Tuesday, May 28, 2019

RIP, Bill Buckner

The first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972 was Wes Parker, a 32-year-old switch-hitter who won his sixth-straight Gold Glove and was a better-than-league-average hitter -- not a lot of power, but more walks than strikeouts and a decent batting average in a rough time and place for hitters.

And that was it for him. He spent 1973 doing TV for the Cincinnati Reds, 1974 playing in Japan, then pursued an acting career with, as far as I know, little success. 

Parker's retirement didn't exactly leave the Dodgers in a bind. They had options to take Parker's place -- two good ones, as it turned out.

Steve Garvey was a third baseman who couldn't throw. The Dodgers converted him to first base. Bill Buckner was an outfielder whose knees had gone bad and couldn't run without pain. The Dodgers converted him to first base too.

It wasn't quite that simple. Buckner got more than 600 plate appearances in 1973, playing mostly first but seeing time in left and right as well. That opened enough playing time for Garvey to get more than 350 plate appearances himself. 

The next year, Garvey and Buckner each got more than 600 PA, which meant Buckner was mostly playing outfield. The Dodgers won the pennant with Garvey and Buckner each hitting over .300.

The next year, Buckner's playing time and production diminished. He bounced back in 1976, still playing mostly in the outfield but suffering on those bad knees.

And then the Dodgers traded Buckner to the Cubs, and he got to play first base as a regular thing. He  blossomed. He hit an even .300 in eight seasons with the Cubs, won a batting title, led the league in doubles a couple of times, consistently drew down-ballot MVP votes. 

And then he wound up in Boston, and the moment that came to define Bill Buckner -- the grounder that went between his legs to end Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. 

There were a lot of things that went wrong for the Red Sox in that fateful ninth, and a lot of people who deserve more of the blame for the fiasco than Buckner -- Calvin Schiraldi, John McNamara, Rich Gedman, Bob Stanley. But it was Buckner who symbolized the collapse.

I was rooting for the Red Sox in that series, but with the passage of time I am comfortable with the outcome. The Mets of the mid- and late-80s were a historically great team, deserving of at least one World Series title. That was their one.

Bill Buckner died Monday, age 69. And yes, I remember Mookie Wilson's grounder going through his legs. But I also chose to remember the outstanding hitter. 

The Dodgers in the mid-70s made the right choice by making Garvey their first baseman; he was the better hitter and the better first baseman. But Billy Buck was pretty darn good himself.

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