Nearly twenty-five years into his stint as Boston's most notorious pariah, Bill Buckner made a slow walk from the Green Monster, Fenway Park's famed left field wall to the pitcher's mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch for the Boston Red Sox home opener. Watching him make that walk, seemingly unsure of the way, wiping his eyes as he walked and choking back tears as he stood on the mound in front of forty-thousand standing, cheering fans, I thought to myself, "This is the very definition of catharsis. The prodigal son returned, welcomed with open arms, past transgressions forgiven." But even as Buckner threw a big looping strike to Dwight Evans, I was struck by the hypocrisy of it all.
After that fateful night in Shea Stadium, we in New England were conditioned to treat Bill Buckner as a villain. He had somehow derailed the manifest destiny that was a World Series championship. He had dashed the hopes and dreams of an entire city. He had single-handedly prolonged the agony of baseball fans in New England. And so we hated him. Children chanted "BUCKNAAAAAH!" at each other during Little League games. Grown men with too much beer in them awarded Buckner the middle name of "Fucking", cursing his name as they spilled watered-down Bud Light on their Roger Clemens jerseys. And the media, never one to pass up an opportunity to tear a man down, badgered the first baseman until he wanted nothing to do with the city. The last we had heard, he had moved to Idaho where he could safely hide away from the press, and his children could attend school without being heckled. Because he made a mistake. Because he was human.
As the years went by, and reason began to win the day, people began to suggest that maybe Buckner wasn't quite the villain we had made him out to be. Perhaps, some argued, failing to field a ground ball wasn't the worst sin that a man could commit. Some suggested that in a team sport, perhaps the entire team is at fault for losing. Or perhaps they aren't at fault at all; perhaps the other team was simply better on that day. Slowly, gradually, these ideas became widely accepted as truths, and when the Red Sox brought a World Series trophy back to Boston in 2004, it was time to forgive and forget. We could now, as Bill Simmons wrote, die in peace, and it was time to find Bill Buckner and tell him it was all right to come out of hiding.
But not one of us, at least not one of us with a voice loud enough and a conviction strong enough to be listened to and believed, took responsibility for our own sins. What Bill Buckner had done, making a simple fielding error, was considered by us an unforgivable transgression, and yet our own treatment of the man, to the point where he no longer felt comfortable setting foot in New England, wasn't anything to be ashamed of. When we treat a grown man so poorly that he nearly breaks down and cries when asked to recall it all, perhaps we should stop to consider who the real villain was in all of this.
Today Bill Buckner stood on the mound at Fenway, and all of Red Sox Nation applauded as if to say, "Thank you, Bill, for coming back here so that we could formally forgive you." But I think Bill saw it differently. And he saw it right. He didn't come back here to be forgiven for trespassing against us. He came back here to forgive us our trespasses. Because we made a mistake. Because we were human.
Thank you, Bill.