To true American sports fans, October means only one thing:
Weeks 5-8 of the NFL season baseball’s mythic World Series! Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is from Seattle, where the baseball season never extends into October, so he has plenty of time this month to take a swing at four popular misconceptions about four of the league’s most storied ballplayers.
The Debunker: Did Bill Buckner’s Error Lose the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox?
It’s Exhibit A in any explication of “the Curse of the Bambino,” that 86-year period of futility and self-flagellation that defined being a Red Sox fan in the 20th century. The 1986 World Series against the Mets, as many fans remember it, was decided by first baseman Bill Buckner, who let an easy ground ball roll between his legs in the bottom of the tenth inning, costing his team the series. Never mind the guy’s twenty-year career, 2,715 hits, and 1980 National League batting title. He was forever the goat, the pariah, the guy who choked. Red Sox fans sent Buckner death threats and heckled him on the field until the team released him the following year.
Buckner’s error actually happened, of course. You’ve probably seen the clip many times. Mookie Wilson’s slow roller is an easy play, but Buckner, still in the game on gimpy ankles because manager John McNamara wanted his starters on the field for the seemingly inevitable Red Sox victory celebration, rushes the ball and misplays it. The winning run scores from second base, game over. But was this the final game of the World Series? Did the Red Sox have the lead at the time? No on both counts!
Buckner’s error did end the game…but it ended Game 6! In the final game of the series, two days later at Shea, the Red Sox built an early 3-0 lead that they then blew for reasons unrelated to Buckner. (In fact, he went 2-4 in the game and scored a run.) More to the point, Buckner’s Game 6 error came after the Red Sox had already given up a 5-3 lead! In that fateful tenth inning, Red Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi had given up three straight singles, and his replacement, Bob Stanley, uncorked a wild pitch that tied the game. There’s not even any guarantee that Buckner would have beaten the fleet-footed Mookie Wilson to the bag even if he fielded the ball cleanly. But even leaving that aside, it would have been easy for Buckner to blame the lost World Series on Stanley (for his wild pitch) or Schiraldi (who took the losses in both Games 6 and 7, chalking up a sorry 13.50 ERA for the Series). But, no, he never said a thing. He bore Boston’s sins on his sturdy shoulders and bushy mustache. To me, Bill Buckner isn’t a goat. He’s a damn hero.
Quick Quiz: The day after the Mets won the 1986 World Series, New Yorkers celebrated again by observing the 100th anniversary of what Big Apple landmark?
Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.