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When Buckner was growing up in Napa, Calif., 20 miles outside of Oakland, he established himself as the most competitive kid in town. He was so advanced as a 7-year-old that his mother, Marie, falsified his birth certificate to get him into Little League a year early. "Pretty soon he was telling everyone what to do," says Buckner's older brother, Bob, who helps him manage a cattle ranch near Boise, Idaho. "Nobody could play the sun field, so he told the coach to put him out there. Here was this little kid with freckles showing everyone how to do it."
"I was very goal-oriented," says Buckner. "I was going to go to school and college, play sports and go on to professional baseball." Devoting his time almost strictly to studies and sports, Buckner was an A-minus student at Napa High School and became a member of the Northern California Football Hall of Fame for his record-setting play at wide receiver. The Dodgers signed him out of high school in 1968 and he took just three years to make the big club—all the while attending USC and Arizona State in the off-season. However, he never graduated.
"I didn't spend a lot of time doing nothing," he says. Nor did he spend a lot of time saying nothing. "If he speaks, you'd better listen," says Bob Buckner. Sometimes, however, Bill wishes he had thought a little before opening his yap.
Item: As a rookie Buckner homered off Don Wilson, the late Houston fastballer, and proclaimed, "If they're all like this guy, I'll be all right." In their next meeting Wilson decked him with a low, hard one.
Buckner's words were also frequently in the news earlier this year. First, he asked to renegotiate his contract, a practice new General Manager Dallas Green abhors. However, when Green acquired Shortstop Larry Bowa from the Phillies and discovered that Bowa had a higher salary than Buckner, Green relented and signed Buckner to a five-year, $3 million deal. In the aftermath, though, Buckner pressed at the plate and had two well-publicized fistfights—with Gary Carter of the Expos and Cub Manager Lee Elia. Elia and Green now say that all is forgiven and call Buckner the quintessential team player.
"I'm a competitive person," says Buckner. "I'm competitive when I play my wife Jody in gin or cribbage and I don't give her points in tennis or racquetball either. I'm not saying it's a good way to be, but it helps me as a professional athlete. On the field, I'm hyper, aggressive and intense, but basically I'm a conservative guy. I've only had a few fights and been kicked out of three or four games, so it's a little embarrassing when those things happen."
The day after the season ends Buckner will disappear for a month to backpack, hunt and fish. Then he'll pass a quiet if busy winter in Idaho working the ranch, co-managing a video games business and spending time with Jody and their 10-month-old daughter, Brittany.
A little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here? Not a chance, say Buckner's relatives. "He's a stubborn German like the rest of us," says mother Marie. "We have a bowling match every Christmas," says brother Bob. "Loser pays for bowling and drinks. Bill doesn't like to lose at all."