Billy Buckner’s Decisive Moment in Death

Posted on June 6, 2019 by Martin Oaks under Community, Cremation, Memorial
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In photography, it’s called “the decisive moment.”

The term, coined by French master, Henri Cartier-Bresson, refers to the shot which captures all of the significance of an event, including hints of antecedent conditions.

Think of the exhilarating moment recorded by Alfred Eisenstaedt with the kiss in Times Square on VJ day, August, 1945.

Or the gut wrenching sadness Dan Farrell caught when three year old John Kennedy, Jr. saluted his father’s passing casket in Washington, DC in 1963.

“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment,” Bresson stated.

The decisive moment in life is perhaps no more poignantly expressed than in death.  Not necessarily a photograph, but a remembrance where the sum is completely conveyed.

When Lewy body dementia felled former major league baseball star Bill Buckner on May 27, 2019, his decisive moment was not kind and certainly not fair.

It took place on a chilly, fifty degree night Saturday, October 25, 1986 at Shea Stadium when the Boston Red Sox faced off against the New York Mets in Game 6 of the World Series. The attendance at the park was over 55,000 and the television audience hovered around 45 million.

The rivalry between Boston and New York has always been highly charged no matter what the professional sport — but that night was even more gripping because the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918.

The game went into extra innings: taking a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the 10th, it appeared that Boston was about to vanquish years of frustration. But, as Hall of Fame television announcer Vin Scully put it, the 10th was a “delirious” inning, capped by a bizarre finish, one which indelibly scarred Bill Buckner.

The Mets scraped together a desperation rally, scoring two runs to tie the game: the winning run, in the person of Ray Knight, was on second base with two outs.  The batter, Mookie Wilson, ran the count to 3-2 off Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley before hitting a routine roller towards first basemen Bucker.  Then calamity struck: the ball, as Scully put it, “went through Buckner” and allowed Knight to race home to cinch the Mets victory.

The air went out of the Red Sox.  Two days later, the Mets wrapped up the Series with an 8-5 triumph.

Few fans remember that final game in any detail.  Even fewer remember that in Game 6, Knight arrived in scoring position courtesy of a wild pitch by Stanley. Only a handful will recall that in his twenty two year career, Buckner had a solid .991 fielding percentage.

What baseball lore will vividly feature is the dribbler that went through his legs — and left Buckner, standing all alone in an isolated posture, looking forlorn, lost in his dispirited reverie.

In a prescient column, Pulitzer Prize recipient Jim Murray wrote: “he played a hop that never hopped.”  The headline over the column was, “Error Will Outweigh All Buckner Hits.”

Murray was right — obituaries were generally kind to “Billy Buck,” but none failed to lead with a comment about that night in 1986.

By any measure, Buckner had a stellar career: he won a batting title, racked up 2,715 hits, played on two pennant winning teams and was an All Star.  Because of his sliding catches and grabs off the wall, he was, at one point, called “Billy the Burglar.”

Watching Buckner play in his prime was a pleasure for any baseball purist. With his Groucho Marx mustache and his fiery, determined approach, he was a throwback to Ty Cobb’s era.

No one detested striking out more than Buckner — he had a compact swing, short to the ball, which enabled him to make quick contact.  As Murray wrote, “He could get wood on a mosquito.”

Tyler Kepner of the New York Times noted that on the last full day of Buckner’s life, sixteen major league ballplayers struck out three times in a game — something Buckner never did.

In one of his more memorable seasons, Buckner was a cornerstone in the Los Angeles Dodgers drive to the pennant: he hit .314, had 620 plate appearances, and only fanned 24 times. He finished 25th in MVP voting that year, well below what he deserved.

Of even greater importance was his off field conduct — Buckner was a model baseball citizen who lived his Christian faith fully.  No stranger to charity work, he even auctioned off “A Day on the River With Bill Buckner” — an all-day fishing excursion where he taught fly fishing to those who donated to one of his favorite causes.

Following his passing, Buckner was cremated.  A celebration of his life will be held at Calvary Chapel in his adopted hometown, Boise, Idaho, on June 22, 2019 at 11 AM.

God speed, Bill Buckner.  Those of us who covered your career know that your decisive moment had nothing to do with Mookie Wilson.

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