There was a moment a few years ago on Curb Your Enthusiasm that caught me by surprise in a way that I’m not sure any other television show has.
The season in question revolved around Larry’s misadventures in New York, where he coincidentally meets Bill Buckner. During the scene, Larry encounters Buckner again, and then this happens:
Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the funniest shows of the past 20 years, up there in the lofty heights occupied by 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and a handful of others. Yet, I wasn’t laughing during this scene. I was holding back tears. I imagine a lot of other Red Sox fans were as well.
Why? Because it gave Buckner the redemption that he never should have needed in the first place.
It was a touching, sweet, albeit fictionalized send-off of sorts. The send-off that Buckner should have always had. Instead, prior to 2004, he was the poster boy for “The Curse,” the guy who let that ball go between his legs in the tenth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
By 1990, the fans had forgiven him, greeting his return to the Red Sox with a standing ovation. But the media, which profited from the pre-2004 romanticism of the idea of a cursed franchise, could never let it go.
And, so, after retiring from baseball, Buckner took his family and moved to Idaho, the victim of an entirely unjust exile.
Unjust in the micro sense that Red Sox fans know well (Why wasn’t Dave Stapleton in at first? Why isn’t Calvin Schiraldi remembered for his part in the Game 6 collapse? Why does nobody talk about the Red Sox blowing a three-run lead in Game 7?), but also in the macro sense: Buckner played 22 years in the big leagues, was an All-Star, won a batting title, and had more career hits than Ted Williams.
By all accounts, Buckner was also a gentleman. Even though he had every reason in the world not to be.
He found God later in life, and, with that, came acceptance, peace, and forgiveness—even toward those who did not deserve it.
Bill Buckner died today. And I now know why that Curb scene touched me on an emotional level.
Guilt for reveling in the worst moment of a very good baseball player’s career. Guilt for assigning far too much blame to one man. Guilt for being one more voice in a chorus that eventually caused a man to move his family thousands of miles just to escape the noise.
Criticism comes with the territory in pro sports. I was a just a small child when the Red Sox lost in 1986. But the nature of the Red Sox’ (formerly) star-crossed history, coupled with the powerful scrutiny of the Boston media, turned the Buckner incident into something beyond the normal, understandable heat that pro athletes should be expected to take.
Things are different now. As I’ve said before, the events of 2004 and beyond rendered everything that happened in 1986 not as a career-defining moment, but, rather, as part of a painful-if-necessary prologue that suddenly all made sense in a poetic, dare I say spiritual way.
In the end, Buckner was a good ballplayer and a better man. For many reasons. Not the least of which because he found it in his heart to extend grace to a whole bunch of people who had done little or nothing to earn it. That is a greatness that transcends the fielding of a ground ball.
I am so thankful that he can truly rest in peace. For his sake and for ours.
As such, this is the way I’ll always remember Bill Buckner: