He awakened on the morning after the morning after, knowing that he had two more rivers to cross. First, there was a parade in downtown Boston. Then he would drive 40 miles to Worcester, check into the University of Massachusetts Medical Center hospital and, after 10 years of ice, acupuncture, DMSO and holy water, have an operation to clean out his junkyard left ankle. As he started to get out of bed, he heard some mention of the Mets' parade on the radio. "More than two and a half million people honored the world champions yesterday in New York," said the announcer, "and the parade finished with the Mets' team bus going through Bill Buckner's legs."
"Here I just experienced the best year of my life with a team, and I feel rotten," Bill Buckner said to his wife, Jody, as they drove down Route 93 toward Boston last Wednesday morning. "This whole city hates me. Is this what I'm going to be remembered for? Is this what I've killed myself for all these years? Is a whole season ruined because of a bad hop? I've got to go through the humiliation of this parade, partly because I know I don't deserve it. Oh well, there'll only be two or three players and about 50 people who'll show up to boo us."
When Buckner got to the Red Sox clubhouse, he found at least 15 teammates and coaches waiting for the parade. It was a crystal-clear autumn morning as the Red Sox climbed aboard the flatbed truck that would take them to the rally. When the truck turned onto Boylston Street, Buckner heard the bells of the Arlington Street Church pealing, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and when the truck neared Copley Square, he saw that the street was lined with faces and banners as far as he could see. Buckner had asked not to speak at the rally at City Hall Plaza, and so he stood at the end of the stage. But when he heard the ringing one-minute ovation that followed his name, Buckner stepped forward and thanked the crowd.
"That was the most incredible experience of my career," he said to Jody as they drove to Worcester, past a THANKS, RED SOX sign on the Mass Pike and a HOMETOWN OF HERO MARTY BARRETT sign at the city limits of Southborough. When the Buckners stopped at traffic lights in Worcester, people in other cars beeped their horns and waved at them.
While Buckner was checking into the hospital, the clubhouse kids were piling up his mail at Fenway Park. "He normally gets no more than one actual letter a week," said batboy Dean Lewis. "He's gotten almost twice as much World Series mail as anyone else." A New York City policeman told Buckner he was "a symbol of courage." A California polio victim called him "an inspiration," a New Jersey man said he was "a true model for all our children," and a 70-year-old lady in Illinois wrote, "because of you, I watched my first World Series." Among the hundreds of pieces of mail, the most negative was a letter from a Rhode Island doctor who chastised Buckner for risking permanent damage.
In an exhausting World Series that ended in New York with the Mets as world champions, the Red Sox became this generation's Brooklyn Dodgers. And former L.A. Dodger Bill Buckner, 36, with 2,464 hits and 16 major league seasons behind him, became baseball's Walter Brennan. He often looked as if he were running in galoshes, and after he staggered around third and belly flopped across home plate in Game 5, he admitted, "I didn't slide—I died." He crawled like an alligator into one base. He went after a pop-up, fell down and did a backstroke trying to make a catch in Game 4. He scurried on hands and knees to tag the first base bag with his glove. He limped out for the national anthem, bat in hand, just in case he needed a cane. He wore a high-topped right shoe for the Achilles tendon he pulled in the seventh game of the playoffs, but it was the pain in two parts of his left ankle that had created the original limp and had necessitated nine cortisone shots since April. Little wonder Buckner ended up hitting. 188 for the Series, finished 18 innings, stranded 31 runners and made the error on Mookie Wilson's ground ball that gave the Mets their dramatic 6-5 victory in the 10th inning of Game 6.
"I just want to tell you that you'll always be my inspiration," said a small boy who ducked into Buckner's hospital room Wednesday night. "Thanks for a great season." Then the boy disappeared.
"Today cleared a lot off my chest and my mind," said Buckner as he settled back in his hospital bed. "From my perspective, I didn't think the error was such a big deal. Letting them tie up the game was more important. There was no guarantee we would have won. Hell, there was no guarantee that Bob Stanley or I could have beaten Wilson to the bag if I had caught the ball. When Jody and I got back to the room that night, I watched the replay and I was right there, head down, glove down, completely relaxed.... It just took a funny sideways bounce between my legs. By the time I watched it, I wasn't bothered because I was completely geared towards the seventh game.
"Then Monday I agreed to do an interview for The NBC Nightly News, and all the guy kept asking me was, 'How can you look at yourself in the mirror? How can you face your teammates?' I went out for batting practice, and I thought one sign that said, 'Nice legs,' was funny, but when I got the standing ovation from the Mets' fans during the introductions, it wasn't so funny." Neither was the Mets' management's decision to replay the error on the Shea Stadium message board before the bottom of the fifth inning. Nor were the post-seventh-game questions from the press about manager John McNamara's decision not to pinch-hit or bring in a defensive replacement for Buckner in Game 6.
"I hadn't been pinch-hit for all season, and the only time [Dave] Stapleton had gone in for me on defense was when the Achilles was killing me back at the start of the Series," Buckner said in the hospital. "The one thing anyone has ever said about me defensively is that I have good hands. And, while my average stunk, [hitting instructor] Walter Hriniak figured out that I hit the ball hard for outs 11 times in 32 at bats. When I hit the line drive to deep left center with the bases loaded that ended the second inning of the final game, I thought I had knocked in three runs. Ron Darling was pitching me inside, and Lenny Dykstra always played me to right center, but for some reason Mookie played me to left center. Dykstra never would have caught the ball. That's when we should have won the damn thing. Right now, that hurts more than anything."