What if … Buckner had fielded the ball cleanly?


What really happened: The Red Sox were one measly out away from winning their first World Series since 1918. They'd scored twice in the top of the 10th inning to take a 5-3 lead over the Mets. In the bottom of the 10th, the first two Mets were retired on fly balls. One out away.

But then Gary Carter singled. So did pinch hitter Kevin Mitchell, and then Ray Knight singled to plate Carter. Reliever Bob Stanley replaced Calvin Schiraldi on the mound, and Mookie Wilson took his place in the batter's box. With the count two balls and two strikes -- Wilson had fouled off four pitches -- Stanley's inside sinker got past catcher Rich Gedman for a wild pitch, with Mitchell scoring and Knight moving to second base. With the count now full, Wilson fouled off two more pitches.

Mookie Wilson hit Stanley's next pitch directly toward first baseman Bill Buckner. There was nothing tricky about the play. The ball was hit nice and easy, no crazy spin or bad hops. Buckner was slow and Wilson was fast, but Stanley was steaming toward first base in plenty of time. Ninety-nine times out of 100, the batter's out. But not this time. This time Buckner didn't get his glove down, the ball squirted between his legs and into right field while Knight sprinted home with the winning run. And of course the Red Sox would lose Game 7 the next night.

But what if … Buckner had fielded the ball cleanly and thrown to Stanley for the out? Or what if Red Sox manager John McNamara had earlier replaced Buckner with Dave Stapleton, as he had in Games 1 and 5?

What's often forgotten is that when Mookie hit that grounder through Buckner's legs, the Red Sox had already blown their lead and the game was tied. Even if Buckner does make the play, the two clubs head to the 11th inning. Which team would have been better-equipped after the 10th? It's probably a toss-up. The Red Sox had three reliable-if-unspectacular relievers left in their bullpen, while Mets manager Davey Johnson might have turned to Sid Fernandez, a starter during the regular season who had tossed four innings of scoreless relief in Game 5 (and would pitch flawlessly again in Game 7).

But for the moment, let's assume the Mets eventually win Game 6. It's often said that once Game 6 was lost, Game 7 was a foregone conclusion. But that ignores the fact that the Red Sox got off to a great start in Game 7. They scored three runs in the second inning, knocked out starter Ron Darling in the fourth, and were ahead 3-0 going into the bottom of the sixth. Of course, from there it was all Mets, as they scored three in the sixth to tie, three more in the seventh to take a commanding lead, and two more in the eighth to salt the game away.

There didn't seem to be any carryover from Game 6 to Game 7, except perhaps with Red Sox reliever Schiraldi, who had given up four runs in Game 6, and would give up three more in Game 7. But would he have felt more confident in his abilities if the Red Sox had lost Game 6 in the 11th or 12th inning rather than the 10th? That seems unlikely.

What if Buckner had fielded Mookie Wilson's grounder cleanly? The Red Sox might eventually have won Game 6, or they might not have. If they hadn't, they almost certainly would have lost Game 7, too. But Buckner would not be famous (or infamous, in Boston), and would not have been paid many thousands of dollars since 1986 for signing photos and baseballs. And the Red Sox's world championship in 2004 would not have been nearly as sweet.

Postscript: There's another, much less famous what-if that might have made all of the above irrelevant. In the top of the eighth inning in Game 6, the Red Sox loaded the bases with two outs. Davey Johnson summoned left-hander Jesse Orosco from the bullpen to face Buckner, due next. Orosco was incredibly tough against left-handed hitters like Buckner; by that point in Buckner's career, he was not effective against lefties. Meanwhile, McNamara had righty-hitting slugger Don Baylor on the bench. But McNamara, loyal to a fault, didn't even consider pinch-hitting Baylor for Buckner, who lifted Orosco's first pitch into center field for an easy out. Having thus missed a chance to blow the game open, McNamara would later compound his error by again refusing to remove Buckner from the game. So maybe the what-if should be: What if the Red Sox had valued winning above loyalty? -RN