A Little Luck 'Not A Bad Thing' In Baseball

Aug 20, 2011
Originally published on August 20, 2011 10:51 am

In baseball, it's better to be lucky than good, according to Bill Buckner. He should know. Buckner was very good. He was an All-Star Gold Glove first baseman who played 22 years in the major leagues, including four seasons for the Boston Red Sox.

This summer, Buckner is back in baseball and back in New England, where he's being reminded that 22 years of being good can't erase one moment of being unlucky.

In 1986 it was the Red Sox against the New York Mets in game six of the World Series. The Sox were one strike away from winning their first championship since 1918. A couple of hits, a wild pitch and suddenly the game was tied. The Mets' Mookie Wilson stepped to the plate.

The ball Wilson hit went through Buckner's legs, and the Red Sox lost. One unlucky moment and two decades of being good didn't seem to matter any more.

So Buckner left and eventually settled in Idaho, where he could hunt and fish and live peacefully with his family — far from the relentless reminders about that one error.

He did a bit of major league coaching in the '90s, and in the last year Buckner accepted an offer to come back to professional baseball. Buckner became the manager of the Brockton Rox, a semi-pro team of baseball dreamers.

Buckner is a minor celebrity in Brockton, about 30 miles south of Boston. On a recent evening in Campanelli Stadium, there were about 200 people in the stands, and a man dressed as a kangaroo — the team mascot. Buckner was in the dugout.

"You know, baseball's a game of failures and a lot of downs in the game, and you have to shake it off, and the good players could do that," he says. "Baseball is a game of averages, but over a short period of time, to have a little luck going is not a bad thing."

It's understandable that Buckner gets tired of having to relive that error.

"People always ask me what I thought about when I missed the ground ball," he says, "and my first thought was, 'Wow, we get to play in the seventh game of the World Series ... We'll get 'em tomorrow.'"

Of course, the Mets won Game 7. The Red Sox had to wait another 18 years before they finally won the World Series.

After that error in 1986, the press wouldn't let it go, so those were tough years for Buckner and his family. One reporter even called his wife to ask if Buckner was contemplating suicide.

But for the young players of the Brockton Rox, having a big league veteran as manager is a rare privilege.

"Probably the biggest name that I've ever played for," says Chris Grossman, the catcher for the Rox. "I had a couple of buddies joke about it and say, 'If you guys miss a ground ball, you can't say anything' — but everyone's made mistakes in this game."

When Buckner came back to Fenway Park in 2008 to throw out the first pitch of the season opener, Boston fans gave him a huge ovation, which Buckner talks about in an aw-shucks kind of way.

"It was awesome, I mean, it was almost embarrassing, though, to be out in front of that many people. The real cool thing about it was the fans ... were sincere," he says. "I think they understood all the crap I went through, and they were always good to me."

Buckner says when you're 12 years old, you dream of hitting the game-winning home run in the World Series. That doesn't happen too often, he says. Not without a bit of luck, anyway.

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In baseball it's better to be lucky than good. Bill Buckner said that, and he should know. Buckner was very good. He was an All-Star gold-glove first basement who played 22 years in the major leagues, including four seasons for the Boston Red Sox. This summer, Buckner is back in baseball and back in New England, where he's reminded that 22 years of being good can't erase one moment of being unlucky. From WBUR in Boston, Anthony Brooks reports.

VIN SCULLY: So the winning run is at second base with two outs. Three and two to Mookie Wilson.

ANTHONY BROOKS: 1986, Game Six of the World Series, the Boston Red Sox against the New York Mets. You know what happened. The Red Sox were one strike away from winning their first championship since 1918. Then a couple of hits and a wild pitch and suddenly the game was tied. And the Mets' Mookie Wilson came to the plate.

SCULLY: Little roller up along first. Behind the bag. It gets through Buckner. Here comes Knight., and the Mets win it.

BROOKS: So Bill Buckner left and eventually settled in Idaho, where he could hunt and fish and live peacefully far from the relentless reminders about that one error. He did a bit of major league coaching in the '90s, but what do you do if you're Bill Buckner, and you get an offer to come back to professional baseball in New England?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And now ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the starting lineup for your Brockton Rox.

BROOKS: You accept, of course,

MAN: The manager of your Brockton Rox, number 6, Bill Buckner.

BROOKS: The Brockton Rox, a semi-pro team of baseball dreamers and one rookie manager, Bill Buckner.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Hey, there he is.

GIRL: Can I have your autograph?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Can I have your autograph. Oh man, you're mean.

BROOKS: Bucker is a minor celebrity here in Brockton, about 30 miles south of Boston. On a recent evening in Campanelli Stadium, there were about 200 people in the stands, and one man dressed as a kangaroo - that's the team mascot. Bill Buckner was in the dugout musing about baseball and luck.

BILL BUCKNER: You know, baseball's a game of failures, you know, and a lot of downs in the game, you know. And you got to just shake it off. I mean, the good players could do that, you know. I mean, baseball is a game of averages, but over a short period of time to have a little luck going is not a bad thing."

BROOKS: Buckner gets tired of having to relive and talk about that error, but on this evening he brought up the subject.

BUCKNER: People always ask me what I thought about, you know, when I missed the ground ball, and my first thought was, wow, I get to play in the seventh game in the World Series, you know? You know, we'll get them tomorrow.

BROOKS: Of course, the Mets won game 7 and the Red Sox had to wait another 18 years before they finally won the World Series. After that error, members of the press wouldn't let it go, so those were tough years for Buckner and his family. One reporter even called his wife to ask if Buckner was contemplating suicide.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT HITTING BALL)

BROOKS: But for the young players of the Brockton Rox, having a big league veteran as manager is a rare privilege. Chris Grossman is the catcher for the Rox.

CHRIS GROSSMAN: Probably the biggest name that I've ever played for. And I had a couple of buddies joke about it, say, you know, well, if you guys miss a ground ball you can't say anything. But, you know, everybody's made mistakes in this game.

MAN: Number 6, Bill Buckner.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

BROOKS: So, this is what happened when Buckner came back to Fenway Park in 2008 to throw out the first pitch of the season opener. Boston fans gave him a huge ovation, which Buckner talks about in an aw-shucks kind of way.

BUCKNER: It was awesome. I mean, it was almost embarrassing though to be out in front of that many people. The real cool thing was the fans were, they were sincere, you know. And I think they understood, you know, all the crap I went through and they were always good to me.

BROOKS: Buckner says when you're 12 years old you dream of hitting the game-winning home run in the World Series, but that doesn't happen too often, he say. Not without a bit of luck, anyway. For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.