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Bill Buckner

April 9, 2008
 

I.
Soon after I moved to New York City in 1990 I began to follow the New York Rangers, spurred on by the contagious enthusiasm some of my friends had for the team. I hadn’t followed hockey growing up, but the Rangers’ story was a compelling one: years of great stars and great characters, years of heartbreak, fans who lived and died with the team. My connection, though it could never come close to the connection lifelong fans had, was cemented one day when I was at a game with my friend Ramblin’ Pete, and between periods in the smoke-filled stairwell behind our section in the Blue Seats Pete asked a short, thick guy from Staten Island what he would do if the Rangers won the Stanley Cup.

He took a drag off his cigarette, his eyes narrowing. He well knew the answer to the question, but he was taking his time anyway. He exhaled. He looked Pete straight in the eye.

“Run naked and put up a sign,” he said.

II.
I kept a notebook for a while in those days that I called Josh Wilker’s Millions. I got the title from a piece of junkmail sent to my brother, who I was sharing an apartment with. It was one of those sweepstakes things, and it had his name in bold cerulean inserted into form letter text that talked about the life Ian Wilker could lead if only Ian Wilker had millions. Over and over it talked about Ian Wilker’s Millions, and it wondered how Ian Wilker could live with himself if he let this chance at riches pass, thus allowing someone else to “live the life of riley off Ian Wilker’s Millions.” The letter lay atop and eventually within the general clutter of the apartment long after we’d busted a gut over it. Beyond the laughter, the letter seemed to somehow cut to the heart of our tread-water lives, our no-money lives, our lives of missed and bungled and shrunken-from opportunities, our form-letter, mass-produced lives, our lives in which the only break from total obscurity was to have our names spat onto a letter by a computer.

III.
The couple who lived below my brother and me fought almost all the time. We’d hear them screaming back and forth. The guy was a big Rangers fan. This was in 1994, when the Rangers were looking really strong, like they might finally do it. The couple had a little daughter, barely old enough to talk. One day, not long before the wife moved out and took the daughter with her, my brother and I ran into the father and the daughter on the stoop.

“Who’s number 27?” the dad was asking her, his voice soft.

“K-Kovalev?”

“Right, sweetie,” the guy said. “And how about 28. Do you know who number 28 is?”

“Larmer!” she squealed.

They went through the whole team, father and daughter, name by name by name.

IV.
Around the time my brother got the letter warning him that someone was living the life of riley off his millions I heard a quote attributed to Isaac Bashevis Singer that said that everyone was a millionaire of emotions.

I wanted to find my fortune. I recall the notebook I started, Josh Wilker’s Millions, featured particularly fevered writing, long unbroken paragraphs suffocating all margins, the words no more eloquent than dumb blood surging through arteries, all of it part of what I imagined might be a novel called Josh Wilker’s Millions but all of it ultimately unusuable and shapeless and just desperate flailing or who knows, anyway the point is I loved then as now and maybe even more then in some wilder way to write and wrote like I was Jacob wrestling the angel and was tossed loose from it exhausted and buzzing and blessed yet still nowhere, just high from my own exertion and exhortation, a millionaire at last in an imaginary and completely solitary, secret, vanishing way, maybe the only true way considering everything, everything, ends in ashes.

V.
Everything, everything, ends in glory. It ends like it did in 1994. I went with Ramblin’ Pete and my brother and our friend Ellen to watch Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals at the bar in the basement of the Penn Hotel, across from Madison Square Garden, where the game was being played and where Ellen’s husband Mark sat in the Blue Seats.

I remember the last moment the best, a faceoff not far from the Rangers’ goal, the Rangers up by a goal, still enough time for something to go wrong. Steady, reliable Craig MacTavish, the last helmetless player (somewhere there’s a teenaged girl from a broken home who remembers, as I do, that he wore number 14), was sent out to take the faceoff, and he won it, and time ran out, and the place went berserk.

We spilled out onto the streets. Mark found us and he and Ellen embraced in a kiss reminiscent of the famous V-J Day kiss between the sailor and the girl in Times Square, although as I remember it Ellen’s superior height gave the famous picture’s echo a slight twist, Mark getting dipped. Pete had brought along a miniature Stanley Cup and somehow we suddenly had champagne and Pete kept pouring tiny portions into the Cup and raising it and toasting the names of Rangers from bygone years. The joy-dazed crowd filing by cheered each name. Stars, benchwarmers, failures, goons. Every single name redeemed.

This is what it’s going to be like, I remember thinking. This is exactly how I want it to be when the Red Sox win it all. Everyone, everyone, along for the ride. 

