play. You or I could have made it. Every Red Sox fan who watched it on television wished they could have made it. And now that it’s on YouTube, it’s one of those videos you just keep on watching over and over again, somehow hoping, even though it’s a video, that one of those times he will pick up the darn ball and step on the bag, but he never does.
Of course there were other mistakes made in that inning that led to this unprecedented collapse, among them, a wild pitch that let in the tying run. Four times in the inning the Mets were down to their last strike, and four times the Red Sox let them back in. It was a monumental unraveling of a whole baseball team and yet it was Buckner’s error that everyone remembers and that sadly defined his whole career. It was such a visual. No one who’s seen it ever forgets it.
But from what I hear, Buckner did. He lived a very normal, happy life following his retirement from baseball. He was a committed family man and a strong Christian. He coached his kids baseball teams and kept coaching them after his kids were grown and gone, because there were other parents’ kids he cared about, too. He taught a popular Bible study class in his local Baptist church. And when he died last week, they were celebrating a life and a going home, not an error.
But the most remarkable thing about that unforgettable play was that it led to author and poet Michael O’Connor’s decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ. I know it sounds bizarre, but once you read about it in his book, Sermon on the Mound, you will become a believer, too. And from what I know and have read about Bill Buckner, he would gladly trade his personal humiliation on national television, and forever on YouTube, for the knowledge that it led to someone’s eternal life with God. I know this because I sent him the story, and his wife thanked me and sent me a Bill Buckner autographed baseball in return.
Welcome home, Billy Buckner.