Bill Buckner and the unforgiving glare of history
To err is human; to do so in front of millions, and go on, is remarkable
Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
If you’re like me this is a difficult exercise, not because you’ve lived a fault-free existence, but because there are far too many nominees to narrow it down to just one.
Now, how would your life be different had the entire world been watching?
For Bill Buckner, his worst moment occurred on the world stage. Playing first base for the Boston Red Sox in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Buckner allowed a routine grounder by the Mets’ Mookie Wilson to roll under his glove and into right field. The Mets scored the winning run on the play and then went on to beat the Sox in Game 7, further prolonging what was already a 68-year World Series drought.
On Memorial Day this year, my phone lit up with the news that Buckner had succumbed to Lewy body dementia. He was 69. Virtually every one of the 25-or-so-word notifications included a description of his infamous gaffe.
Ardent baseball enthusiasts will know the injustice of Buckner having been defined by that one play. Besides having been an All-Star and very good hitter over the course of his 22-year career, fans forget that, at the time of Buckner’s error, the game was tied, the Red Sox having already blown a 2-run lead, and the 36-year-old with bad ankles should have been subbed out for a better defensive player. But the image of the ball rolling through Buckner’s legs takes a lot less time to explain. The object of derision and death threats thereafter, and weary of the toll his infamy was taking on his children, Buckner moved his family to the far more hermetic Idaho after his retirement.
His story is not without a measure of redemption, though. In 2008, having won two titles and shattering their 86-year “curse,” the defending champion Red Sox graciously invited their former first baseman to throw out the first pitch in the home opener, and the fans rewarded the teary-eyed Buckner with a two-minute standing ovation.
He also co-starred in a memorable episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” playing the hero while mocking his ignominy by catching a baby that had been dropped out of a burning building. (In another scene, Buckner and star Larry David are thrown out of a shiva house because the nephew of the deceased is a die-hard Red Sox fan. Lamenting missing out on the free kosher food they were promised for helping with the minyan, Buckner asks, “Hey Larry, what about the kishka?”)
Yet the idea that redemption was necessary is absurd. Buckner’s lapse was not a sin, it was a mistake. He should be remembered not as a punchline but for being kind and a good father, as well as a very good ballplayer. Just today I’ve made at least a dozen mistakes more egregious than leaving a baseball mitt an inch or so off the ground while fielding a ground ball, and it’s not even dark yet. (Save for the unlikely possibility of a typox, I doubt anyone will either notice or care.)
But an instant is all it takes to create, or ruin, a legacy. Years ago, I heard a dvar Torah by Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, Rosh HaYeshiva of the Talmudic University of Florida, in which he explained that nothing is more dishonest than a single photo. Consider, he said, the case of Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a general in the South Vietnamese army, who is best remembered for being the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo. In it, Loan is about to fire a gun into the head of what appears to be a civilian at point-blank range.
The haunting image galvanized the anti-war effort in the U.S., and Loan was considered a murderous villain for the remainder of his life. Only later was it learned that the man Loan shot was a Viet Cong soldier who had reportedly just slaughtered a South Vietnamese policeman, his wife, her mother, and their six children. The Associated Press photographer, Eddie Adams, later apologized to Loan because by taking that one, context-free photo, he said, he had “destroyed [Loan’s] life.”
That was in 1968, before social media, before the Internet, before talking heads on cable news channels tried to make names for themselves by feigning outrage and coming up with the hottest possible take. But the coldest take of all, the tweet with the fewest likes, would be one that calls for compassion and understanding, insisting that people shouldn’t always be defined by their best or worst moments. We are more than the sum of our parts.
If individuals prove over and again that they are the worst version of themselves, feel free to judge and criticize. Otherwise, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Many of us recently observed Shavuot, a holiday in which we celebrate God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people. But we have also just completed the Omer, a period of mourning for the deaths of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. We are taught that they were punished for not treating each other with respect.
It’s a powerful reminder that we are obligated to look for the good in each other, not focus on our all-too-human flaws.
Contact Gabe Kahn via email: email@example.com, or Twitter: @sgabekahn.