VI.
In 2003 the Red Sox were looking pretty strong. During down time at my job I started writing the name of every single player I could think of who ever played for the Boston Red Sox. I destroyed the list not long after 2003 went down in ashes, but it reached well into the hundreds and covered every star and cup-of-coffee and has-been and never-was and nobody I could drag back into the world through the endless landfills of my mind, the last and most obscure names coming at a very slow rate. Near the end maybe once or twice a day a name would flash in my mind and hang there glowing and I’d write it down fast before I forgot, like a monk transcribing visions.

VII.
Yesterday as I came home from work on the train, just as I was wishing I could have thrown my voice into the voices cheering earlier in the day at Fenway Park for Bill Buckner, Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” came on my radio.

“Love is not a victory march,” the song says. “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

We rode through the rain, some of us with black ink from the free daily gossip rag staining our hands, some swaying half-asleep, some staring out at the crowded highways. Everyone is bound somewhere. Love. Millions. Ashes. Everyone is a name in bold cerulean.

***

(special thanks to Phil Michaels of Catfish Stew for supplying Bill Buckner’s 1986 card)

25 comments

  1. 1.  I hate the New York Rangers with all the hate a man can hate with, but this was an outstanding piece.


  2. 2.  That was a bizarre sight yesterday…

    Takes a big man to forgive a fan base for all the grief they put him through.

    Takes 2 championships, 50,000 pink hats, and a Jimmy Fallon movie for the fan base to forgive the man for all the misery he put them through.


  3. 3.  2 : That’s the general take on it, I gather. I agree that a huge part of the beauty of the moment was Buckner’s forgiveness. As for the swipes at Red Sox fans, please consider:

    1. Red Sox fans gave Buckner a huge ovation in 1990 when he returned to the Red Sox after playing a few years for the Royals, an outpouring of support which obviously predated the WS wins.

    2. There were obviously some idiots who gave him a hard time (I’m sure there are idiots following every team), but most Red Sox fans knew Buckner got a bum deal from history, and Buckner himself blames a doltish, hackneyed media for the bad times, not the fans.

    3. For those who parrot the line that it took winning to bring on this scene, how do you explain the love of Red Sox fans for Johnny Pesky, which predated the ’04 win and came after he was made the Buckneresque goat of the 1946 World Series?

    4. I honestly think the feeling of Red Sox fans is not “forgivensss,” which would be ludicrous (what could Buckner possibly be forgiven for?), but that they want everyone who ever played for the team, especially those who went through the bad times, to feel they are part of the good times.


  4. 4.  Excellent piece, Josh. It captures how I felt in ’94 (damn strike), and then in ’96, when I finally saw my Yanks win it all. I obviously didn’t have anywhere near the anguish of Rangers’ fans, or Red Sox fans, but until ’96, I have never seen the Yanks win it all.

    Whenever I hear Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, I cannot but help think of “The West Wing”. The episode that featured it also included, of all things, Yankee Stadium.


  5. 5.  We’ve all been patiently awaiting the Buckner post — especially a lifelong Mets fan like me, who watched Game 6 at Peter McManus’s on Seventh Ave. and Game 7 from the Shea mezzanine — and it didn’t disappoint. Handled beautifully. Hallelujah indeed.

    The ’94 Cup, which has allowed me to forever die in peace (and eventually have my ashes sprinkled on the Garden ice), was a remarkable moment. Although I hate to admit it, I was actually sitting in the greens, not the blues, in front of a guy called Animal and next to a Russian immigrant who cried through the entire playoffs.

    (By the way, the mini-Stanley Cup Ramblin’ Pete and everyone was drinking from was actually mine, saved from my Bobby Hull hockey game. I still have it.)

    For those unfamiliar with Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s amazing “Hallelujah,” here it is: http://youtube.com/watch?v=AratTMGrHaQ


  6. 6.  We’ve all been patiently awaiting the Buckner post — especially a lifelong Mets fan like me, who watched Game 6 at Peter McManus’s on Seventh Ave. and Game 7 from the Shea mezzanine — and it didn’t disappoint. Handled beautifully. Hallelujah indeed.

    The ’94 Cup, which has allowed me to forever die in peace (and eventually have my ashes sprinkled on the Garden ice), was a remarkable moment. Although I hate to admit it, I was actually sitting in the greens, not the blues, in front of a guy called Animal and next to a Russian immigrant who cried through the entire playoffs.

    (By the way, the mini-Stanley Cup Ramblin’ Pete and everyone was drinking from was actually mine, saved from my Bobby Hull hockey game. I still have it. Unfortunately, a few years ago I lost the Rangers Tanqueray Stanley Cup keychain you gave me that you got at the liquor store.)

    For those unfamiliar with Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s amazing “Hallelujah,” here it is: http://youtube.com/watch?v=AratTMGrHaQ


  7. 7.  At first glance I thought 6 was fully an inadvertent dupe of 5 but there’s that added nugget about the Stanley Cup keychain. I’d forgotten about that!


  8. 8.  I still have my keychain. In use.

