MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Art imitates life for Mookie, Buckner

Noble: Art imitates life for Mookie, Buckner

Art imitates life for Mookie, Buckner
NEW YORK -- Enough time -- nearly a quarter century -- has passed now that the mud that accumulated when Bill Buckner's name was dragged through it has dried and been brushed away. Billy Buck, a fine player, will forever be linked to the events of Oct. 25, 1986. But every so often, we can see the forest and not merely one tree and recall the rest of his accomplished career.

What happened to his reputation since Game 6 of the 1986 World Series isn't unfair, but it is unfortunate. His career is forever stained -- or at best, footnoted -- because of a baseball that rolled between his high tops and into World Series history.

New England has forgiven Bill E Buckner and once again embraced the man. Boston and its environs ought to be commended for their forgiveness. We all know Buckner shouldn't have been on the field in the first place, not in those circumstances, and that Red Sox manager John McNamara made a ... well that's another story for another time.

The other half of the tandem that turned Game 6 and the Series hasn't had his record similarly expunged, though. The career of Mookie Wilson still isn't properly recognized because of that play. Mookie didn't have the career Buckner had, but he did more than pull a pitch inside first base two nights before the Mets won the Series.

For the record, Mookie appeared in 1,403 games in 12 seasons, scored 731 runs, stole 327 bases, batted .274, accumulated 227 doubles, 71 triples and 67 home runs, played 10,291 innings in the outfield and prompted smiles and applause among people who favored the Mets, and later, the Blue Jays.

"But you'd think all I ever did was hit that one ground ball," Wilson said.

The same words coming from a man with a less positive outlook might sound like a complaint, or at least, a lament. From Wilson, though, those words are just an observation. He has no meanness or anger in him. He merely has noted that so many folks overlook all he did as a center fielder and leadoff man, and he finds it all a tad amusing and a bit remarkable.

"I'm proud of my career," Wilson said. "I did a lot of things. I'm not really not so proud about that ball. I could have hit it better. But you know, I'm happy it all worked. You'd rather be lucky than good."

Wilson made those comments in 1999. He said Wednesday that little has changed since then. He remains "the guy who hit the ball Buckner messed up."

And he knows: "That'll never change."

Not that he is making an effort to effect change. To the contrary, Wilson and Buckner are reinforcing the images they developed that night at Shea 25 years ago. They commissioned a painting commemorating the play that stands as one of the five most memorable in postseason history. The painting was unveiled at Citi Field on Wednesday afternoon, hours before Wilson took his position at the Mets' first-base coach.

Buckner was not in attendance. He had returned to his home in Idaho after completing his first year managing an independent team in Massachusetts. The painting of "The Play" was to have been unveiled Aug. 27, and Buckner had made arrangements to be part of that presentation. But Hurricane Irene interfered, leaving No. 1 to do it solo.

"Bill and I wanted to do something to commemorate the play," Wilson said Wednesday. "We wanted to put the excitement of the World Series in a frame where people could always see it. I think ... we think ... the artist captured that."

The painting includes facial likenesses of both players, re-creations of Buckner looking forlorn as he exits the field and Wilson straining as he sprints. In between was the likeness of the play -- Buckner in foul territory, the ball already past him, and Wilson approaching first base.

"We wanted to get everything in it," Wilson said.

Not included, of course, is any indication of whether he would have beaten Buckner to the bag if the bowlegged first baseman had handled the ball cleanly. Wilson maintains he probably would have. But who can say? Yogi insists to this day that he tagged Jackie in '55. And Jackie's still safe.

The original, the work of Toronto-based artist Rob MacDougall, has been presented to the Mets for their Hall of Fame. Evidently, the Sox were not as interested in it. Double-matted, framed and autographed 16 X 20 lithographs are available for $399. It is not a limited edition; 600 are available now by calling 954-642-0707 or e-mailing Elaine@SportsCelebs.com.

The proceeds, Wilson said with a smile, "don't go to charity, the proceeds don't go to the Mets -- the proceeds go to Bill and Mookie.

"We've been together on a couple of projects, a couple of signings. And it got kind of old seeing the same photo over and over. [With the painting] we could have the moment re-invented, but express our personal side of it. We thought that this would be the best way to do it."

"We have been signing the same photo for the past 25 years," Buckner said in a statement. "It's a great shot, but we wanted something new and different.

"That was a play that has come to define us, and this is a beautiful depiction of that play."

Davey Johnson was at Citi Field on Wednesday night, too. He heard about the painting.

"But I don't even think that's where the game changed," the Mets' manager in 1986 said. "It changed on the wild pitch." Kevin Mitchell scored the tying run on that pitch to Wilson, which should have been a passed ball on Rich Gedman, and Johnson agreed.

"And once we tied it, there was no way we weren't going to win."

But no one has painted the likeness of Gedman chasing down the ball he should have stopped.

"I understand," Johnson said. "But I'm not spending four hundred for either one."

The Mookie-Buckner play -- and the expected revenue -- have brought Wilson and Buckner closer, not that they were ever personal adversaries. Indeed, Wilson recalled the first exchange he and Buckner had years later.

"It was the first time we really talked," Wilson said. "Bill was with the Royals and I was with the Blue Jays. We were on the field before the game, stretching. He came over to me, and said, 'You want to hit me some ground balls?'"

It was an indication Buckner had started the healing process. It hasn't been easy.

Years later, the two attended a card show. Also in attendance were Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson, two other one-time adversaries who became forever linked and forged a lasting friendship.

"We talked to them," Wilson said. "They were at ease with each other. We saw it was OK."

Branca is a prince of a man; so, too, was the late Thomson, who had the easier part of the tandem. They appeared together on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing "Because of You" days after the "Shot Heard Round the World." They reprised the performance at the New York Baseball Writers' dinner 50 years later.

A painting is one thing, singing is another. "I don't know if Bill can sing," Wilson said, giving no assessment of his own singing skills other than, "I can carry a note for a second."

Perhaps Buckner isn't ready to perform the song. The error is a permanent sting. But he and Wilson are good with it.

"I have a great appreciation of him now, the man behind the player," Wilson says. "Now we're tied together for the rest of our lives. Fortunately, we're tied together.

"It's not reliving some horrible event for Bill. It's is just part of our lives, whether we accept it or not. This is his way of saying that he's accepted what has happened, and we're going to just enjoy it as best we possibly can."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.