I can scarcely find words to express my thoughts about the ceremonial first pitch preceding today’s Red Sox home opener. But this being a blog, I’ll try.
Let’s start by saying that the pre-game ceremonies—from music by the Boston Pops and the unfurling of banners to delivery and presentation of championship rings—was a slightly toned-down version of the ceremonies that marked opening day 2005. The most notable difference was the absence of Red Sox stars spanning the generations. It was a comfortable ceremony, one to which we seem to have grown accustomed, in a good way. Yeah, this is cool. Let’s do it again. And again and again. It will never be as intense, as cathartic, as what followed the 2004 victory, but that’s good too. Despite the inane prognostications of people way too self-important for their own good, we Red Sox fans haven’t been dealt some existential blow from which we can never recover. We used to be devoted followers of a losing team; now we’re devoted followers of a winning team. No one amongst us—NO ONE—wants to go back.
What I didn’t realize, though, was how much unfinished business there still was after 2004. Up until today, it had felt like that victory, with all the drama of the unprecedented ALCS comeback and ease of the World Series sweep, erased all the agony of seasons past, like we were at last free to do what other teams’ fans do, look forward to what our club can do next rather than back at what they couldn’t do before.
Apparently I was wrong. There was one wound that still festered, at least for one person, and probably for all the rest of us, though we probably didn’t realize it. So as I sat in front of the television at 2:00 this afternoon listening to
Carl Beane Joe Castiglione announce that the ceremonial first pitch would be thrown by Bill Buckner, it was as if I was watching the last piece of a puzzle fall into place, a piece no one even realized was missing until it was there. THIS was last remaining loose end.
Buckner—who ironically wore the same number as a Red Sox player that was worn by the "goat" of a prior Red Sox World Series loss, Johnny Pesky—was introduced as a player who amassed Hall of Fame numbers during his 21 year major league career, one without whom the Red Sox would not have won the American League pennant in 1986. That characterization is not an understatement. A career .289 hitter, the 15-year veteran came to Boston in 1984 and proceeded to hit double digit home runs in his first three seasons here and had an impressive .990 fielding percentage at first base for the Sox. He was also a stabilizing influence on a team that included several young players. So respected was he that John McNamara decided to leave him in the game that night in New York—when he should have been on the bench with an injured ankle—because he wanted Buckner to be on the field to savor victory.
I was thinking about all of that when I saw and heard on TV the thunderous, prolonged, and unanimous ovation given to Buckner by the fans in attendance before today’s game. They must have known, like all of us know if we’re honest, that we overreacted back in 1986. Seriously. The Sox didn’t lose that year’s World Series because of Bill Buckner. They lost because of many people and many failures, not only before that most memorable play at first but in the entire next game, in which Boston had a chance to reduce Buckner’s game six error (and Evans’ error, and Gedman’s error, and Clemens’ giving up a two-run lead, and Schiraldi’s giving up a one-run lead, and Stanley’s wild pitch, and of course manager McNamara’s sentimental decision) to a mere footnote in what would otherwise have been a tremendous series for the Sox. They lost because the Mets played better. The ensuing years of piling on Buckner as if he alone held victory in his hands and let it slip away like sand always was ridiculous.
Frankly, I’m surprised Buckner agreed to come back. He said back in 2004 that he didn’t think he’d ever set foot inside Fenway Park again, and who could have blamed him if he had stayed away? After the way some of the fans held a grudge, he would have been justified in saying, with bitterness or without, "good riddance" to the lot of us. I would be very surprised if he didn’t fear in the back of his mind, or perhaps even in the front of it, that the announcement of his name might elicit a chorus of boos from which he would have no escape.
So when the boos didn’t come, when he was greeted warmly and genuinely and with enthusiasm and affection, Buckner wiped away a few tears. The fans had an opportunity to collectively make things right with Buckner, and he seemed happy to accept the gesture. Have you ever had a falling out with a family member or best friend, one that lasted many years? It becomes tiring, and tired. Eventually, you just have to fix it and move on.
Which seems to be what happened this afternoon at Fenway Park. I can picture sitting at a ball game a couple months or a few years down the road and, at the point when that game’s occupant of Fenway’s Legends Suite is introduced, being happy to see that the guest that day is Bill Buckner. I’m sure he’ll never forget how shabbily he was treated by some of the faithful, just like we’ll never forget that error. But there’s an understanding between us now. We have all come to terms with the ugly past and have mutually decided that it doesn’t matter any more.
It feels good.
UPDATE: Here is the full transcript of Joe Castiglione’s introduction of Bill Buckner:
Now it’s time to welcome the star who will throw our ceremonial first pitch on this day that we honor champions. And how happy we are that amidst this celebration and joy, this Red Sox alumnus has come back to join us. He amassed Hall of Fame caliber credentials in his 21 year major league career, and the Red Sox would never have won the 1986 American League pennant without him. Won’t you please welcome back to Boston and let him know that he is welcome always. Number 6 — Bill Buckner.