The moment finally arrived. The moment for which the Boston Red Sox had waited 68 years. The moment fans from Bar Harbor, Maine to Westport, Conn., had dreamed about for decades.
For all the New England kids playing ball in their backyards, pretending they had hit the home run that made the Red Sox world champions or caught the final out of the World Series, this was their moment.
The Red Sox were close to World Series titles in 1946, 1967 and 1975, but never this close. Never one strike away, like they were on this night as they led the New York Mets, 5-3, with two outs in the 10th, two strikes on Gary Carter, nobody on base.
As Red Sox players toed the top of the dugout, bracing for the celebration of celebrations, the Mets' Keith Hernandez withdrew to the clubhouse to grab a beer, a half-dressed Kevin Mitchell was on the phone making flight plans and the stadium scoreboard operator typed, "Congratulations, Boston Red Sox, World Champions."
You can't get any closer to a championship than this. Then, disaster struck. But this time it struck bigger and harder than ever before in the franchise's long history of the failure. Three times the Sox were one strike away from nailing down the crown, but three straight hits and a wild pitch would tie the game, setting the stage for a moment in time emblazoned in the mind of every baseball fan.
Oct. 25, 1986, Game 6 of the World Series, Shea Stadium, New York.
Carter, the Mets' last hope, fights off a two-strike pitch for a single, and the Mets regain a spark of hope. Kevin Mitchell follows with a single of his own, and then Ray Knight with another single. Mets fans are giddy, hopeful, but still afraid -- their team trails 5-4 and remains one out away from finishing their spectacular season in disappointment. Then, with Mookie Wilson at the plate, Bob Stanley's improbable wild pitch brings Mitchell home, and all of a sudden the Mets are tied and the Sox' lead is gone. And then comes the moment.
Wilson chops a 3-2 pitch up the first-base line, and Buckner, the old baseball warrior, hobbles toward the line on his two bad ankles and reaches down to glove the ball. But he is too late.
The ball bounces between his creaky legs and rolls behind him. Ray Knight rounds third and heads home, hopping with joy. When he touches the plate, the Mets have tied the Series at three games each
The historical impact of the Buckner miscue is staggering. The play has become the most famous miscue in sports annals -- more famous than Scott Norwood missing a potential Super Bowl-winning field goal with two seconds left. More famous than Chris Webber calling timeout when Michigan had no timeouts left, costing the team a shot at a national championship. More famous even than Ralph Branca giving up Bobby Thomson's bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out, three-run, pennant-winning, Shot Heard 'Round World home run in 1951. More than Dennis Eckersley relinquishing Kirk Gibson's bottom-of-the-ninth, two-run, game-winning homer in the '88 World Series opener that paved the way to the Dodgers' stunning Series victory.
Buckner's error wound up taking on a life of its own. Actor Charlie Sheen paid $93,500 at an auction for the "Buckner Ball." Slide, a Boston rock group, christened its debut album "Forgiving Buckner." And Buckner's name become a colloquialism for goat or gaffe. For instance, a failed bond proposal was once called "the political equivalent of the grounder that dribbled through Bill Buckner's legs."
Video of the miscue is played over and over again, year after year. Buckner would become the poster child for failure, a symbol for broken hearts and shattered dreams.
"Some murderers didn't face as much criticism as I did," Buckner would say. "I couldn't believe it. It's like I did nothing in my career except commit that error."
Buckner would finish with 2,715 career hits and a .289 career average in 22 seasons, hitting .300 or more seven times. In 1986, at the age of 37, he knocked in 102 runs on two brutally bad ankles that required him to wear high tops. Without Buckner, the Red Sox probably do not win the A.L. East or the 1986 pennant. Yet he will only be remembered by many people for The Error. Sad but true.
"He deserves better," says Wilson, a Mets coach who became friends with Buckner after the incident. "He was a tremendous ballplayer who played his guts out every night. He played with injures that would have put most players on the DL. It's one of those crazy things in life that you can't explain: a guy having a tremendously successful career, and the one bad play he makes is the one that he's remembered for."