Monday, 03 June 2019 11:02

'MATTer of Opinion' Sports Column: Bill Buckner's legacy about notoriety and forgiveness

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Hearing on Memorial Day that Bill Buckner had died struck me oddly. I hadn't thought of him in quite some time, as I'm sure was the case for most people outside of the New England area.

I also had no idea that, at age 69, he'd been battling dementia. I felt bad that he'd passed on. But I couldn't help but cast my memory back to a time when sympathy for Buckner was the last thing on anybody's mind.

For me, his notoriety and his death offered a life's lesson in growing up, or should I say, in outgrowing the ugly side of sports fandom.

I was only 4 years old during the 1986 World Series, and my ridiculous interest in the sport of baseball had yet to come to fruition. However, as I got older through the '80s and especially the '90s, I had a renewed interest in Buckner's huge mistake at first base that cost the Red Sox their first championship since 1918 and the ridicule that followed.

It took awhile for me to get that Buckner's error, however costly, was neither intentional nor a crime, and that the weight of the guilt New England put on him was too great a punishment. Boston has since won four World Series. It took the first of those, in 2004, for Red Sox fans to officially forgive him.

At the same time, I paused at the criticism I heard thrown on ESPN.com because the website's news story on Buckner's passing had said — in the first paragraph — "whose error in the 1986 World Series for years lived in Red Sox infamy."

That was not a cheap shot. It was fair.

The first rule of writing obituaries for so long taught me this: What is this person best known for?

Is it fair that after seven good years and a Pro Bowl for the Buffalo Bills, Scott Norwood is most remembered for the game-losing missed 47-yard field goal in the 1991 Super Bowl?

Or that Cubs fan Steve Bartman is forever notorious in Chicago for the inadvertent catch interference that may have cost the Cubbies a spot in the 2003 World Series?

Is it fair that despite his NFL passing records and Hall of Fame Dolphins career, the "yeah but" of no Super Bowl rings will always be attached to Dan Marino's name and legacy?

Well, yeah, actually.

Every negative must be placed and recalled in context. And no negative ever should lead to threats or other irrational reactions. But the burden placed on the Norwoods and Buckners of the world is understandable, just as the ultimate forgiveness is natural, too.

Sports is a tough business, a bottom-line world. It holds you responsible for your actions, and for your failures, perhaps more than any other facet of life.

Of course, the Buckner obituary will also rightly note that he enjoyed a very solid 22-year career mostly with the Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox. He had 2,715 hits and a career .289 average. He made an All-Star team and won a batting title. He wasn't Cooperstown-great, so let's not get carried away as eulogies sometimes do, but he was very good for a long time.

He always made one of the most infamous, memorable big-stage gaffes in sports history. He also later capitalized on it with memorabilia including signed framed photographs of that ball rolling through his legs into short right field.

You can't tell the story of Buckner's life and career without all of why we'll remember him.

The vilification-turned-reconciliation makes the Buckner story ultimately as much about being a sports fan — about us — as it is about him.

When we bid that this man rest in peace, we mean it, because we understand that he deserves that more than most.