Monday, October 25, 2010

October 25, 1986: Buckner

QUEENS, N.Y. - With a cursed franchise, the tortured fans are often quick to place blame for failures. It's almost as if they need to find evidence of the existence of the curse to justify their team's repeated failures, that their team could never lose simply because they weren't quite good enough.

Often, the scapegoat is mislabeled, a poor sap who is taking the blame for something that he had little effect on - a fan reaching interfering with a left-fielder on a foul pop-up, a manager who left his star pitcher in the game two batters too long, a first baseman who committed a key error.

In the anger and disappointment immediately following a heartbreaking loss, it's easy to remember the big play that sealed the cursed team's fate rather than all the little ones that led up to it. In their anger, fans might even forget important details, like what the score was when the supposed scapegoat choked away a title.

Such was the fate of Bill Buckner.

Now, it's easy to say that he should have easily fielded Mookie Wilson's slow roller in the bottom of the 10th inning of game 6 in 1986. It was an easy play, one that Buckner had made thousands of times in his life. It was also easy to blame him for the Red Sox losing, since his error allowed Ray Knight to scamper home with the game-winning run. But the thing that many Red Sox fans forget in all their vitriol was that they had already blown that game before Buckner committed his fateful error.

Flash back to the middle of the 10th. Boston had just scored twice in the top of the inning, putting themselves three outs away from the championship. They just needed to put the Mets down without trouble. Even a little bit of trouble would be fine, as the Boston had a two-run cushion to work with.

Calvin Schiraldi was on the mound for Boston, beginning his third inning of relief. Why didn't they go right to closer Bob Stanley? Who knows? Stanley hadn't given up a run in the World Series yet, so why Schiraldi was out there was a mystery. Another mystery was why Buckner was still in the game at first; he had been regularly replaced late in games for defensive purposes all season. Manager John McNamara answered the second question later by saying he wanted Buckner to have the chance to celebrate a championship on the field. Seems like a risky way to tempt fate.

Now, to the game action. Schiraldi made McNamara seem like a genuis at first, getting the first two outs in the 10th with no trouble. Boston was one out away. Little did they know the disaster that was coming.

Gary Carter singled on a 2-1 pitch. No worries there, as he's still just one baserunner. But then pinch-hitter Kevin Mitchell singled on an 0-1 pitch. Now the tying run is on base, with the winning run at the plate. Still, though, Boston has that two-run lead. Schiraldi got an 0-2 count on Knight before Knight singled to center. Carter came home, Mitchell to third. Time for Boston to panic a little bit. McNamara finally went to Stanley at this point, still only needing one more out.

Now came Mookie Wilson's fateful at bat. He fouled off the first pitch before taking two out of the zone. Then, Wilson fouled another one off. Boston was one strike away. Wilson didn't give in, fouling off two more pitches. He had faced six pitches in the at bat.

At this point, Boston pitchers had thrown 15 pitches in the inning since getting the second out, 15 different pitches that could have won the World Series. Stanley threw the 16th. Wilson jumped out of the way, barely avoiding the ball as it skipped by his feet, falling to the ground, then scrambling out of the way as Mitchell came home with the tying run. So there it was. The lead, and the World Series, had been blown. And Wilson hadn't even hit the ball towards Buckner yet. That came two pitches later, with Knight scoring easily from second after advancing on the wild pitch.

So if you're a Boston fan, who do you blame for that loss? Do you blame Schilardi for falling apart late in his third inning of work? Do you blame McNamara for leaving him in in the first place? Do you blame Stanley for the wild pitch that tied the game? Those questions are too difficult to answer. They require defending your position and running the risk of having somebody disagree with you. It's a lot easier to find a scapegoat everybody can blame.

So everybody blamed Buckner.

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