By Colin Woodward
Back in 2009, my then girlfriend (now wife), bought me a pack of baseball cards. I saw the cards of many players I grew up with. Two of them, Wade Boggs and Bill Buckner, played on the infamous 1986 Red Sox team, which came within one strike of winning the World Series. Had the Sox won that game, the team would have broken a 68 year long slump: as of 1986, the Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918.
The 1986 Season
That year, Boggs was my hero. For the third time in five years, he led the American League in hits and batting average. Bill Buckner, a former Cub and Dodger, also had a good year. But then again, Buckner was a good player. In 1985, his first full year with the Sox, he played every game, had 46 doubles, 16 homeruns, and drove in 110 runs. He also managed to steal 18 bases and hit .299.
In 1986, his .267 batting average was much lower than Boggs’s, but he drove in 102 runs–far more than Boggs did. To drive in 102 runs is impressive for any player in any year. Buckner also swatted 18 homeruns and hit 39 doubles. Were he playing today, Buckner’s annual salary would be in the eight-figure range.
In 1986, Buckner played first base most of the year, despite his bad ankles. Buckner was a 36 year old veteran in his 18th season, with near-Hall of Fame caliber statistics.
It’s easy to forget how good Buckner was. Instead, his career is overshadowed by the error he made in Game 6.
Here’s what happened. Leading 3-2 in a best of seven series, the Red Sox went into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Six with a two-run lead. The first two Mets batters made outs. But then a rally started. The Mets ended up tying the score. Ray Knight was in scoring position when Mookie Wilson hit a routine ground ball to Buckner. Buckner let the ball go through his legs. Knight scores! Mets win!!!!
The Red Sox went on to lose game 7 and the Series. Buckner came to epitomize “the Goat” both in New England and across the baseball world. In 1987, the Red Sox had a losing season. Buckner finished the year with the Angels. Geographically, Buckner was as far as he could have been from Boston and still playing major league baseball. Buckner hit .306 for the Angels, his highest average in five years.
It was easy to call Buckner the Goat, the chump, the guy who brought down every Red Sox fan’s dream of winning the first World Series since 1918. But really, the Red Sox should never have been in the Series at all.
The 1986 ALCS
In the American League Championship Series, Boston pulled off an amazing come-from-behind win against the Angles in Game 5, in Anaheim. The Red Sox were down to their last strike when Sox outfielder Dave Henderson hit a ball off the end of his bat that had just enough pop to get over the fence. The Sox went on to win the game in 10 innings and take the series in seven games.
What the Mets did to Boston, the Sox had done to the Angels a few weeks before. The Angels pitcher who gave up the homerun to Dave Henderson, Donnie Moore, killed himself in 1989. But for Angles fans, there was no curse to blame it on. Even so, the Angels had to wait until 2003 to win their first World Series.
Buckner finished the 1987 season with the Angels. But Boggs stayed where he was. In 1987, the year of the “Rabbit Ball,” Boggs again led the league in hits and batting average. He also had career highs in homeruns (24) and RBIs (89). The Red Sox had a lousy year, but not Boggs. My hero was safe. Buckner was gone. And there was always next year.
The next year was a good one for Boston. The Red Sox won first place in a weak American League East Division. But they got swept by the A’s in the post season.
Boggs had another stellar year. He again led the league in hits and average as well as doubles and runs. He was without a doubt, the best hitter in the American League, if not the majors (where his only competition was Tony Gwynn).
Boggs was my hero, the guy whose stance I copied when mine wasn’t working for me in Little League. He was the “Chicken Man,” who supposedly ate chicken before every game. Another one of his superstitions was that he took his final laps at 7:17 at night before a game in the hopes of going 7 for 7 (which has been done only once since 1892 in a 9 inning game). He even had a candy bar: the 352 bar, named after his lifetime batting average of .352.
In 1988, Boggs was at the height of his career. But then scandal hit. And Boggs arguably went through a far greater humiliation than Bill Buckner ever went through.
The press announced that Boggs was having an affair with Margo Adams. Boggs was a married man, and he was shamed in an era before we assumed our best athletes were dishonest and sleazy. It was a shock.
In one of the Red Sox yearbooks from the early 80s, Boggs was seated with his wife Debbie in their house in Florida. Boggs looked tan and happy. And maybe he was happy with Debbie. But he was also happy with Margo. Until she told everyone.
The scandal worsened. Adams posed for Penthouse magazine. Rude fans of the Red Sox’s opposing teams began yelling “Marrrrgoooooo! Marrrrrgoooooo!” when Boggs came to bat. Boggs went on Barbara Walters with his wife, and he cried like a little bitch (he had also cried on the bench when the Red Sox lost to the Mets in Game 7 in 1986).
