Friends of distinction: Mookie, Buckner

Friends of distinction: Mookie, Buckner

Editor's note: Jack O'Connell, now the national secretary of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, was among hundreds of reporters who had to rewrite the leads of their game stories furiously under deadline pressure the night of Oct. 25, 1986. And as the cops say on "NYPD Blue," that's no "ground ball."

This story is a slightly modified version of what first was published in the 2006 edition of SCOREBOOK, the journal produced by the New York Chapter of the BBWAA for its annual dinner. The story appears here with the permission of the New York chapter which presented its "Willie, Mickey and The Duke Award" to Wilson and Buckner at the 2006 dinner. The award goes to players forever linked in our baseball memories, as were Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson and Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain.

Perhaps quite rightly, Mookie Wilson always believed he should have been credited with a hit on a play that became one of the most grievous errors in World Series history. Even if Bill Buckner had fielded the ground ball that eluded him behind first base on that memorable Shea Stadium night in October 1986, Wilson reasoned, his swift strides would have gotten him to the bag before Buckner, battered ankles and all.

No scoring revision, however, could alter the effect of Wilson's grounder trickling through Buckner's weary pins. Had Buckner made the play, the score of Game 6 might have remained tied in the 10th inning. Mookie might have had his hit, but Ray Knight, who was on second base during Wilson's 10-pitch at-bat that included a damaging wild pitch by reliever Bob Stanley, would not have scored. Buckner's failure to field the ball turned Knight's sprint into the more important dash and kept the Mets alive in the Series they would win two nights later.

As of today, that moment, as breathtaking for the Mets as it was heartbreaking for the Red Sox, has linked Wilson and Buckner for 20 years.

Just as Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca, who collaborated on the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" home run of 1951, Wilson and Buckner have developed a friendship over the years. They have regularly attended card shows together, and their autographs of baseballs, plaques, photos and posters of the World Series' most memorable "E3" are among the most popular baseball items on memorabilia Web sites.

"The things with Mookie are fun," Buckner said recently. "He's a friend. We both sent our kids to college with these deals. I always look forward to seeing Mookie."

Buckner naturally has had a greater burden dealing with that '86 moment. One misdeed seemingly has reduced a 22-year career that included 2,715 hits, seven .300 seasons, three 100-RBI seasons and a batting title into footnotes. Interestingly, Wilson also feels that his own career that includes Mets club records for stolen bases (281) and triples (61) has been shrunk into one event.

"I have to be careful how I say this because I understand how fortunate I was to be involved in that," Wilson told last year. "It was a great moment in baseball, and I'm not denying that. But I think everyone wants to be recognized for what they truly accomplished. And I do think that has overshadowed what my whole career was about. Buckner and myself, our careers should not be defined by that one moment."

That moment may not define each player's career, but it certainly punctuates it. It is that rarity of sports instances that, once witnessed, never fades from memory. The 1986 World Series was rich in images for both sides, but no moment so profoundly diagramed these teams, the mission-bound Mets simply refusing to go home and the star-crossed Red Sox who 12 times that inning were one strike from what would have been their first championship in nearly seven decades. Actor Charlie Sheen paid more than $85,000 for the ball in an auction, an indication of the value of that particular moment.

On that night, Mike Torrez reportedly said he was now off the hook in Red Sox infamy for having allowed the pennant-crushing, three-run home run to Bucky Dent in 1978. But Buckner said no such thing after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. He turned down invitations to participate in the victory parade in Boston and resented the demonstrations of fans throughout New England that suggested he finally was forgiven.

"It didn't make me feel any differently as far as what happened in '86," Buckner said at that time. "I was almost offended that people thought that was supposed to make me feel good. I mean, I've got to laugh at it: 'We forgive Bill Buckner.' For what? What crime did he commit?"

Buckner, who grew up in Southern California, now makes his home in Boise, Idaho, where he owns three auto dealerships and some real-estate properties. He has two grown daughters and a son in high school. Wilson, a native of South Carolina, is still a figure in New York. He managed Class A teams in the Mets' system in 2004 and last year. He is the father of three daughters and a stepson, slugging outfielder Preston Wilson, and a singer-songwriter of gospel music on two CDs with his wife Rosa.

As for that moment, go back 20 years, and it becomes clear why it has resonated for so long.

President Ronald Reagan was not yet on the telephone line, but other preparations for a Boston glee party that night were under way. A platform was erected in the Red Sox's clubhouse with team officials Jean Yawkey and Haywood Sullivan ready to be interviewed and congratulated by NBC-TV's Bob Costas. The Series' Most Valuable Player Award and a set of car keys were soon to be the property of Bruce Hurst, the winning pitcher in Games 1 and 5.

