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LOS ANGELES — The shoes. Those big, black, clunky, utilitarian high tops. Shoes from another era, even then, worn by the kind of man who had nothing to sell, no brand to further, who at the end of the day simply wanted to get off his feet.
You couldn’t miss the shoes. Not after the first hop or the second or the third. Not in the din of what happened next, the man in the shoes standing slope-shouldered and rag-armed in disbelief, his feet bolted to the turf, his world about to take a beating.
Bill Buckner died Monday. He was 69. He’d had dementia.
His baseball career spanned 22 seasons and touched four different decades. He could hit. Baseball players thought he was a hell of a baseball player. A hell of a hitter.
Boston Red Sox fans came around.
By the end of his career, Bill Buckner would ask the traveling secretary for a hotel room near the ice machine. It would save everybody time and effort. And nobody else had to know. He’d perhaps gotten pretty decent at suffering in silence.
In the news of Buckner’s death, he was remembered for what he probably assumed he’d be remembered for, for the single play in a million, his crime being that he was professional enough and game enough and, perhaps, stubborn enough to be there. But, also, for the dignity he brought. For the compassion it summoned. For the reminders that nobody gets out for free, that it’s just a dumb game, that people have a terrible tendency to be people, and that’s just going to have to be their problem.
In the game, inside the place where they know the bounces are unpredictable, where they can actually count the countless details that lead to E-Buckner, and where they shiver at the thought of a similar event finding them, the passing of Bill Buckner the ballplayer, the teammate, the friend and the idol was met with melancholy. They lauded a career they agreed was underrated. They felt for a guy they knew had it tough at times, who’d walk into a room and know exactly what everyone was thinking, who stepped forward with grace.
“He was extremely kind and generous,” said Rich Hill, the veteran pitcher who grew up in Milton, Massachusetts.
Hill, then a 12-year-old, met Buckner at a Boston Celtics game. Hill approached Buckner and held out his game program. He had a notion it may not go well, that these sorts of meetings in Boston probably were uneven ground for Buckner. What he got in return was a smile, a hello, a “What’s your name?” And an autograph he keeps safe today.
When a boy chooses the life of baseball, in his head it is perfect. It is a life of home runs or no-hitters, of adulation, of big crowds that call your name, of cap tips. Some days are like that, too, maybe. Bill Buckner had plenty of those days, more than most. So the lesson comes in what to do with the one that stands in contrast, the one that becomes the generic name for a disappointment that digs deep for a generation. It was unfair. So grossly unfair.
“It was really unfortunate to see a lot of people grow up in that generation thinking Bill Buckner was a villain of sports in Boston,” Hill said. “He went massively underappreciated because of that one play.”
Gary Disarcina, the former shortstop, was raised on baseball games at Fenway Park. He recalled being unhappy after Game 6, but optimistic for Game 7. He recalled his UMass Amherst roommate, who was from Long Island, being just as optimistic. And then he also recalled wondering how a groundball didn’t get caught, and then becoming a professional baseball player himself, and feeling his perspective change.
“He was just a baseball player, man,” Disarcina said. “He made an error.”
That was going on 33 years ago. Buckner and the game, the part that turned on him, had made up. The Red Sox eventually won.
“Him being released by that moment,” Hill said, “maybe there was some sort of justice there.”
He could again be the man who’d had 2,715 hits. That guy. The man who’d batted .289 and hit 174 home runs and been an All-Star and an MVP candidate and won a batting title. In case anybody had forgotten. The decent man who’d strapped on those big ol’ shoes because that’s what the game called for, because that’s how he’d answer the call for a few more innings. That’s how he’d get through them. That guy.
“I was always so impressed,” said Jim Riggleman, the former manager and current Mets bench coach who’d come to know Buckner in recent years. “He was humble. I didn’t play in the big leagues. Sometimes that matters to those who have. Not him. And I don’t think people know how great a player he was.”
With any luck, Bill Buckner knew. He had to, right? He had to know that the loudest and angriest out there did not speak for the rest. How the game saw him. How it came to feel about him. That nobody is judged on three hops out of a million.
“Baseball’s going to miss him,” New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway said Monday afternoon.
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