Both Boggs and Buckner were in need of redemption. In 1990, Buckner returned to the Red Sox. It was his final season. Buckner didn’t have a great year. Boggs had his worst season up until that time. The Red Sox made it to the playoffs, but they were swept again by an awesome Athletics team (whose two biggest sluggers were on steroids, but that’s another story).
Curse of the Bambino
In 1990, Dan Shaughnessy published his book The Curse of the Bambino, which discussed not just the 1986 season, but all the bad luck that had accompanied the Red Sox since the team sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1918. The year 1990, was probably the low point in the history of being a Red Sox fan.
At the end of the 1992 season, Boggs signed with the Yankees. His hitting skills had worsened since the Adams scandal. For Boggs to have signed with the Yankees was for me–and many Sox fans–an act of betrayal. First you cheat on your wife, then you cheat on your team? Buckner committee an error, an honest mistake. Boggs, though, seemed to be a jerk.
With the Yankees
Once in New York, Boggs became a better hitter, and he won a World Series ring. He finished his career in his adopted home state, Florida. In 2005, Boggs was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He finished his career with over 3,000 hits, 578 doubles, and a .328 batting average. Boggs wore a Red Sox cap at his Hall of Fame induction. But he didn’t finish his career with Boston. Bill Buckner did, though.
Buckner didn’t make the Hall of Fame. But he came close. He had 2,715 lifetime hits, 498 doubles, more than 1,200 RBIs, and he was a career .289 hitter. His career spanned from 1969 to 1990, but for most of those season, Buckner played fewer than 140 games. Had Buckner been healthy for two more seasons in his prime, he would have finished his career with 3,000 hits and would have been a lock for the Hall of Fame. But, he didn’t.
And yet, he had a higher lifetime batting average than Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg, Carl Yastrzemski, Craig Biggio, and Tony Perez, just to name a few. He also had far more hits than Sandberg. And unlike Sandberg, the great Cubs second baseman, Buckner came very close to winning a World Series.
Buckner was a very good player, but not a Hall of Famer. As with so many of us, Buckner was good but not great. Memorable but not immortal. The guy hobbling on one leg, trying to win the big game.
Buckner almost caught Hank Aaron’s 715th homerun. But he didn’t. He could’ve made that play in the ninth inning of Game Six against the Mets. But he didn’t. Maybe if Buckner had fielded Mookie’s slow roller, the Sox would have won that game in extra innings. Maybe not. The Sox still could’ve won game seven, but they didn’t.
Life is a series of moments that we can never get back. Maybe we could have gotten into a better school, made first string, first chair, got that raise, caught that fish. Might have ended that relationship better. Might have done better in the interview. Got the bad guy, found the cure.
Baseball players are lucky. There’s no Hall of Fame for most of us. Just life. Boggs is there. Buckner isn’t. But Buckner never cried like a little bitch.
In 2008, Buckner received a four-minute standing ovation at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, who had won the World Series the year before. It was the second for Boston in three years. In 2004, the Sox came from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the detested Yankees, winning the last two games in Old Yankee Stadium. “The Curse of the Bambino” was no more.
But, there never was a curse. Just bad luck.
The Sox went on to sweep the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series. That took care of previous defeats at the hands of the Cardinals in the 1967 and 1946 World Series. In 2007 and 2013, the Sox again won the World Series.
Red Sox fans have a long memory, but they have long forgiven Bill Buckner. Game Six and the Buckner error are now just history–just a footnote to one of the most storied franchises in all of sport.
Bill Buckner appeared in one of the episodes of the great sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. Even Larry David, a Yankees fan, wanted to see Buckner redeemed. On the show, Buckner makes a great catch.
And Boggs? The last story I heard about him involved him drinking massive quantities of beer on a cross-country flight while he was playing. Was Boggs an alcoholic? I dunno. No one knew about Margo Adams for a long time either. Wade Boggs: Hall of Fame drinker. And his legendary exploits for guzzling beer were satirized on a memorable episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
I wanted to be like Boggs, but I’m content to be more like Buckner. The Hall of Fame is for major achievements in baseball, but someone like Buckner makes you want to reassess our criteria for immortality. He was a very good player and one who had a major role in the history of the sport. Unlike Boggs, he is not in the Hall of Fame. But Wade Boggs hasn’t shared the stage with Larry David.
Boggs and Bucker: two giants in my collective baseball memory. Whatever their faults, I love them both. Maybe those guys could do a podcast together. I’d love to hear their stories.
Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is also a lifelong Red Sox fan and baseball enthusiast. He is working on a book about Johnny Cash.