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Wrong place, wrong time

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2008

During a television interview on Oct. 7, 1986, Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner noted, "The worst nightmare is letting the winning run score on a ground ball going through your legs."

Unknowingly, Buckner was displaying a bit of ESP on ESPN. Eighteen days later, Vin Scully first spoke and then shouted this into his NBC microphone: "Three-and-two to Mookie Wilson. Little roller up along first base. Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes [Ray] Knight, and the Mets win it!"

Most fans outside New England think Buckner's grievous error in Game 6 - shown repeatedly each year at World Series time - won the Series for Davey Johnson's Mets. It didn't, but it so demoralized the luckless Red Sox that they were easy pickings in Game 7 at Shea Stadium.

Thus it would be 18 more years before Boston ended its championship drought by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004. The so-called "Curse of the Bambino" lasted 86 years in all, and Buckner deserved at least an asterisk.

Buckner was not a well man on that chilly night in Queens. Hobbled by arthritis in his knees and ankles, he was about as immobile as a ballplayer could be. Many Red Sox fans wonder to this day why manager John McNamara didn't replace him in the later innings with Dave Stapleton, a much better fielder. Of such omissions are sporting goats created.

After losing the first two games of the Series, the Red Sox took three straight against a Mets team that had won 108 during the regular season. In Game 6, the teams were tied 3-3 after nine innings before the Red Sox took a 5-3 lead in the top of the 10th on Dave Henderson's homer and Marty Barrett's RBI single.

Throughout New England, bottles of champagne came out of the fridge. When Calvin Schiraldi, pitching in relief of Roger Clemens, retired the first two New York batters in the bottom half, corks began to pop.

Oh ye of too much faith.

Gary Carter and Kevin Mitchell singled before Ray Knight rammed a single to center that scored Carter and sent Mitchell to third. McNamara summoned Bob Stanley from the bullpen, and his seventh toss to Wilson was a wild pitch that brought Mitchell home. Tie game.

Many Red Sox fans undoubtedly buried their heads in anguish, and those who did so were lucky if they missed what happened next. On a full count, Wilson dribbled the ball toward first base, and the rest, as they say, is history. As Knight rounded third, he grabbed his helmet in his hands and stomped on the plate as bedlam erupted.

The TV cameras showed Buckner limping off the field ever so slowly and ever so sadly. Two nights later, the Red Sox blew a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning of Game 7 and lost 8-5.

Knight, now a broadcaster for the Washington Nationals, was named Series MVP. A lot of Red Sox rooters swore the trophy should have gone to Buckner.

Ironically, Buckner was a fine player who batted .289 and starred defensively over most of his 22 seasons with five clubs. In Chicago, he was so beloved that Cubs fans referred to him warmly as "Billy Bucks." With the Red Sox in 1986, he batted .267 with 18 home runs and 102 RBI.

Nowadays, of course, nobody remembers any of that - and Buckner resents it. His name immediately became anathema in Boston, so much so that he was forced to move out of town a while later.

"This whole thing about being forgiven and clearing my name ... cleared from what?" he said after the Red Sox won the 2004 Series. "It's almost like being in prison for 30 years, and then they come up with a DNA test to prove that you weren't guilty.

"I've gone through a lot of what I feel [were] bad, undeserved situations for myself and my family over a long period of time, and for someone to come up and say, 'Hey, you're forgiven,' it just kind of brings a really bad taste in my mouth. What did I do wrong?"

Mostly, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the notoriously wrong result. But surely the blame was not his alone. History also should point a finger at McNamara, who inexplicably failed to replace Buckner, and at Stanley, whose wild pitch enabled the Mets to tie the game.

But, no, it's neater and more convenient to have a single scapegoat. And in that regard, Bill Buckner unfortunately was one for the ages.