Buhner had an unfortunate lapse in Game 3 of the League Championship Series, at Cleveland. In the eighth inning, with Johnson holding a 2-1 lead and burning fastballs by the Cleveland hitters, light-hitting Alvaro Espinoza cranked a fly ball to fairly deep rightfield. Buhner normally makes the play while filing his fingernails, but this time he made a critical mistake. He didn't run far enough before turning to backpedal, and the ball sailed over him, bounced and hit the wall. It was his only error of the postseason. Indians leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton singled home pinch runner Wayne Kirby from second to tie the game and cost Johnson the victory.
Buhner was devastated. "I remember when I first came back [from the wrist injury] and made an error," says Griffey. "I was feeling pretty bad, and Jay just looks at me and says. 'I still line you, man.' I just laughed. That night in Cleveland I said the same thing to him."
Players are often defined by one play, and following Buhner's blunder many baseball writers referred to him as Buckner, after former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, the goat of the 1986 World Series. But Buhner went from dunderhead to hero faster than you could shave a skull. In the top of the 11th inning he launched a three-run homer halfway to Toledo, lifting Seattle to victory and adding another scene to the Mariners' highlight film.
When their oldest son was in high school, Kay and David Buhner weren't all that concerned with his future. They were just hoping he would have one. "He was in three car wrecks before he even got his driver's license," Kay says of Jay. In one accident, Jay recalls, he was riding in the back of a pickup truck that got hit while moving at 50 mph. He says he was thrown 20 feet in the air and "came down and landed on my feet." He wasn't hurt, but he wasn't happy, either. When the police showed up, Buhner was on top of the driver who had caused the accident, his hand gripping the guy's throat. (The officers pulled Buhner away and restrained him.)
As a child, Jay's behavior was diagnosed as hyperactive, and he was given medication. His mother made regular trips to the principal's office to pick him up after he got in trouble. "He just couldn't sit in class," she says. "One of the reasons he played sports was that we had to find a place to channel all that energy." Jay did not dream of playing major league baseball. "He just wanted to drive a Peterbilt [truck]," says his father.
From the beginning he had all the tools to excel in baseball, with the exception of a decent attention span. "One time he was playing centerfield, and a ball was hit out there," says David. "I look out, and there he is, sitting down. Well, everyone's yelling at him, so he runs over, picks the ball up off the grass and fires it in. At the end of the inning I said, 'What were you doing out there?' He said, 'Look at this. I just learned how to make a cloverleaf necklace.' "
When it came time to choose a college, Buhner made his decision with typical forethought and care. He had one requirement: He wanted to be with his two best buddies from the Clear Creek High baseball team, catcher Tom Griffin and pitcher Danny Cannon. They all agreed to play for McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. Ivy League schools were not exactly lamenting the loss. "I think his batting average was higher than his SAT scores," says Kay, laughing.
"When I was younger, I never thought there was life after high school baseball," says Jay. "I never thought about the pros or even college. I didn't know there was such a thing as a scholarship."
His parents say they approved of McLennan because the baseball coach, Rick Butler, was a disciplinarian. Butler's influence did wonders for Buhner on and off the field. He kicked Buhner off the team twice in one day, only to allow him to return after Buhner came to his office and apologized. Buhner still credits Butler for turning him into a superb defensive outfielder. "If we misplayed a ball in practice, we had to do what we called a supersprint," Buhner says. "You had to drop your glove and run to the opposite foul line and back in less than 60 seconds. That's where I first took pride in my defense."
In Buhner's first year at McLennan, 1982-83, he hit .327 and led the Highlanders in home runs, and the team won the junior college national title. During the championship game, in Grand Junction, Colo., it dawned on Buhner what all those guys with stopwatches and clipboards were doing in the stands. College and big league scouts were sizing him up. Maybe the Peterbilt would have to wait.