SALT LAKE CITY — As a man of faith, Bill Buckner has to wonder if this was all part of a plan.
If so, it was plenty mysterious.
Buckner’s 10th-inning flub in the 1986 World Series will forever rank him among sports’ epic foul-ups, along with the likes of “Wrong Way” Riegel, Garo Yepremian and Chris Webber. The Boston Red Sox were one strike away from their first World Series title in 68 years. New York scored the winning run when a Mookie Wilson grounder skipped through Buckner’s legs and the Mets went on to win the Series.
But since then, the 65-year-old Buckner says he has had people thank him for his inspiration, claiming he taught them about overcoming obstacles. He now lives in Boise, where he relocated after fleeing the rage in Boston. Fan rage that included death threats. Media rage. His own rage at being singled out.
“I was a little bitter over it,” Buckner said in a Monday phone interview. “I didn’t think I deserved it, so…”
So he endured.
“I’m a person of faith, so there’s a lot there. I’ve had a lot of people call me and thank me for giving them directions to make it through — and that’s a good thing.”
Little did he know, that day in 1986, the doorway to torment had opened.
“The dreams are that you’re going to have a great series and win, and the nightmares are that you’re going to let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs. So those things happen, and I think a lot of it is just fate,” he told ESPN a few days before it occurred.
So it was that Buckner became one of the most reviled players in history, despite a nice career that included playing in an All-Star game and once leading the National League in hitting. He still believes the media’s involvement fanned the flames of resentment.
“I think part of it is the media looking for a story and trying to sell papers or whatever,” he said. “I don’t know. That’s not a good side of human nature.”
But in 2008, when he threw out the opening pitch at Fenway, he was given a standing ovation.
The fans had forgiven him — and he them.
Maybe, since he has inspired others, the Buckner saga was meant to be.
“Who knows?” he said. “It’s all in God’s plan. I’m just along for the ride.”
Buckner has found peace. He briefly stayed in New England after his playing career, then moved to a 2,000-acre ranch in Idaho. His father died at a young age and Buckner spent considerable time at an uncle’s ranch near Boise, finding solace in the area.
Prior to Monday’s Salt Lake Bees game, he said it took four or five years to get over the resentment. As recently as 2006, he declined to appear at a 20th-anniversary celebration of the ‘86 team. He now represents the Principal Financial Dream Team, encouraging fiscal responsibility, as well as appearing with Wilson at autograph shows. There, he wearily but gamely revisits details of an event he has clearly outgrown but may never outlive.
Still, the years when people told his kids their father was a failure are long past.
“It’s life, and everybody has to deal with something, and most of the time it’s a lot more important than a baseball game,” he said. “You’re talking about cancers, children, and those things that are much more important than baseball. You have choices and some people can’t deal with it and some can. Spiritually that helped me.”
Forgiving the media took the longest.
“I’m good with it,” he said in the interview. “I’d rather not do this because it’s not interesting to me anymore. But you have your job to do, and I’m good with it. I’m more concerned about my family’s health, things that are a lot more important.”
The Red Sox? They’re in last place, with no one but themselves to blame. But there’s no way to point the finger at Buckner. Besides, the Sox went on to win titles in 2004, 2007 and 2013.
That alone is reason Buckner’s mistake should be relegated to a single moment, but not a lifetime. All that was a lifetime ago.
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