Imagine having your life defined by the worst five seconds you ever experienced. Such was the fate of baseball player Bill Buckner, who died last week. (See Obituaries.) Over 22 seasons, Buckner was a superb hitter, banging out 2,715 hits and winning a batting title. But in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, when the 36-year-old Buckner—hobbled by bum ankles and knees—was playing first base for the Boston Red Sox, a weak ground ball off the bat of the New York Mets’ Mookie Wilson dribbled through Buckner’s legs, completing a stunning Mets comeback victory. The deflated Sox went on to lose Game 7. Frustrated Sox fans—who hadn’t won a Series in 68 years—made Buckner the scapegoat for years afterward. So relentless were the taunting reminders of that muffed grounder that Buckner eventually moved from New England to Idaho to find some peace. His family, he said, “didn’t like to see how people were treating me.”
I met Buckner a decade after the ‘86 Series, while reporting a newspaper story on Michael Jordan’s attempt to play minor league baseball. Buckner by then had become a hitting instructor, and I found him studying Jordan’s form in the batting cage before a game. When I introduced myself as a reporter from New York, Buckner stiffened. I briefly glimpsed old hurt in his eyes, which quickly became hard and challenging. He relaxed a bit when I asked him about Jordan’s hitting, but he was glad to see me go. Fast forward another decade to 2008, to the day Buckner was invited back to Fenway Park for a celebration of the Sox’s 2007 championship. When he walked to the mound to throw out the game’s first pitch, the fans and players gave him a two-minute standing ovation. Buckner’s eyes grew wet. “Glad I came,” he said. They’d forgiven him; he’d forgiven them. May we all find such redemption someday, however small or large our sins might be.