Remembering Bill Buckner — and learning from him

Bill Buckner, on the day in 2008 that Boston forgave him, Fenway Park. (Twitter)
Bill Buckner, on the day in 2008 that Boston forgave him, Fenway Park. (Twitter)

Full disclosure: I’m a Yankees fan, and always have been. But like virtually every New Yorker in 1986, I was glued to my TV set when Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman, allowed New York Met Mookie Wilson’s ground ball to slip between his legs, transforming what should have been the last out and the end of that series into a Met victory and, ultimately, championship.

Bill Buckner died this week after a long illness, but I think it fair to say that more than a little of him died that day when he made the error. Really… what do you do — what can you do — when you make the worst mistake of your life in front of thousands of people in the stands and millions on television, and there’s nothing at all that you can do to make it right?

Jewish law has a lot to say about repenting for wrongdoing. Three times a day we beat our breast and ask God to forgive us our sins. The compelling underpinning of our most sacred time of year — the High Holidays — is rooted in the idea of self-examination, recognition of sin, and asking God to forgive us for what we have done wrong. As a religious tradition, there is no subject more central to who and what we are, at least as the ancient rabbis interpreted the Torah.

It’s tempting to view Bill Buckner’s story as some kind of paradigm of penitence and redemption, but he didn’t sin, and he didn’t need to atone. He made an error — a mistake on the playing field that, in a less consequential game, would simply have become a statistic, quickly forgotten. Few of us who have ever played competitive sports can claim never to have booted a simple ground ball, struck out in a key situation, missed an open lay-up, booted a soccer ball past an open net… You hope not to make those mistakes when your team is counting on you and the stakes are high, but- things happen. As the cliche goes, that’s why you play the game.

The irony, of course, was that Bill Buckner was a very, very fine baseball player. In his major league career, he had been an All-Star, had 2715 hits, 174 home runs, 1208 RBI, a lifetime .289 batting average… He had a great career, far better than the overwhelming majority of players who ever put on a uniform for any team. But that unhappy error would forever be the one play that everyone remembered. From that day forward, any ballplayer who let an easy ground ball get by him would be said to have “pulled a Bill Buckner.” His one bad play became a part of the American sports vocabulary.

As one might imagine, it wasn’t easy for Buckner in the aftermath of that game. He was the butt of countless jokes and insults, and his family was similarly subjected to cruel comments by thoughtless fans. To his great credit, Buckner tried valiantly to roll with the jokes, and even appeared at many events where he and Mookie Wilson signed 8×10 glossies of the infamous play. They’re pretty ubiquitous on the sport memorabilia market; lots of Mets fans have them hanging in their houses. But ultimately, the derision to which he was routinely subjected was so unrelenting and debilitating that Bill Buckner moved the family out to Idaho, far from the “scene of the crime.” He became a real estate agent there, and a beloved citizen of Boise.

In 2008, the Red Sox officially brought Bruckner in from the cold, as it were, and invited him to throw out the first ball at their opening game at Fenway Park. As he walked to the mound from the Green Monster in left field, he received a warm, and genuine, standing ovation from the Boston fans. The pictures of that moment of sweet personal redemption — of his wiping away tears from his eyes- are priceless. One can only wish that they could have come sooner….

Congregational rabbis like myself often find themselves struggling to minister to those in their communities who have “sinned,” either by committing a crime or engaging in ethically or morally ambiguous behavior. Those people, in addition to suffering whatever legal penalty might result from their actions, must struggle to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of those among whom they live. Rabbis certainly have a role in helping them accomplish that painful and difficult task.

But to my mind, far more challenging are those instances where we find ourselves trying to help the person who committed no sin at all… just an egregious, obvious, can’t-pull-it-back mistake that left him/her persona non grata in the community’s eyes. Technology, and specifically listserves, have amplified the possibilities of this kind of issue — that is, the person who inadvertently hits “reply all” when what was written was intended to be private. But that’s only one example. We are all so human, so painfully human, and our capacity to make mistakes is as infinite as is our capacity to do good and wondrous things. If Bill Buckner had just reached down another quarter of an inch… but he didn’t, and he had to live with that for the rest of his life.

Not only rabbis, but each and every one of us can help people who find themselves in such a situation by being reminded of the iconic words attributed to 16th century English evangelical preacher John Bradford when he saw prisoners being marched to their execution: “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” That sentiment would later be emended to read “There but for the grace of God go I.”

There but for the grace of God go we all. Rest in peace, Bill Buckner…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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