Bill Buckner, the longtime major leaguer, died Monday. He was 69.
“After battling the disease of Lewy Body Dementia, Bill Buckner passed away early the morning of May 27th surrounded by his family,” his family said in a statement. “Bill fought with courage and grit as he did all things in life. Our hearts are broken but we are at peace knowing he is in the arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Buckner, a baseball and football star growing up in Napa, California, was a second-round draft pick of the Dodgers in 1968.
Buckner was traded to the Cubs in 1977. He won the NL batting title in 1980, hitting .324. The following year, he was named an All-Star and then finished 10th in NL MVP voting.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Bill Buckner, a great ballplayer and beloved member of the Cubs family,” Cubs executive chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement, adding that “after his playing days, Bill served as a valued member of our player development staff and was a fan favorite during his appearances at our Cubs conventions.”
Buckner played 22 seasons in the majors but it was a ball that went through his legs at Shea Stadium on a cool Oct. 25 night in 1986 that made for one of baseball’s most shocking moments.
Boston, looking for its first World Series title since 1918, carried a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6 against the Mets. New York tied it with two runs, then brought Mookie Wilson to the plate.
Wilson worked a 3-2 count off reliever Bob Stanley, and then, with a runner on second base, bounced a slow roller up the first-base line on the 10th pitch of the at-bat. Buckner ranged to his left, went down to snag the ball behind the bag and watched it roll through his legs and into right field. Ray Knight scored to give the Mets a 6-5 can-you-believe-it win. The Mets went on to win the series in game 7.
“We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years. I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play,” Wilson said Monday in a statement released by the Mets.
Red Sox principle owner John Henry said in a statement that his team is “proud that Bill Buckner wore a Red Sox jersey during the course of a terrific career that spanned more than two decades. His life was defined by perseverance, resilience and an insatiable will to win. Those are the traits for which he will be most remembered.”
Buckner’s teammates on the 1986 Red Sox said he wasn’t to blame, saying Boston wouldn’t even have been in the World Series without his efforts that season.
“No one played harder than Bill. No one prepared themselves as well as Bill Buckner did, and no one wanted to win as much as Bill Buckner,” right fielder Dwight Evans later said.
But many in Red Sox Nation didn’t see it that way.
“When that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, hundreds of thousands of people did not just view that as an error, they viewed that as something he had done to them personally,” longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan once said.
That would moment ended up defining Buckner’s career, and even followed him after it.
When the Red Sox invited him to take part in a ceremony at Fenway Park honoring the 20-year anniversary of the 1986 team, Buckner declined.
The time came Red Sox’s 2008 home opener. That previous October, the team had won its second World Series title in four years, and they were celebrating it with past and present Boston sports greats. One of them there: Bill Buckner.
Buckner was introduced to the crowd and walked slowly to the mound with a standing ovation that lasted nearly two minutes. With tears in his eyes, the left-hander delivered the ceremonial first pitch, a strike to former teammate Evans as the Fenway faithful roared.
“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner said of why he decided to return to Fenway. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”
He finished his career with 2,715 hits, 1,208 RBIs, 1,077 runs scored and 174 home runs.
Buckner then went on to be the White Sox hitting coach in 1996 and ’97, and a return to Massachusetts in 2011 as manager of the independent league Brockton Rox.
He is survived by his wife, Jodi, and three children, Brittany, Christen and Bobby.