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The BASEBALL RELIQUARY Inc.


A FEW WORDS ABOUT BILL BUCKNER
on the occasion of his induction into
 the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals
July 20, 2008
- by John Schulian -

            He left memories scattered from Los Angeles to Boston, but the Bill Buckner I remember best defied the melancholy that draped Chicago’s Wrigley Field like funeral crepe every September.  There were no pennant races for the Cubs teams he played for in the late 70s and early 80s, no roaring crowds to hail his refusal to surrender to the franchise’s dreary tradition.  The shadows grew longer, the days shorter, and anyone in need of a nap could find plenty of room to stretch out in the bleachers.  “It’s like somebody turns off the electricity every August 31st,” Buckner once told me, but he would have none of it.  A heart the size of his doesn’t come with an off-switch.
            So it is that I have this lasting image of him stepping to the plate wearing the dirtiest uniform on the field.  He stares out at the pitcher from beneath eyebrows that are the perfect complement to his bushy mustache.  Wrigley is still without lights at this point, and the fading sunshine mocks the grease that Buckner has smeared under his eyes to cut the glare.  Maybe that’s why the pitcher tries to sneak a fastball past him.  Reasons don’t matter now, though.  Only results.
            Buckner lashes a line drive to left-center field, the sort of shot that was his calling card for 22 big-league seasons.  Scuttling out of the batter’s box with his ruined ankle begging for mercy, he’s hunched over, almost crab-like yet hell-bent on ringing up another double.  And when he slides safely into second base, he has done more than spit in the eye of the Cubs’ lost season.  He has offered us a symbol of everything we should treasure about him as a baseball player.
            There are statistics involved, of course.  What would the grand old game be without them?  In the case of William Joseph Buckner, allow me to point out that he won the 1980 National League batting championship with a .324 average.  He also led the league in doubles twice, and then moved on to Boston, where he hit 46 of them in 1985 and somehow managed not lead the American League.  He drove in more than 100 runs once with the Cubs and twice with the Red Sox.  When you realize that 18 home runs were the most he ever hit in a season, you come to understand just how tough he was in the clutch.  And one other thing:  in his youth with the Dodgers, when he had yet to go under a surgeon’s scalpel, Buckner stole as many as 31 bases.
            Tote up all the numbers and you will find that he batted .289 for his career while pounding out 2,715 hits.  That’s more hits than Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and about 70 percent of the other big bats in the Hall of Fame.  And Buckner played in more games than Babe Ruth, Rod Carew and Willie Stargell.  You can look it up:  2,517.
            Buckner’s accomplishments are, in many ways, what people predicted for him when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1969 as a 19-year-old first baseman.  He was one of the Dodgers’ golden children, shoulder to shoulder with Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Russell and all the others who set a standard that no subsequent youth movement has equaled.  The Dodgers moved him to the outfield and he responded by batting .300, running as if the cops were after him and raging at injustice every time he made an out.  “What’s the matter?” Dick Allen asked during his one season in L.A.  “Don’t you think you’ll ever get another hit?”
            As a matter of fact, Buckner didn’t.  Such was the force that drove him.  “After a while,” he told me years ago, “you start wondering how much you fear failure.”  He feared it beyond reason, because it suggested that he wasn’t bearing down, wasn’t investing body and soul in every time at bat.  A trick of the mind perhaps, but it helped him become everything he could be on a baseball diamond.  Everything except lucky.
            The ankle Buckner tore up in L.A. was the first sign that no road is without potholes.  He went to Chicago in 1977, a first baseman once again, and hobbled every step of the way.  “Like a hundred-year-old man,” he said.  There were high-top baseball shoes designed for him, and still his ankle hurt.  He was the first man at the ballpark every day just to get himself stretched out enough to play, but the pain remained.  The doubles, the RBIs, even the batting championship -– none of that could cure the hurt that Bill Buckner felt and never talked about for public consumption.
            He moved on to Boston in ’84 and found balm for his competitive spirit in a city where there really were pennant races and, two years later, a World Series.  But he hurt in more places than ever, and the pain was etched in his every step.  He didn’t beg out of the line-up, though, just kept busting his hump at the plate and at first base.  Then came the ’86 Series against the Mets and the fateful grounder off Mookie Wilson’s bat.  It was as though every good deed Buckner had ever performed were erased when that ball, that damn ball, wormed its way through his gnarled legs.  Never mind that you could point at any number of other reasons why the Red Sox lost the game and the Series.  Buckner was the fall guy.
            We of the Baseball Reliquary have come together today to say that he is anything but that, just as we would have if Boston’s fans hadn’t finally embraced him again this past April.  We salute Bill Buckner because he embodied the spirit, the passion and the relentlessness that are the lifeblood of the game we love so much.  To watch him was to know he was that most prized species, a big leaguer who plays as hard as the fan in the stands thinks he would if their situations were reversed.  And then there was Buckner’s courage.  He was, in no uncertain terms, the bravest baseball player I’ve ever seen.  He may have feared making an out, but he refused to back down from the pain that quite literally never went away.
            With all of that in mind, it is my great pleasure to ask you to join me in welcoming Bill Buckner to the Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals.


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