The Red Sox had neglected to buy champagne, but the Mets came to their rescue. Assistant equipment manager Johnny Ruffino sent 20 cases of Great Western bubbly to the enemy camp. For a brief moment, the Diamond Vision board flashed the message, "Congratulations Red Sox On Your World Series Victory." All was in readiness for a Boston victory celebration, but on the field Game 6 was taking bizarre turns.

Mets catcher Gary Carter, who began the improbable rally with a two-out single, said afterward, "None of us wanted to make the last out," and the Red Sox never did record it. All year Boston manager John McNamara voiced anger over the disappointments of the franchise's past haunting the '86 club. The Red Sox appeared to have overcome their history only to see the ghosts arrive at Shea.

Dave Henderson had unlocked a 3-3 score in the top of the 10th with a home run off Rick Aguilera, a hit that seemed to replace Carlton Fisk's wave-it-fair job at Fenway Park in the 12th inning to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series as the most memorable in Red Sox history. Marty Barrett's 12th Series hit drove in Wade Boggs, who had doubled, with an insurance run that assumed greater importance as the Mets began to put men on base in their last licks.

Calvin Schiraldi, who had squandered a 3-2 lead in the eighth after replacing Roger Clemens, opened the 10th by retiring Wally Backman. Keith Hernandez flied out too. Carter then lined a 2-1 fastball into left field. Kevin Mitchell hit an 0-1 slider into center. Knight banged another slider, on an 0-2 count, into right-center for the Mets' third straight single, scoring Carter and sending Mitchell to third. The Mets were still down a run, but in the dugout Carter began putting on his catching gear as if certain they would at least tie the game again.

Stanley relieved Schiraldi and did battle with Wilson. Third base coach Bud Harrelson said to Mitchell, "Sinkerballer out there. Keep alert for a possible wild pitch."

With the count 2-2, Wilson fouled off three pitches, two of which barely made contact. "I'm probably the least disciplined hitter at the plate," Wilson said later. "I have one theory: Thou shalt not pass."

That was Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman's problem next. He set up on the outside part of the plate as Stanley prepared to throw his sinker, which normally breaks down and inside to a left-handed batter. Mookie, a switch-hitter batting left-handed against the right-handed Stanley, watched the pitch drop near his knees and skip past a lunging Gedman. Wild pitch. Mitchell scored. Game tied. Knight, as the potential winning run, moved to second.

Wilson fouled off a 3-2 pitch from Stanley before hitting a ball on the ground that appeared to be an easy play for Buckner. Mookie ran full speed down the line and raced past Stanley, who came off the mound to cover first. Buckner was near the line and about four feet behind the bag when he leaned over to field the ball. It went under his glove, through his legs and rolled down the right-field line. Knight danced around third and leaped to the plate, landing on both feet.

"When you're down two runs in the last inning against their ace reliever, it's not the most comfortable feeling in the world," Wilson said in the jubilant Mets clubhouse. "But you don't give up. Two runs is not a great deficit to make up. How did we do it? Mirrors, maybe. Whatever, but we did it."

In the visitors' clubhouse, Buckner didn't hide from the truth, he stood by his locker answering questions from wave after wave of reporters. "I did concentrate on that ball," he said. "I saw the ball bounce and bounce, and then it didn't bounce. It just skipped. It didn't come up. I can't remember any time I missed a ball like that, but I'll remember that one."

Game 7 was postponed for one day because of rain, which gave the media a field day to analyze in great detail a remarkable game and pose myriad of questions, one of which was why Buckner had been in the field at all with reserve Dave Stapleton often replacing him defensively in late innings.

There was no satisfactory answer for the Red Sox, who blew a 3-0, sixth-inning lead in Game 7 and watched the Mets celebrate their second Series title.

In the long run, perhaps Buckner had to be there in Game 6 because he since has proved, as did Branca, to have the inner strength to deal with such a horrific memory.

"When I look back at my job, baseball and my life, I maxed out," Buckner told the Idaho Statesman. "I did physically everything I could do. What more could you ask of yourself? A lot of people have come up to me and said, 'You really helped me in my life. I looked at what you had to go through and how you handled it, and my life is better because of that.' I think a lot of people would have really let it bother them. Or you could use it in a positive manner. I'm a positive person."

Jack O'Connell is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.