On Bill Buckner and Losing with Grace

Bill Buckner died Monday.

As expected, there were a lot of mentions of the ground ball he let dribble between his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, allowing the Mets to score the winning run and cap an improbable comeback. It’s probably his most memorable moment, but one to be unfairly remembered for.

Fact is, John McNamara (whose next managerial stint after the Red Sox fired him in 1988 was Cleveland) should have lifted Buckner in the late innings for Dave Stapleton, like he’d done three previous times in the World Series and many times in the fall. And before Buckner’s error, pitcher Calvin Schiraldi had given up back-to-back-to-back singles and uncorked a wild pitch allowing the tying run to score. Had Buckner been able to make the play at first, the game would have gone to the 11th inning. And there was a Game 7 the next day – which the Red Sox led and then lost, giving even more weight to the idea of the “Curse of the Bambino” hanging over the Red Sox. (This is where I remind you that the Red Sox were the last team in the majors to integrate.)

The memory hung around Buckner’s neck like an albatross, for fans, for writers, but not really for him. “I got a great life,” he said in a 2003 interview. “I like the way things are going. I don’t sit in the woods and think about it. Ever.”

In sports, there are winners and losers. That’s why we watch. But for us, it’s a pastime, a hobby. For the people who play the game, it’s a job. And while you can’t do it just for the money – on some level, even professionals play sports because they love it – you have to treat it like a job for your own sanity.

If there’s one thing being a Cleveland sports fan has taught us, it’s how to deal with losing of all kinds. Heartbreaking losses like the Browns in back-to-back AFC Championship games in the 1980s, the Cavs up against Jordan’s Bulls in the 1990s or the Magic or Celtics in LeBron’s first term in Cleveland, or the Indians in 2016.

A couple years ago, I did a story for Cleveland Magazine catching up with members of the 1997 Indians, the team that sustained its own heartbreaking loss. Mike Hargrove has famously said “When it happens, I’ll let you know,” when asked when he got over the loss, but most of the players seemed a little more accepting. The ones I talked to usually said something to the effect that someone has to win and someone has to lose.

Fact is, there’s a healthy way for players to deal with losing, but as fans, that’s not always what we want to see. We live and die with these teams, and we expect those in their uniforms to do so as well. Who among us didn’t feel a well of humanity seeing Earnest Byner tear up in “Believeland.” I wanted to give him a hug. (And again, since we’re recognizing the right context for things that broke our hearts, remember two things: First, Webster Slaughter missed his block, and second, Byner’s score would have only tied the game with the extra point.)

Bill Buckner didn’t let one play define him, even when so many of us tried to do so, and most importantly, he learned to take it with grace, lampooning his error on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (his only acting credit) and developing real estate in Idaho – including a subdivision with baseball-themed street names called Fenway Park.

“It sold out,” he said proudly.

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