That, even more than the ankle. Buckner has won a batting title (1980), hit .300 or better seven times and knocked in 212 runs in the last two seasons. He has a good shot at 3,000 hits, which means the Hall of Fame, and he has always had a big and justified reputation as a clutch hitter. And people who know him wonder what he might have been were it not for the ankle. "He could get down to first base with anyone when he was young," says Tom Lasorda, who signed Buckner, took him to the Rookie League and had him in Triple A. " Dick Vermeil, who recruited him for Stanford, was once asked which recruit he most regretted not coaching," says Lasorda. "And he answered, 'Wide receiver Bill Buckner.' He could fly."
Buckner batted .314 and stole 31 bases for the Dodgers in 1974. Then on April 18, 1975, when they were playing the Giants in Dodger Stadium, he tried to steal. "I remember it as if it were yesterday," Buckner says. " John Montefusco was pitching, Marc Hill catching. I'd just been trying to learn to slide from Davey Lopes, the way he barely hit the ground. I never did hit the ground, my foot caught under the bag and I flipped right over." He struggled through the season, had a tendon removed in September and bone chips taken out in October. After a .301 average and 28 stolen bases in '76, he went back in for yet another operation that winter. That surgery resulted in a staph infection. Then came the preseason trade to the Cubs in 1977 for Rick Monday, and when Buckner reported to the Cubs' training camp hobbling on a cane, Chicago asked the National League to annul the deal on the grounds that he was damaged goods. "I was damaged goods," he says. "But I wanted to prove them wrong, so I played the first half of the season. It was a painful mistake. I never walked right again."
Says Buckner, "I always said that I'd wait until after I retired to have the cleanup operation because I learned to cope with it, and it didn't get any worse. This year it got worse." For the last eight seasons, Buckner has soaked his feet in ice for an hour before—and 30 minutes after—every game. In 1978, he began working in Chicago with bodybuilder Bob Gadja and chiropractor George Ruggerio, who created a series of machines and exercises for the ankle. "They saved me," Buckner says. Buckner has tried vitamins, acupuncture, DMSO and, before Game 5, holy water from a fan.
His diet helped. He is the same 185 pounds he was when Vermeil sought him for Stanford in 1968, and he and Jody are health food nuts. Buckner, who owns a 1,000-acre, 300-head cattle ranch in Star, Idaho—it's run by his brother, Bob—says, "I may be the only cattle rancher in America who doesn't eat red meat."
But then, as his closest baseball friend, Bobby Valentine, says, "Buck is unique, thank goodness. When we were freshmen at USC, he would challenge me to a race every day. Every day I beat him, and as soon as we had finished, he would swear that he'd beat me the next day. Every day." Says Buckner, with a laugh, "There are a lot of Bill Buckner stories."
His brother, Bob, says, "Bill gets his mind set on something, and won't accept that it doesn't work out the way he wants. One Christmas he thought he was going to get a shotgun. He didn't, and he stayed in the bathroom for five hours."
The Buckners grew up in a small California town called Rancho del Mar, halfway between Napa and Vallejo, where, Bob says, "All there was to do was play baseball and hunt." Bill was both an exceptional athlete and student whose college choices came down to USC and Stanford. When he went to visit Southern Cal, he met Valentine, who was another football/baseball recruit. A week later, Valentine was selected in the first round of the 1968 June draft by the Dodgers, who then made Buckner their second pick. Though Buckner attended USC, he never played sports there.
After the draft, Lasorda, who had scouted in the spring and was going to manage the Dodgers' Rookie League club in Ogden, Utah, went to sign the 17-year-old Buckner at a doubleheader in San Rafael. Buckner had seven hits in the two games, and afterward Lasorda asked him, "Do you like to fight?" Buckner nodded. "Then you're coming with me to Ogden, where we're going to fight and we're going to win."
"We fought," says Buckner, "and we won." Lasorda and his players developed a special camaraderie in Ogden, so special, in fact, that it is not inconceivable that someday the Dodgers will have Lasorda as the general manager, Valentine as the manager, and Buckner, Tom Paciorek, Joe Ferguson and Charlie Hough as coaches. Ogden was also the place where the legend of Bill Buckner, with an assist from Lasorda, was established. The manager wrote letters to then Dodgers Wes Parker, Willie Davis and Ron Fairly, promising to take those players' jobs away, and signed the names of Buckner, Valentine and Paciorek, respectively. "I visited the clubhouse after the season," Buckner recalls, "and you should have seen the look I got from Parker."
"Buck was always getting thrown out of games," says Lasorda. "Throw helmets? He broke one a night. Finally I told him I'd fine him if he ever did it again. He made an out and I heard this banging. I look over and he was smashing his head against the wall so hard he was bleeding. One night in Triple A , he and Valentine collided going for a pop fly. Buck broke his jaw, and the front office told me to sit him out for five weeks. Buckner missed only one game and wound up hitting .335 and learned to spit and swear with his jaw wired shut."