This was long after a baseball rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs one Saturday night at old Shea Stadium in 1986, in the bottom of the 10th of Game 6 of the World Series, the night when the Red Sox thought they were going to win their first Series since 1918 and didn’t. At the time there was the idea that this was all because of Bill Buckner, even though the game was already tied when a slow roller Mookie Wilson hit went through Buckner and the Mets had come all the way back from the dead to win that game. It wasn’t right then. It was never right. The punishment never fit the baseball crime with Buckner, who deserved better from everybody.
This was so long after that, in an episode of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” 25 years after Game 6.
There was a long and funny and Curb-like setup to the ending of that episode, one I believe is as famous as David has ever had in what has become an iconic series, one that involved Larry making a big error in a softball game, and later meeting Buckner, who tells David not to worry, that people finally forgave him. Finally at the end, Larry and Buckner ended up outside a burning New York building. There is a mother in a window a few floors up with her baby, and firemen down below with a jumping sheet as smoke continues to pour out of the building.
Then the mother tosses the baby.
The fireman’s sheet is in a perfect position and the baby lands on it. But because this is “Curb,” the baby bounces back up into the air, while we see all sorts of frantic reaction shots from the people in the crowd.
And then Buckner, who’s just told Larry that he just happened to be out for a walk from his hotel down the street, is running to catch the baby. At the last second, Buckner dives and lays out and ends up on his back, smiling, with the baby safely in his arms.
At which point a New York crowd goes wild for Bill Buckner.
“Nice catch, Bill!” Larry yells.
The next thing you see are members of the New York crowd putting Bill Buckner up on their shoulders. If you are a “Curb” fan, as I am, you know there really are so many memorable episodes in the series. But there was never a better or funnier or more memorable one than Bill Buckner’s in Season 8.
I asked David about the episode, and about Buckner, after we all learned of Buckner’s passing on Monday, a sad occasion whose only saving grace turned out to be this: Bill Buckner’s death also became an occasion for people to remember what a truly great hitter he was in the big leagues.
“Very sweet, kind man,” David said. “There was something about him that made me feel for the guy. What an awful thing to go through.”
David said the idea for the show was submitted by a writer in Chicago, Pat McNelly, and at first they had all kicked around the idea of Buckner dropping the baby. But no one wanted to do that to Buckner.
“I saw that show in editing for weeks,” David said. “And every time I watched it, whenever he caught that baby, I would well up. So glad I had the opportunity to get to know him. Not a mean bone in his body.”
Somehow, after committing one of the most famous errors in baseball history, Buckner was able to have some fun with that moment, and even make fun of himself, in the only television show like this on which he ever appeared. By then the Red Sox had ended all the waiting since 1918 by winning the World Series in 2004. Then the Sox won again in 2007. And when Buckner was asked to throw out the first pitch at Fenway on Opening Day in 2008, a pitch he threw to his old teammate Dwight Evans, the ovation for Buckner lasted two minutes.
He had 2,715 hits in the big leagues. He hit .324 for the Cubs once. He knocked in 100 runs three times. Never struck out three times in a game. Won a batting title once, in 1980. He hit 18 home runs in that 1986 season on those ruined legs. He knocked in 102 runs, one of the biggest totals of his career, even though nobody remembered that when Mookie’s ball went through his legs and Ray Knight scored the winning run in Game 6.
Buckner had so many wonderful memories from a big league career that stretched across two decades, even with the shadow that one slow roller threw over the last several years of his career. So much of the reaction to Game 6 was mean and graceless, even as Buckner became a figure of great grace the more time passed, and the more distance he put between himself and Game 6.
Then came the night when he showed up on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and showed you as much as anyone could about who he really was. The reason, of course, was simple enough: Bill Buckner always knew who he was, knew he was more than one play a long time ago, the sweet and kind man that Larry David described on Monday, gone now at 69.