Buckner ball takes a new bounce

The last thing Red Sox fans need this month is déjà vu all over again -- yet again.

But Seth Swirsky, a musician/filmmaker/author/die-hard fan of New York baseball teams (both of them, somehow), and not -- he insists -- a hater of the Boston Red Sox, senses history coming back home. Swirsky, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, three children and an astonishing array of baseball memorabilia, says, "There's something in the air. Crosscurrents. A synchronicity."

Exhibit A is in New York, where, under the radar of other baseball news, the Mets just fired a certain William Hayward ("Mookie") Wilson. Mookie had been employed as a first-base coach, stationed right along the line, watching many a ground ball meet its fate.

Exhibit B is on television, where a Sept. 4 episode of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" featured a guy whose error defined an era. Bill Buckner was nothing but gracious.

Then there is Exhibit C -- as in "collapse." As in a collective fall from grace for the ages. As in the change from so good-so good-so good to complete catastrophe.

(For what it's worth, on Saturday, Sept. 3, the Red Sox blasted Texas 12-7 to extend their wild-card lead over Tampa Bay to a season-high nine games. On Sunday -- the date of the Buckner TV appearance -- Boston lost to the Rangers 11-4 while Tampa began its charge with an 8-1 win over the Orioles. Talk about curbing your enthusiasm.)

Having a ball yet, Red Sox Nation?

Well, you can have this one, currently owned by Swirsky -- for a price. It's just a baseball, mind you, but it's had quite the journey.

It was hand-sewn in Haiti, like the other 100,000 or so major league balls used in games back in 1986. It was stamped with the signature of baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. Its shine was removed with some Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud harvested from the banks of the Delaware River. Two foul balls after a game-tying wild pitch, it was tossed out to Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley late on an October night in New York.

Then it was fired to the plate.

Then it was tapped slowly to first by Mookie Wilson.

You might remember its path from there.

Amid the joy and horror at Shea Stadium that night, right-field umpire Ed Montague picked up the ball and -- recognizing some possible historic significance -- jotted down a little X next to a seam to mark the blot. Montague then delivered the goods to longtime Mets traveling secretary Arthur Richman.

In the Mets clubhouse, Richman presented the ball to Wilson, who signed it, "To Arthur -- the ball won it for us. Mookie Wilson 10/25/86". The ball then worked its way around the locker room, at one point getting kissed by a Met, who imparted a tobacco stain still in evidence a quarter-century later.

And then? It was sold at auction for $93,500 in 1992 to -- you can't make this stuff up -- Charlie Sheen.

And then? In April 2000, Sheen put it up for auction and it was sold for $63,500. A jubilant Swirsky could hardly sleep the night before the FedEx truck arrived.

For Swirsky, the ball embodies the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat all at once. It provided the ultimate Little League nightmare on one side, raw childlike exuberance on the other. Says Swirsky, "It was all encapsulated in that one play."

And now? With all those swirling crosscurrents and sinful synchronicity, Swirsky is ready to put the ball back in play. The bid to trigger the eBay auction that started this past weekend is exactly $1 million. The auction closes Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 11:37 p.m. For those keeping score at home, that's 25 years to the minute since we heard Vin Scully say, "Little roller up along first …"


'The golden orb'

Part of Swirsky's collection would qualify him for permanent pariah status in New England. It goes well beyond the Buckner ball, which he sometimes calls "the golden orb."

Swirsky also owns a bottle of unopened champagne that was chilling in the visitors locker room at Shea Stadium on that October night. It's from Commonwealth Winery, a variety known as "Cranberry Blush." Right on the label it says, "Boston Red Sox 1986 Champions." We might just as well toast Dewey for that thrilling win over Truman.

Then there are the four Game 7 ticket stubs from Red Sox World Series losses in 1946, 1967, 1975 and -- yes -- 1986.

If that little collage of baseball anguish is not enough, he also has a baseball signed by Tom McBride, George Scott, Carl Yastrzemski and Marty Barrett -- the players who made the last outs in all those Game 7 heartbreaks.

Swirsky readily admits, "I don't want the Red Sox to win," but he acknowledges the team's pivotal role in the sport's American narrative. "I just love the history of the game," he says.