    This was poetic and moving, yes.
    There can always be forgiveness (I’m sorry…”vindication”) after transcendence, no?
    Pesky aside, if the Sawx hadn’t climbed the mountaintop at least once I doubt the cheers for Buckner would have resonated as deeply.

    Well…maybe in 2044…

    Of course there is also the unexpurgated, unbowdlerized version of the events transpiring The Night The Rangers Won The Cup.

    I might not have had a yard in which to put up a sign right away, but I did run naked through Central Park that night.

    And when I got home at dawn I played “New Age” by the Velvet Underground on my phonograph.

    G-d bless Craig MacTavish.
    Other parts of this night are fuzzy.


  9. 9.  8 : “if the Sawx hadn’t climbed the mountaintop at least once I doubt the cheers for Buckner would have resonated as deeply”

    Can’t disagree. That’s kind of the point though–I think the fans were trying to give Buckner the WS-winning moment he deserved (in a general sense; the Mets were the better team in ’86).

    But he would have gotten cheers whenever he showed up. Here’s a pretty stunning article, in light of the claim going around that Red Sox fans waited until after they’d won two world series to cheer him. The Joy of Sox blog found it, and it’s from just after the series in ’86:

    http://tinyurl.com/5et5te


  10. 10.  Thanks for this, which imparted some peace on what has otherwise been a really bad day. Everything, everything, ends in glory.


  11. 11.  Sterling piece!

    And thanks for the plug!

    Yep, Red Sox fans gave Buckner a huge ovation only TWO DAYS after the team lost Game 7 to the Mets — at a City Hall rally in Boston. He wasn’t going to speak at the rally, but the cheers brought him out.

    The Boston media should do its homework.


  12. 12.  As a young Dodger fan, I cheered for “Billy Bucks,” and continued to cheer for him when he was traded to the Cubs, my father’s team. He was a California boy who hit, hustled, and rarely struck out — an easy player to love.

    In the fall of 1986, I arrived at Boston University, living five minutes’ walk from Kenmore Square, Fenway… and Billy Bucks. I slept on the sidewalk outside the Green Monster waiting to buy playoff tickets, cheered myself hoarse when the Sox came back in Game 5 of the ALCS (Billy starting the rally that ended with Hendu’s homer), and was at Fenway for the pennant-clincher.

    10 days later, I watched Game 6 of the Series in a friend’s dorm room, a quiet room, filled with fans too young to truly appreciate the team’s decades-long drought, yet somehow certain, even one out from victory, that disaster was imminent. I was numb as I watched that grounder elude my hobbled hero.

    For nearly two decades, like millions of others, I gritted my teeth every time yet another TV show used the clip. And when the Sox finally won in ’04, my first thought was “Now, maybe they’ll give it a rest.”

    I got the chills three times this week: when I heard that Buckner threw out the first pitch after the championship banner was raised, and got such a lengthy ovation; when I saw the video; and when I saw his name and card at the top of this page. Bold cerulean, indeed. Nice job, Josh.


  13. 13.  OK, OK, before we re-write history, lads, please do keep in mind that Buckner WAS run out of town on a rail -unfairly perhaps- but nonetheless, run out of town on a rail, and in fact settled in rural Idaho as a respite from all those benevolent, sanctified, forgiving Red Sox fans who compose the proud “Nation” in question.

    A Nation never ever prone to historical revisionism.

    Peace.


  14. 14.  12 : Hey, I was almost your fellow BU-er. I was set to go there in ’85, but then I got booted from boarding school.

    13 : You’re right to puncture the idea of a do-no-wrong fanbase, and I apologize if I contributed to the impression of such. But to review, and not rewrite, the history: he was cheered long and hard in Boston ’86 after the series, cheered long and hard in Boston opening day in ’87, and cheered long and hard in ’90 when he came back to the Red Sox. But yeah, you’re right, the repetitive, reductive media and some tools who took their cue from the repetitive, reductive made it very, very hard on him.

    But that said let us all come together in appreciation of the term “run out of town on a rail.” It’s a beautiful thing, imagining a guy pumping away from ruin on one of those hand-pump rail contraptions. Especially if he’s got a big old-tyme walrus mustache…


  15. 15.  14 :

    CORRECTION:

    I was informed by a friend of mine that I have misunderstood what being “run out of town on a rail” entailed. To quote my friend (a doctor of physics, no less):

    “Riding the rail was a punishment of Colonial America in which a man was made to straddle a fence rail held on the shoulders of two men, with other men on either side to keep him upright on the rail. The victim was then paraded around town. Alternately it can refer to tying a person’s hands and feet around a rail so the person dangles under the rail… Here’s an excerpt from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that should help you visualize being “run out on a rail” (a rail being a wooden post): ‘here comes a raging rush of people with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling, and banging tin pans and blowing horns; and we jumped to one side to let them go by; and as they went by I see they had the king and the duke astraddle of a rail–that is, I knowed it WAS the king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human–just looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier-plumes.’ The practice can also be noted in a scene from ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?'”

