Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bill Buckner: The Forrest Gump of Baseball

You don't have to have been alive in 1986 to know who Bill Buckner is.  If you're a Mets fan of any age, you're quite familiar with that name.  But Bill Buckner was more than just a wobbly-kneed, high-top wearing error-maker.  In fact, in a career that spanned four decades (he played one game for the Dodgers in 1969 and 22 games for the Red Sox in 1990), Buckner had a very successful extended stay in the major leagues.

Bill Buckner collected 2,715 hits over his long career, falling two doubles short of 500.  He also was one of the toughest batters to strike out in the history of the game.  In over 10,000 career plate appearances (9,397 at-bats), Buckner whiffed a total of 453 times.  To put that into perspective, Buckner was more likely to get a double (he had 498 of those) than he was to strike out.  In 1980, he won the National League batting title while striking out only 18 times in 578 at-bats.  Furthermore, from 1974-1987, Buckner finished as one of the top three players in the league in AB/SO rate a whopping ten times.  That includes the forever-to-be-remembered-for-another-reason 1986 campaign, a year in which he had gimpy legs, but not a gimpy bat, as he collected 39 doubles, a career-high 18 HR, 102 RBI and struck out a mere 25 times in 629 at-bats.  But it was a swing and a miss with the glove that stands out in the memories of Mets fans and baseball fans everywhere.

The 1986 World Series wasn't the only time Bill Buckner didn't come up with the ball in a famous play.  In fact, twelve years before the little roller up along first went behind the bag and not into his glove, Buckner failed to field another ball.  However, this one had a far more historical impact than the grounder by Mookie Wilson did.

In 1974, Hank Aaron was approaching Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.  He had finished the 1973 season with 713 career home runs and was poised to break the record early in the 1974 campaign.  He wasted no time doing so, blasting his record-tying 714th home run on Opening Day  against the Cincinnati Reds.  Four days later, on April 8, Aaron broke the record with a home run off Dodger pitcher Al Downing.  The video below has footage of the home run, but I'd like to call to your attention the Dodger outfielder who gave a valiant effort by climbing the left field wall in a failed attempt to catch Aaron's historic blast.  (The wall-climbing takes place at the 0:24 mark of the video.)

The athletic outfielder who did whatever he could to catch Aaron's ball, even if it meant ripping his pants on the chain-link fence, was none other than William Joseph Buckner.  Buckner failed to come up with the ball, allowing Aaron to circle the bases (with his overexuberant bodyguards joining him between second and third base).  It was the first of two times that Buckner would be thrust into the spotlight for not catching a ball.

In essence, by failing to come up with Aaron's fly ball in 1974 and Mookie Wilson's ground ball in 1986, Buckner has become the Forrest Gump of baseball.  As any astute moviegoer would be able to tell you, Forrest Gump always seemed to find his way into memorable moments in American history.   From teaching Elvis Presley how to swing his hips to exposing the Watergate scandal to inadvertently creating the "have a nice day" t-shirt, the famous resident from fictional Greenbow, Alabama couldn't help but contribute to historical events, even if he didn't realize he was doing it at the time.  The same can be said about Bill Buckner.

Buckner was just trying to catch a high fly ball off the bat of Hank Aaron in 1974.  Instead, his body hanging on top of the left field fence became part of baseball history.  Similarly, he was just trying to field a ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.  Instead, he left Red Sox fans hanging, having to wait another 18 years before the Curse of the Bambino could be lifted.

Bill Buckner was a great baseball player who played for a very long time.  His 22 years in the major leagues alone should have cemented his place in baseball history.  But Buckner carved his own place in baseball history that had nothing to do with what he did best, which was making contact with the ball and collecting hit after hit after hit.  In 1974, Buckner was on the wrong end of a historic home run.  Twelve years later, it was a ground ball that trickled under his glove and into endless video replays.  To add insult to injury, I'm sure it would surprise no one to know that Buckner played in only two World Series in his 22-year career.  Naturally, those appearances came in 1974 and 1986, with both series ending in defeats.

Perhaps it was Bill Buckner who was running alongside Forrest Gump when Gump stepped in a heaping pile of doggie doo during his multiple runs across America.  For a player who had such a wonderful career in the big leagues, "it" has certainly happened to Buckner, and "it happened" more than "sometimes".

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