So it's only fair to point out that he also owns a bat used by Yastrzemski in the '67 Triple Crown year; a well-stretched jersey of Luis Tiant from 1975; and the baseball Dave Koza smacked to knock in the winning run in the 33rd inning of the famous Pawtucket Red Sox game in 1981.

From 1912, the year the Titanic sank and Fenway rose, Swirsky has the canceled check for $88,543.44 made out to Sox manager Garland Stahl. It was the manager's job to distribute winning World Series shares.

Then there's the letter from Chuck Barris Productions to Red Sox heartthrob/tragic hero Tony Conigliaro, giving him directions for his appearance on "The Dating Game."

(The letter is a worthy cultural nugget, but for pure entertainment value, it's hard to top the Texas Rangers cap he owns from 1993. That's the one that served as the trampoline for a home run by the Indians' Carlos Martinez; the ball went right off the head of Jose Canseco and over the fence.)

"These pieces," Swirsky says, "all have poetry to them."

'It's over. We're done.'

Born in New Haven, Conn., Swirsky grew up in Great Neck, N.Y. The first baseball season he remembers is 1967, when he rooted for the Sox in the World Series. "I loved Conigliaro," he said. "I loved Yaz."

But he was just 7 that year and "didn't know baseball in a fully round way."

In 1969, he fell hard for the Miracle Mets, a team "still so deep in my soul." (He has a jersey Tom Seaver wore in the World Series.)

By 1977, he had a dual loyalty. He had started rooting for the Yankees, too. (He owns the baseball Reggie Jackson clubbed for his third straight home run against the Dodgers in the decisive Game 6 of the '77 World Series.)

In 1986, he was watching that other Game 6 with his dad -- until the tension got to be too much.

"It was so horrific to go down 5-3," he says, reliving Boston's two-run rally in the top of the 10th inning. "It was just so horrible."

With two outs and no one on in the bottom of the 10th, he walked out of the room, telling his father, "Dad, it's over. We're done."

But he couldn't quite walk away. From the hallway, he heard his father say, "Carter got a hit." And then, moments later, "Mitchell just got a hit." And then, somehow, "Ray Knight just got a hit -- it's 5-4!"

Slowly, against his better instincts, Seth Swirsky crept back into the room where his dad sat transfixed. Ten excruciating pitches later, "We shared that amazing moment."

That moment has been reverberating for him ever since.

One ball stands alone

Ten years later, in 1996, Swirsky published the first volume of what would become a trilogy:
"Baseball Letters: A Fan's Correspondence With His Heroes." During the baseball strike of 1994, Swirsky had started writing to hundreds of baseball players past and present, and got all kinds of personal, mostly handwritten responses from the likes of Brooks Robinson, Ted Williams and Whitey Ford. The New York Times called the book "irresistibly charming."

Indeed, how could you resist an entreaty like this one to Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr: "Dear Mr. Doerr: Was there ever a time that you stood at your second base position in front of a full Fenway crowd on a beautiful summer day and felt a rush of happiness that you were where you were at that moment in your life?"

Somewhat less charming was the response from Dave Stapleton. As Sox fans of a certain age no doubt recall, Stapleton was the slick-fielding first baseman who was often sent in by manager John McNamara to replace Buckner (and his chronically sore ankles) when the Sox had a late lead in 1986. It didn't happen in the bottom of the 10th in Game 6, and Swirsky wanted to know how Stapleton felt about it.

"The reason he left Buckner in was to be on the field when we won the game so he could celebrate with the others," Stapleton wrote. "As you well know, nobody got to celebrate because of this bad decision. Mr. McNamara never did have my respect as a manager or person but that doesn't matter. It does no good to beat a dead dog. He has to live with his decision the rest of his life. And great Red Sox fans all over the country have to continue to suffer on as a result of it."

Even without the golden orb, Swirsky is a modern Midas. His versatility is reminiscent of Bert Campaneris, Cesar Tovar, Scott Sheldon and Shane Halter -- the only four major leaguers to play all nine positions in one game -- and, yes, Swirsky has a single ball signed by all of them.

He is a Grammy-nominated songwriter who has written for people like Rufus Wainwright and Celine Dion, and contributed songs on the greatest hits albums of Al Green and Olivia Newton-John. He has been a successful recording artist in his own right. This summer, his retro band The Red Button released an album called "As Far as Yesterday Goes."