    I stand happily corrected.


  16. 16.  As a life long Red Sox fan (living in NJ), I couldn’t even watch the 1986 highlights until they won in 2004.

    Right after that WS the 1918 chant started on a regular basis from both Yankees and Mets fans. The only comeback I had was the equally obnoxious 1940.

    My best friend was a huge Ranger fan and after the Rangers won and skated around with the Cup, I called him and congratulated him.

    I told him it was the most incredible celebration I had ever seen and for the first time I felt happy for a NY fan.

    In 2004 he responded in kind.

    I never blamed Buckner, I watched the pregame ceremony with tears in my eyes.

    I still blame Bob Stanley. He cost me 1978 and 1986.


  17. 17.  16 : I tried to stay away from those highlights too.

    Stanley. Yeah. I don’t have any blame anymore, really, except maybe for MacNamara (and Bill Lee-hating Don Zimmer), but even in the pre-’04 years I couldn’t really come down too hard on Stanley, that pearshaped tragicomic shlub. How can a guy who just wasn’t that great shoulder the blame?

    And not for nothing, but I believe I’ve heard that he’s a really good guy who’s worked tirelessly for the Jimmy Find.


  18. 18.  …Jimmy Fund, that is.


  19. 19.  16 I blamed, and blame, Stanley and Rich Bleeping Gedman. I remember thinking at the time that the play that plated Mitchell should have been scored a passed ball, not a wild pitch.


  20. 20.  19 : Yeah, I’ve also heard the passed ball case–It may have been too good of a sinker. So in that case Stanley shouldn’t have ever taken any blame, except maybe in so far as his mere appearance on the scene brought on an aura of unstoppable gloom (which is certainly how I remember it going down in my own experience of watching the game).

    As for Gedman, he’s a local boy, grew up a Sox fan. I may have been mad at him for a while at one time, but I cheered my guts out for him as he passed me by on the duckboats in the parade in ’04. Redemption for all. That’s how I see it.


  21. 21.  Late to the party, but…

    Excerpt from the “Guide to Being a Media-Savvy Professional Sports Figure”:

    “When discussing people who watch you or your team, you must be clear on two things:

    “1) ‘The Fans’ are always great. Use this collective noun, ‘the Fans’, any time you feel like offering praise to the people who watch you or your team. Do this often. Example: ‘The Fans here in (your city) are the very best in all of (your sport)’.

    “2) Never use the collective noun, ‘the Fans’, when you are feeling critical. Never use the word ‘Fan’ at all, in fact, when feeling critical. Do not say ‘The Fans need to be more patient.’ Do not say ‘Some fans are spoiling the fun’. Instead, if you absolutely must express your frustration, use the words ‘some people’ and combine liberally with the word ‘unfortunately’. Example, ‘Unfortunately, some people are spoiling it for the Fans.’

    I wrote that (above) because, not having paid much attention to the Buckner-hating, I’ve found the recent explanation (that the media did it) to be a partial truth. I believe I have heard Buckner previously quoted as saying that he gets hate-mail and is otherwise mistreated by some people (who are spoiling it for the Fans).

    12 Observation about the famous clip of Buckner’s error in 1986. Baseball players (on defense) have a directive for every situation and every play, and those directives keep players in motion until the ball is dead. What made the tv-clip so interesting is that one rarely ever sees the ball rolling away with no one running after it. Since the game was basically over at that point, it is like the deep fly ball bouncing harmlessly past the drawn-in outfielders — a strange sight… Why is no one going after it? Oh…


  22. 22.  Bosox fans should have seen BB’s gaffe coming. He was tainted by the fates back in ’74, when he talked shit about my beloved A’s. Sure, he got a showered in garbage for opening his cake hole, but proof of the hex came in the 8th inning of game 5, when he got nailed trying to stretch a leadoff double into a triple with LA down a run — A boneheaded move that would portend of the boneheadedness to come 12 years later …


  23. 23.  oops. should be “portend the” (no “of”). and lowercase that “a” after what should be an em dash.


  24. What I remember is that Buckner was gotten late and helped Boston to the pennant and was a main contributor in the World Series, despite playing in constant pain from wrecked knees. There is no doubting the man and his family was treated unfairly by the fan base, even if it was the media who provided the impetus.

    Buckner is an update in my all-time greats. He didn’t strike out much, played several positions well and was an overall high-quality steady player, who helped several teams when they needed it. There is now even a chance that, someday, he could make the Hall of Fame; now that Boston has won their pennants (sic).


  25. I hope that now-20-or-so-year-old woman is doing well, wherever she is, with a life moving toward glory.



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