There are some ‘mistakes’ people commit every day that few others ever hear about: leaving the iron unattended, hitting “Reply-All” on the email where you’re making fun of your boss, eating the deviled eggs from the all-you-can-eat buffet. Then there are other mistakes of a slightly more serious nature, the stuff that someone, somewhere will remember now and then, but which mostly tend to recede into the fabric of the forgotten past: 20th Century Fox giving up merchandising rights to Star Wars, IBM refusing to invest in a start-up named Microsoft, Senator Joe Biden calling candidate Barack Obama “articulate and bright and clean.”
Then there are MISTAKES, errors so monstrously out of proportion, that the image of the people who made them lives on defiantly, a poltergeist refusing to be buried in the rubbish heap of history: the captain of the Titanic deciding that speeding through the North Atlantic is a swell idea, Hirohito refusing to surrender even after Hiroshima lay in ruins, the newspaper editor greenlighting “Dewey defeats Truman” as the day’s front page.
In this rarefied pantheon of world-class fumblers belongs Bill Buckner, the former first basemen for the Boston Red Sox who, as any American baseball fan with even slightly-functioning long-term memory knows, failed to field the game-ending catch of the 1986 World Series. As in, a ball rolling so slowly towards him that a Little Leaguer could have caught it just rolled right past him. THROUGH HIS LEGS.
The Sox, who would go on to lose the series, would release Buckner a couple of seasons after that. And the man who many fans vowed to never, ever forgive would for the most part disappear into the nether… until now.
With his appearance yesterday in ESPN’s “Catching Hell” documentary, Bill Buckner seemingly put the feather on the cap of a media comeback streak, a run that has included public speaking engagements, an appearance on a hit TV show, and even suggestions that he might come to a former team (the Cubs) as a coach.
Sure, Buckner isn't the first person in American pop culture to have staged a comeback. People like Martha Stewart and Mike Tyson came back into the spotlight as ex-cons. Entertainers like Madonna and Betty White wormed their way back into the national consciousness after multi-year hiatuses. Others, like Britney Spears, even managed to come back after seeming to very publicly lose their mind. What makes Buckner's return different from these cases is that it comes now, even though he hasn’t been a household name for 20 years (except perhaps in certain parts of South Boston, where his name would inevitably be preceded by a four-letter epithet). Forget Britney. It’s Buckner, b---h!
To top it all of, there is the fact Buckner hasn’t come back denying his mistake, looking to move away from it, or even really apologizing (not that it seems making an error in a game is something one apologizes for). Indeed, he seems to have come back on the coattails of his infamous blunder. In the ESPN documentary, Buckner comes in as a central part of the story being told, serving as a symbol of a sacrificial scapegoat in sport, reliving his game- (and perhaps life-) changing error. In his public speaking appearances, Buckner has teamed up with Mookie Wilson, the former New York Met who hit the unforgettable grounder to first 25 years ago. In his cameo on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the hit HBO sitcom, Buckner is involved in an incident in which he fails to catch a soft-tossed autographed baseball, allowing it to cruise by an open window into a New York street (later in the episode, he saves a baby with a diving catch). While it is unlikely Buckner will find use in reliving his epic gaffe if he were to return to the Cubs as a coach (a desire he recently expressed in a radio interview), well, you never know.
So what does it mean, in our world of celebrity dancing shows, toppling dictatorships and bailouts for multi-billionaires, that a man can come back to the spotlight triumphantly reminding everyone of the mistake he made 25 years ago? I swear I had an answer for that, but it just rolled right past me.