Swirsky has roiled many of his left-leaning friends from Great Neck to L.A. with his widely published conservative political commentary. ("Why I Left the Left" earned him a White House invitation from Karl Rove.)

Then there is Swirsky the filmmaker. Just this year he released his first full-length documentary, "Beatles Stories." In the film, he interviewed a range of people with personal connections to the Fab Four. That included everyone from Henry Winkler to former first daughter Luci Baines Johnson to Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys singer, not the black-bearded flinger).

Above everything, though, it's baseball -- not just the sport, but the sphere -- that has been very, very good to Seth Swirsky.

He has some 1,500 balls in his collection. They comprise a swirl of creativity and culture, a reflection of the man himself. There is the ball signed by all four Beatles from their Shea Stadium concert in 1965. There is a ball signed by all three Apollo 11 astronauts who missed a bit of the Miracle Mets season while taking small steps and giant leaps. There is a ball signed by seven U.S. presidents: "40 years of American history on the object (a baseball) that is a symbol of America itself," Swirsky proudly proclaims on his website (Seth.com, of course).

Then you have the "color ball" (signed by Red Schoendienst, Dallas Green, John "Blue Moon" Odom, among others), the "royalty ball" (Clyde King, Duke Snider, Ray Knight -- egads -- and John "The Count" Montefusco) and the "Mickey ball" (Mantle, Rivers, Owen, Lolich, Klutts and 13 others).

But of all the balls, of course, one stands alone.

"It's not just a ball that went through someone's legs," Swirsky says. "It was a cultural moment."

Some Mets fans he has encountered react to the ball "like they're ready to start a new religion." Some Red Sox fans have sent hate mail. Swirsky laughs it off.

In the 2003 American League Championship Series, he was watching Game 7 at home in Los Angeles while the Red Sox took a 4-0 lead into the fifth inning with Pedro Martinez throwing gas. Then Swirsky had an idea.

He fetched the Buckner ball from his library. He also grabbed a ball signed by four members of the Yankees' "Murderers' Row" from 1927: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri (believed to be the only ball of its kind in the world).

"I took those baseballs and I beamed them at the TV," Swirsky says with unconcealed glee. "I have a picture of Aaron Boone running around the bases on the TV while I'm holding the Buckner ball. I am convinced, absolutely convinced, I know the Yankees won that game because of the decision I made in about the fifth inning."

Well, what about 2004? What happened then?

"I was out of town for most of the debacle," he explains, tongue (presumably) in cheek. "I wasn't home so I couldn't do anything. But I'm telling you, if I were home, the Yankees would have gone on to win that game."

Swirsky does allow that the Red Sox championship in '04 was special: "In looking at the history of the game, I can't think of too many greater accomplishments."

The Buckner ball has elicited stunned response, even from players. Swirsky remembers the way batting practice for the Florida Marlins just stopped one day in 2003 before a game in Los Angeles, when Mike Lowell held the baseball and teammates crowded around for a peek. "For this generation of players," Swirsky says, "that was their Bobby Thomson moment."

He has shown the ball to Mookie Wilson at Shea Stadium -- and to Bill Buckner at Wrigley Field. (Buckner, he says, handled the moment with class. Swirsky, in turn, thinks Buckner gets a raw deal from fans: "Gehrig only had six more hits. And [Buckner] had 300 more hits than Mantle.")

Swirsky has owned the baseball for more than 11 years. "It's been fun having it," he says. "It really has."

But now, once again, the ball is up for grabs, possibly yours for as little as a million bucks -- with free shipping thrown in, no less.

Charlie Sheen recently tweeted to Dan Patrick that Swirsky must be "sniffing glue" because the ball isn't worth more than $150,000.

Perhaps. But Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball from 1998 went for $3 million (the kind of investment that makes the Carl Crawford signing look pretty good).

If the target bid isn't reached, Swirsky is more than happy to take his toy and go home.

And if it is?

Well, that will be cause for celebration. When the anniversary arrives, Swirsky will be watching the action -- with a certain bottle of champagne on ice.

Marty Dobrow is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).