The Strange Case of Bill Buckner

October 25, 1986. It is the bottom of the 11th inning, and the Boston Red Sox are one out from ending a 68-year World Series drought. The vast majority of Boston fans have never seen their team win the championship, but their time has come. Up in the series 3-2, the Sox have two outs, but their fate is not yet sealed. The Mets begin a two-out rally and tie the score on a wild pitch. With a runner at third, Boston needs one out. The stadium-crowd, and the television audience beyond, intently watches as a routine ball is hit to first base, but before Sox fans can breath a sigh of relief, the ball dribbles between Bill Buckner’s legs and down the right field line as the winning runner scores, triggering a seventh game. The Red Sox go on to lose the series, and among baseball fans, especially those from Boston, Buckner’s name — once beloved — lives in infamy. 

Almost immediately, the blowback materialized. Boston fans loudly complained to reporters that “[they]’ve been waiting for decades for a championship,” while others exclaimed that “Bill Buckner can rot in hell.” But, in a game in which errors are common, why is Buckner so reviled among fans of the sport? 

The answer lies in baseball history. Since the late-19th century, Americans have viewed baseball as a representation of American pride, patriotism and identity, and it manifests itself in the fact that the game is “imbued with ritual, magic, myth, and imitations of immortality” (Grella 550) . This romanticism of baseball is reflected in two predominant aspects of the sport: statistics and the Hall of Fame. “First and foremost, major league baseball compiles voluminous statistics on virtually every aspect of player performance” (Allen and Parsons 809).Further, the baseball Hall of Fame serves to historicize the sport as ‘The Great American Game.’ Thus, the institution, which judges players based on their statistics, “represents … the relationship between achievement and consecration” of a player into the long history of baseball and American culture (Allen and Parsons 809). For this reason, baseball fans today tend to look to the Golden Era of baseball and remember Hall of Famers, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Micky Mantle, and Ted Williams, not only as players of the game, but as deities that all players today strive to emulate. This cultural aspect of American baseball is of key importance to the understanding of the sentiment of Red Sox fans and its ramifications in the 1986 World Series.

All Red Sox fans and players, going into the World Series, knew the Curse of the Bambino. The legend states that the 1919 Red Sox trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees cursed the franchise, preventing them from winning another title. Further, the drought served to justify the truth of such a curse. This was on the minds of every player and spectator in the 1986 World Series, especially Bill Buckner. Weeks before the game, Buckner revealed his feelings in an interview: “The dreams are that you are gonna have a great series and win, and the nightmares are that the winning run will score on a groundball through your legs.”

As the possibility of the win seemed more likely, the pressure to win the game grew. Not only did Boston players hope to bookend the legend of the Red Sox tradition but each player sought to live up to the standard of the greatest players and assume their own place in baseball history. As game 6 of the series dragged on, the fans hoped and the players dreamed. Ultimately, those dreams came down upon one man in the final minutes of the game. Thus, the mental pressure of that moment made easier the possibility of failure, which Bill Buckner experienced, followed by humiliation. Buckner, just like so many before him, became a victim of the Curse of the Bambino.

Sports psychology has attempted to understand why players, such as Buckner, are susceptible to failure in pressure situations. Team psychologist for the Cleveland Indians, Charlie Maher, labels the affliction “misplaced focus.” He claims that the phenomenon is not physical but wholly mental: “If [a player’s] focus is really misplaced, it’s on results. It’s on what people are thinking. It gets them away from the fluidity of the process of the game.”

This misplaced focus, the worry of not making the play, to which Buckner alluded just 19 days prior, is what Buckner experienced. He was focused on the results — the possibility of ending the 68-year drought and assuming his place among the great baseball players — rather than fielding the groundball and making the third out.

Bill Buckner is one of the most remembered players in recent baseball history, but he is infamous rather than glorious. As stated by Bob Ryan from the Boston Globe, “when that ball went through Buckner’s legs, hundreds of thousands of people did not view it as an error but as something he had done to them personally.” Buckner’s legacy elicits an emotional response among baseball fans because his error represents the desires of fans to cheer their team to victory, the hopes of players to be remembered as one of ‘the greats,’ and the ultimate truth that only few succeed in the end. Today, Buckner holds a place in baseball history — not one that emulates Babe Ruth and the Golden Age of baseball, but one that reminds all who play and watch that it is a game of failure, but that the possibility of success amid that failure is what makes baseball so great.

References:

Allen, Michael Patrick, and Nicholas L. Parsons. “The Institutionalization of Fame: Achievement, Recognition, and Cultural Consecration in Baseball.” American Sociological Review 71, no. 5 (October 2006): 808-25. Accessed March 11, 2018. JSTOR.

“Bill Buckner: Behind the Bag.” In E:60. ESPN. October 25, 2011. Accessed March 11, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CR9kKGeE5Q.

Grella, George. “Baseball and the American Dream.” The Massachusetts Review 16, no. 3 (Summer 1975): 550-67. Accessed March 11, 2018. JSTOR.

Meisel, Zack. “The Yips: Difficult to Understand, Difficult to Cure.” MLB.com. May 10, 2013. Accessed March 11, 2018. https://www.mlb.com/news/the-yips-difficult-to-understand-difficult-to-cure/c-47124896.

 

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