Bill Buckner died in May this year.
For those who follow sports, the name should ring a bell. For those who have a mild interest but aren’t major fans, Bill Buckner was best known to the average person as the one who extended the “Curse of the Bambino” of the Boston Red Sox.
Buckner was Boston’s first baseman for the 1986 season. By all accounts, he had played one of his best seasons as a professional player. He was playing solid ball, both as a batter and as a first baseman. But none of that matters because of the play that forever etched him into the history books.
The Red Sox were up, three games to two, against the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series. The sixth game went into extra innings. Boston, batting at the top of the inning, scored two runs and were three outs from breaking the curse and winning their first World Series since 1918.
As the inning progressed, Boston pitching had picked up two outs against the Mets. One out away from the World Series championship, the Mets managed to get three straight singles and had once again tied the game. Mookie Wilson, a speedster, fouled off three pitches, then hit a slow roller toward first base, where Buckner was waiting.
Buckner, who was battling nagging pains and injuries, knew Wilson was fast. Bickner wanted to make sure he got to the bag before Wilson did, so Buckner charged toward the ball, stooped with his glove on the ground. The ball glanced off Buckner’s glove, rolled between his legs into right field, and the Mets’ Ray Knight scored the winning run.
The Mets won the deciding game, 8-5, and Buckner went down in history as the guy who lost the game and the Series for the Red Sox.
Buckner’s career stats as a hitter were 2,715 hits, 174 home runs and 1,208 runs batted in, with a batting average of .289. He won the National League batting title in 1980, hitting .324, striking out only 18 times. He went to the All-Star game as a Chicago Cub in 1981. In other words, Buckner was a solid baseball player.
But all most people remember him for is the bungled grounder against the Mets.
He’s not alone in that regard. There are other players who were very good at their craft, but are remembered most for their boo-boos.
Take Jim Marshall, for instance. Marshall was a defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings, part of the Purple People Eaters defense from 1961-1979. When he retired, he had the record for most career starts (270) and games played (282). The Vikings retired his number. He holds nine NFL records.
He also caused 30 fumbles in his storied career and recovered 29 fumbles, which are NFL records. It was one recovered fumble in particular that he is most noted for.
The date was October 25, 1964, and the Vikings were hosting the San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco was somewhere around its own 40-yard line. As the Niners snapped the ball, there was a fumble and Marshall, being the adept recoverer of fumbles that he was, didn’t fall on the ball, but picked it up and began to run.
It was probably the heat of the moment and Marshall probably didn’t notice, but his run took longer than it should have. Instead of running about 40 yards, he ran 60 yards, crossing the goal line with the ball in his hand. In jubilation, he tossed the ball into the stands. It was then that one of his teammates finally caught up with him and let him know that Marshall had scored — not a touchdown, but a safety.
It seems in the scramble for the ball and the immediate effort to get away from the 49ers, Marshall had somehow got turned around and began running toward the Vikings’ goal line. If you’ve ever seen the play, it’s quite a thing to see San Francisco’s players blocking for Viking Marshall in his run. When he tossed the ball into the stands, it gave two points to the 49ers. The film shows his shoulders noticeably sagging as it dawns on him what has happened.
Marshall had an outstanding career. There were few better than he was. Yet, my guess is if you asked Marshall what he was asked about the most, it would probably be about the fumble.
Jose Canseco is known for a lot of things. He had a very successful career as an Oakland Athletics outfielder. He was known for his power hitting. Of course, he’s also known for admitting he used steroids during his career. But every time I think of him, I think of a play from his time with the Texas Rangers when a ball he was chasing down bounced off his head and into the stands for a home run.
These are the three that I remember most (along with Tony Romo’s botched hold on field goal against Seattle that cost the Cowboys a playoff win). Each of these athletes were skilled, accomplished and respected in their fields. Yet each is remembered for the “oops” moment in their career.
Which makes me grateful that most of my mistakes weren’t made in the public eye. And I suspect I’m not alone.