The 1986 World Series 30th Anniversary: The Fall of Buckner

The 1986 World Series was one for the ages, huh? Finally, the two cities that loathed each other within their own division for decades would get to battle on the world’s biggest stage for the ultimate baseball supremacy. The Boston Red Sox, behind one of the best hitters AND pitchers in baseball, would face off against the scrappy, seemingly always in trouble, New York Mets. The two teams combined for over 200 wins in the regular season, and it was a matchup that saw baseball’s two most polarizing teams go head-to-head.

It certainly was a red carpet list of baseball’s biggest stars. Darryl Strawberry. Dwight Gooden. Keith Hernandez. Gary Carter. Roger Clemens. Wade Boggs. Jim Rice. Dwight Evans. Don Baylor.

And of course Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner.

It was a World Series that is often defined by one late rally and and one of the most famous plays in October history.

30 years later, poor Buckner takes the blame. There was so much more to both that inning and that career, that it’s almost unfair that — no matter what people say now — he will always be remembered for that poorly fielded groundball. Poor Buckner.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, you have seen about a million words, but more than that, you have seen an absolutely bizarre finish to Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The Mets are not only alive, they are well, and they will play the Red Sox in Game 7 tomorrow! (Vin Scully’s broadcast)

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You see, up until that moment, Buckner was really one of the greatest pure hitters of his generation. Once that Mookie ground ball trickled though his aged knees and Ray Knight came around to score, no one cared.

Buckner was drafted in the second round way back in 1968. He made his big league debut (albeit a mere pinch hit appearance) a year later at the age of 19. Buckner was a unique first baseman, as he would never become known for his power at a traditionally big-bat position. His career high for homers in a season was 18 (in, of course, 1986) and he finished his career with a mere 174 total round trips.

What Buckner became was one of the hardest guys to strikeout in baseball. Buckner was always a straight-up contact guy. He didn’t walk, but he didn’t strikeout either. In fact, eight times in his 22-year career, Buckner walked the same amount of times of MORE than he struck out. His seven full seasons with the Chicago Cubs (he was traded for Dennis Eckersley in ’84) saw him strikeout less than 30 times in each season. He wasn’t the most menacing presence at the plate, but he was a solid, reliable bat that you knew would always make contact and a lot of the times get a hit.

Now, I’m not implying that the infamous Buckner error kept him out of the Hall of Fame, because I don’t feel that Buckner was Cooperstown material. He was certainly much better than he is remembered as being because of one big play, however.

He finished his career with 2,715 career hits which is 63rd all-time. If you are aware of how many players have played this game — and how many Hall of Famers make up the 62 players ahead of him –being in the Top 100 of anything all-time is pretty stellar. That’s why his 498 career doubles — also 63rd — are worth noting. Buckner also struck out once every 20.74 at bats in his career. Let’s put that into perspective, shall we? The only person ahead of him on the all-time strikeout rate list that played after 1970 is Tony Gwynn who struck out once every 21.40 times.

Buckner may have not been a Hall of Famer, but he certainly was in Hall of Fame company. But no matter how many specials or documentaries or feel good stories about Buckner’s post career are made, if you honestly, truly believe that Buckner’s career will not forever be shadowed by that one play, you are nuts.

We all know by now that there are plenty of factors that played in Buckner’s favor in regards to that error. He was a 36-year old first baseman with pretty much no knees left at that point in his career sharing the October stage with arguably the best fielding first baseman in the game in Captain Keith. He likely should have been pulled for a defensive replacement at some point in the game, but the Sox skipper John McNamara — who pulled Buckner throughout the season late in games for a defensive replacement — felt they had the game in the bag and wanted Buckner on the field.

Dave Stapleton, Buckner’s normal late-inning defensive substitute, watched it all happen from the bench.

It also needs to be noted that the game was already tied. If Buckner made the play, it didn’t guarantee that the Red Sox would have won that game. Those Mets were a team that never said die. This is a team that played 28 innings over Games 5 and 6 of the NLDS and refused to lose.

One last factor that most people forget is that this was only Game 6. Game 7 saw much of the same, as the Red Sox jumped out to an early lead and the Mets fought back late in the game to score eight runs in the final three innings. The Red Sox actually put a scare into the Mets, scoring two in the top of the eighth in a rally started by none other than Buckner.

That Mets team was a team that no one outside of the New York area wanted to see win, but would turn in one of the most exciting World Series — and seasons — in the history of the event. Some say it was karma as NBC infamously stocked the Red Sox locker room with bubbly in the top of the tenth of Game 6, while MLB brought the trophy into the clubhouse and named Bruce Hurst MVP.

Others will tell you the Red Sox lost because of Buckner, which is the furthest thing from the truth that could be possible. While winning a few World Series and breaking the Curse of the Bambino helped Boston forgive Buckner, 30 years later he is still on the wrong end of one of the most famous plays in the history of the game.

 

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