Denkinger, Buckner connected in WS history
'He made a mistake and I made a mistake,' says former ump
Don Denkinger was surrounded by Hall of Famers. They had descended upon the Field of Dreams site in Iowa last month for a weekend of appearing from out of the famous corn and thrilling fans with a charity softball game, Q&A sessions and autographs.
Baseball luminaries Johnny Bench, Robin Yount, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson, Carlton Fisk and Wade Boggs were milling about, but Denkinger, the old umpire, saw a familiar face with a familiar mustache. Bill Buckner was enjoying a glass of wine at the hotel bar, and even though Denkinger was on his way out the door to dinner, he wanted to take a moment to stop.
"I felt like I had to say hello," Denkinger says. "We have a lot in common."
The Kansas City Royals are back in the World Series, which they last won in 1985, aided in part by the missed call at first base in Game 6 that Denkinger is now most known for. The New York Mets are back in the World Series, which they last won in 1986, aided in part by a missed ground ball behind first base in Game 6 that Buckner is now most known for.
The spirit guides of the Grand Old Game have determined that it is finally time for either the Royals or Mets to once again hoist the Commissioner's Trophy, and the historic details of how that will happen will begin to be written on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium (air time 7:30 p.m. ET, game time 8 ET, FOX) when a Royals starter, possibly Edinson Volquez, fires the first pitch of Game 1.
The defining moments that we will witness in this anticipated upcoming best-of-seven set could end up being the stuff of baseball lore. But it remains to be seen if they will be as unforgettable as the events that altered the course of the next three decades of everyday life for an elite umpire named Denkinger and a 22-year big leaguer and All-Star player named Buckner.
The phone calls started coming again for Denkinger last year, when Kansas City made it back to the Fall Classic for the first time in 29 years. They'll probably start coming again for Buckner when the calendar year hits 2016 and the anniversary of the Mets' miraculous comeback hits another round-number milestone.
Denkinger's attention comes from one small wave with everlasting ripples. It occurred 30 years ago today, Oct. 26, 1985, in Kansas City, in Game 6 of the World Series. The Cardinals led the Series, 3-2, and the game, 1-0, as the Royals came to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Royals pinch-hitter Jorge Orta grounded a ball on the AstroTurf infield and ran up the line. Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark moved to his right in front of second baseman Tom Herr to field the ball because reliever Todd Worrell was on the move to make the play at first. Clark fielded it and tossed it sidearm to Worrell. It was a close play and Denkinger ruled Orta safe.
He was wrong, and there was no review process to overturn the call.
The rest seemed to happen in a blur. Orta ended up scoring the tying run on Dane Iorg's walk-off two run single as the Royals won, 2-1. The next night, 21-year-old Bret Saberhagen shut out the Cardinals on two hits in an 11-0 clincher, and the Royals celebrated a championship they haven't won since.
Denkinger had to deal with death threats in the immediate aftermath and the fact that his name would forever be associated with one very human error instead of the exemplary work he did as one of the Major Leagues' premier umpires during a long career.
He has handled it all with uncommon grace.
"It's life, and it goes on," says Denkinger. "There isn't much that can be said about it, really. It's all been said."
Buckner, of course, was an almost-37-year-old first baseman with banged-up legs who was in the lineup for the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series against the Mets because he had hit 18 home runs and driven in 102 runs in another terrific regular season. Buckner played in the big leagues for 22 seasons, amassing 2,715 hits, batting better than .300 seven times and winning the National League batting title in 1980 when he hit .324 for the Cubs.
The Red Sox were up, 3-2, in the Series, and took a 5-3 lead in the top of the 10th inning at Shea Stadium in Queens. They were a strike away from Boston's first World Series title when reliever Calvin Schiraldi gave up consecutive singles to Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight, which put the score at 5-4 with runners on the corners and Mookie Wilson coming to the plate to face a new pitcher, reliever Bob Stanley.
With Shea abuzz, Stanley uncorked a pitch that got by catcher Rich Gedman, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run from third. Knight took second.
And then the infamous play. Wilson hit a slow bouncer that somehow got underneath Buckner's legs behind the bag, Knight scampered home with the winning run, and the Mets won Game 7, 8-5.
It didn't seem to matter that the game was already tied when it happened, nor that the Red Sox blew a 3-0 lead in Game 7 the next day. It didn't seem to matter that Buckner's excellence throughout the season was a big reason the Red Sox got that far in the first place. It didn't seem to matter that the speedy Wilson, who stole 58 bases one season while with the Mets, could very well have been safe even if Buckner fielded the ball cleanly.
None of it mattered to the section of Red Sox Nation loyalists who chose to take 68 years of frustration and heartache out on the guy who let the ball go between his legs.
"I hadn't been in New England that long or with the Red Sox," Buckner told MLB Network in 2011. "I had no clue what was in those peoples' minds and what they'd been through and what they were thinking. I was just out trying to have a good time and trying to win a championship.
"Those people had a lot of other things on their mind."
Denkinger turned 79 in August and was invited to the "Field of Dreams" event in August. He saw Buckner, now 65, and walked up to the old ballplayer at the bar. Buckner remembered him. The two had shared the same fields many times before.
They chatted for a few minutes. Both described it as a pleasant conversation.
"He's a nice enough guy," Buckner said over the phone from his Idaho home, without wanting to get into detail about the conversation or the events of the 1985 and 1986 World Series.
"He was an umpire and I was a player."
But Denkinger said he has talked to Buckner before and always felt comfortable approaching him because the two share famous errors that "we wish wouldn't have happened and never seem to go away."
"He made a mistake and I made a mistake," Denkinger said. "They're there forever, and as much as we dislike it, we can't change it. He didn't go there to make himself famous by letting a ball go between his legs, and I didn't go to Kansas City hoping that I'd miss something.
"And we both had some pretty good credentials before all that, but no one wants to remember those. They just want to talk about the '85 and '86 World Series.
"We both had basically the same experience. We weren't trying to do that. It just happens."