Thursday, April 10, 2008

Can we put the Buckner story to bed now?

I wrote part of this Tuesday afternoon in response to a post on the Red Sox newsgroup. The news reports from yesterday prompted me to revise and extend...

Bill Buckner threw out the first pitch at Fenway on Tuesday, and from the media coverage, you'd believe that Red Sox fans have finally, after two World Series wins, consented to be civil to him, after fiercely holding on to a grudge for a generation.

The Boston Globe's Amelie Benjamin wrote that
This was not the first time Buckner had faced Fenway and the fans since his infamous 1986 moment. Not only did he play for the Red Sox for 75 games in 1987, he returned to the team for 22 games in 1990. But since that time, there has been healing in Red Sox Nation.

And at, Mike Bauman said that
...when [Buckner] was introduced on Tuesday he received a long and affectionate ovation. He had not been in Fenway for nearly 11 years, and it was as though people had been waiting for an opportunity to say "let's let that grounder be bygones," or something along those lines suggesting that to err is human and to forgive is divine.

It was a very nice moment, a genuinely touching moment.

It may well have been. But, to the extent that any "reconciliation" was needed between Buckner and the Red Sox fan base, it was needed only on one side. The idea that the typical Red Sox fan has been festering with resentment towards Buckner for the past 22 years is a media myth, and it has been, in my perception, fostered more by the national media than the Boston media.

Here's what Peter Gammons wrote in SI in November of 1986:
"When Buckner got to the Red Sox clubhouse, he found at least 15 teammates and coaches waiting for the parade. It was a crystal-clear autumn morning as the Red Sox climbed aboard the flatbed truck that would take them to the rally. When the truck turned onto Boylston Street, Buckner heard the bells of the Arlington Street Church pealing, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and when the truck neared Copley Square, he saw that the street was lined with faces and banners as far as he could see. Buckner had asked not to speak at the rally at City Hall Plaza, and so he stood at the end of the stage. But when he heard the ringing one-minute ovation that followed his name, Buckner stepped forward and thanked the crowd.

"That was the most incredible experience of my career," he said to Jody as they drove to Worcester, past a THANKS, RED SOX sign on the Mass Pike and a HOMETOWN OF HERO MARTY BARRETT sign at the city limits of Southborough. When the Buckners stopped at traffic lights in Worcester, people in other cars beeped their horns and waved at them."

Does that sound as if people blamed him entirely for what happened? I don't think so. And that was written just after the series.

I can speak first-hand to the reception that he got from the Boston crowd when the team re-signed him in 1990, because I was there (the only time I've ever made it to Fenway for opening day) and his was without a doubt the longest standing ovation of the day. [It one of only two things I really remember about the day, the other being that the National Anthem was sung by the actor, whose name I don't remember, who was in town playing Jean Valjean in Les Miserables] And when Red Sox fans talk about game six, McNamara, Clemens (if one believes McNamara, that he "asked out"), Schiraldi, Gedman and Stanley all take more abuse than Buckner. At least, that is my experience.

And I hear Buckner blamed far, far more often by non-Boston media types and fans than Red Sox media-types and fans.

Was he "driven out" of the Boston area by fan abuse? I've never seen any evidence of it. There are, obviously, morons everywhere, the Boston area being no exception. But I'm extremely skeptical that he somehow took so much abuse that he had no choice but to leave. This is a guy who grew up in California, spent 7 years with the Dodgers, 8 with the Cubs, but somehow, the fact that he didn't spend the rest of his life in Boston or Wakefield or Andover after spending two full seasons and three partial with the Red Sox is evidence of fan derangement. I'm not buying it. Again, were there individual incidents of unpleasantness? Sure - I've had individual incidents of unpleasantness in the Boston area and no one knows who the hell I am. But was the Red Sox fan base, as a group, somehow so unreasonable and disagreeable that he was "driven out" of the area? Do Red Sox fans as a group owe him an apology? I don't think so. I certainly don't, and I'm not going to.

(And he didn't warrant any of those positive reactions for his performance, either. He hit .279/.315/.410/.725 while playing 526 games for the Red Sox, primarily at 1st base and DH, with an OPS+ of 94. He led baseball in outs in 1986, while playing at a primarily offensive position. He was much, much worse as a Red Sox than someone like, for example, J.D. Drew.)

I don't know anything about Bauman, but I'll cut Benjamin a little slack - she was 4 years old when the ball went through Buckner's legs and eight when he returned on opening day 1990. But I, for one, am sick and tired of the story, and the implication that "Red Sox nation" consists entirely of petty, maladjusted, immature spoiled brats who drove one of the great players in a Red Sox nation out of the area because of one simple mistake. It's media storylining, and the storyline is even less accurate than most media storylines. It's nonsense, and I'm sick of it.

As to the whole "Boston fans drove Buckner out of the region and finally relented and showed that they had reconciled with him," I'm going to do something I'll probably never do again, and give Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy the last word. From the June 6, 1990 edition of the Boston Globe, page 47:
Opening Day 1990 was a cathartic experience for Buckner and the baseball fans of New England. The hobbling warhorse got the loudest and longest ovation when Sherm Feller introduced this year's Red Sox...He said he probably wouldn't stay in the Boston area unless he gets a job he likes.

UPDATE: Welcome to baseball fans coming from David Pinto's invaluable Baseball Musings site. I write fairly often (at least weekly during the season) about the Boston Red Sox...

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