They simply don’t make ballplayers like Bill Buckner anymore. The times have changed. The game has changed. And, to be honest, our dreams have changed too. It just ain’t enough to never strike out.
That was Billy Buck’s superpower: He almost never struck out. He did not develop his powers through radioactive spiders or the strength of earth’s yellow sun. He did it through sheer stubbornness. Nine times in his career, Bill Buckner finished first or second in the league for fewest strikeouts per at-bat. You might GET him out. You would not STRIKE him out.
In 1980, the year he led the league in batting, he came to the plate 615 times. He struck out 18 of them.
Bryce Harper has struck out 19 times in the last two weeks.
Joey Gallo struck out 207 times in 2018.
Bill Buckner struck out 205 times in the 1970s. The whole decade.
You can play those sorts of strikeout number games with lots of players, and in a way it’s unfair. Pitching has changed. We all know that. Pitchers throw much harder now, they come at you in waves. One hundred mph fastballs are as common as rain, and if you can somehow time those they promptly break off wiffleball curveballs and sliders and splitters and various uncategorizable miracles that Dr. Seuss might call “woozles.”
This might make you think that Buckner couldn’t do now what he did then.
But this misses the point about who Bill Buckner was … his blatant refusal to strike out is legendary. He faced Nolan Ryan 30 times in his life — and Ryan threw all the fastballs and curveballs and woozles pitchers throw today. Buckner struck out twice. He faced Bob Gibson 32 times times and struck out three times. Gaylord Perry got 46 chances and never struck out Buckner, not even once. Juan Marichal never struck him out, Fernando Valenzuela never struck him out, Goose Gossage never struck him out.
In his long and relentless career, Bill Buckner faced 18 Hall of Fame pitchers. He faced them 760 times. He struck out just 50 times, an astonishing number made more astonishing when you realize that a quarter of those were against Phil Niekro’s knuckleball, which for a time was his kryptonite.
Over time, Buckner learned how to hit Knucksie too. In 1980 — after a decade of batting less than .200 against Niekro — Buckner rapped eight hits in nine at-bats off Knucksie. He hit .400 against Niekro’s knuckler for the rest of his career.
He lived for the challenge. “Baseball’s what I do,” he told the Wall Street Journal long after he retired … and those four words capture the man about as well as anything. Baseball is what he did. And “baseball,” for Bill Buckner, meant hitting the ball and taking his chances.
That attitude, I suppose, is the big difference — for many players, for most players, the strikeout is an ordinary out now, no more or less damaging than an infield fly, better in many cases than a ground ball hit directly to an infielder. This is technically true — and always was true — but it only took hold as a universal philosophy in the last couple of decades.
For Bill Buckner, a strikeout was defeat, it was a failure, it was letting your teammates down. He was a firm believer in the roulette wheel chance of baseball — “Baseball is a game of averages,” he said, “but over a short period of time to have a little luck is not a bad thing” — and the only way to make your own luck was to put the ball in play.
The young Billy Buckner was fast, he was an athlete, and that’s something that might surprise those who only remember that singular and unforgettable image of a broken-down man at first base scrambling awkwardly to field a slow ground ball in the World Series. But the young Buckner stole 31 bases in a season, and he twice led the league in doubles. He was a good outfielder with above average range. He bunted for hits. He ran the bases with abandon*.
*After getting thrown out at third in the 1974 World Series while trying to stretch a double into a triple, he growled: “t was something I did all year and I’ll do it again. I can’t stop taking chances.”
Bill Buckner had become the broken-down man of the 1986 World Series BECAUSE of baseball. That’s not mentioned enough. When you see Buckner on that replay, with Vin Scully’s voice singing’ BEHIND THE BAG,” you are seeing the product of a baseball life. Every scar, every limp, every hitch, those were earned on the diamond.
Nobody ever played the game harder. Buckner shattered his ankle in ’75. He messed up his feet at periodic times throughout. And he kept going, kept rapping out hits, kept refusing to strike out, kept attacking the game even when it seemed like he was only kept together by trainers’ tape. Tommy Lasorda would often talk about the time in Spokane when Buckner broke his jaw and was supposed to be out for more than a month. He missed one game and, in Lasorda’s words, “learned to spit and swear with his jaw shut.”
George Brett once said of Bill Buckner: “With a couple hundred more hits, he’d be in Cooperstown.” Brett’s probably right as far as that goes — Buckner finished with 2,715 hits, and if he’d gotten to 3,000, I imagine he’d have had a great chance of election to the Hall of Fame — but I can’t help but think that Billy Buck’s career had little to do with the Hall. He only made one All-Star Team. He was never a viable MVP candidate. His advanced stats leave you wanting more — 15 WAR, a .321 on-base percentage, etc. He wasn’t a star like that. That wasn’t his legacy.
Then, I also think that Billy Buck’s legacy should have nothing to do with an awkward ground ball that slipped through his legs when he shouldn’t have even been out there, when his manager dozed rather than replace him with a younger man, when his teammates floundered and gave the Mets a chance to win a game they’d already lost.
The legacy, I think, should be those strikeouts — the lack of them. He never relented on that. Even when he was 40 years old, and his body was shot, and he could no longer catch up to the fastball or adjust to the curve, he still wouldn’t let those despised pitchers win. No sir. His last game was against a 25-year-old Kevin Brown — Buckner had pleaded with his manager Joe Morgan to get one more start.
Brown was at the height of his powers, and he overmatched the Red Sox that day. But Buckner refused to yield. He grounded to the right side for an out. He grounded to the right side and the ball slipped through for a single. He grounded to the right side for an out. And in his last Major League at-bat, he hit a long fly ball to left-center. It was never going to be a home run because that wasn’t the career Bill Buckner had. Texas left fielder Pete Incaviglia caught it.
But to the end, Buckner gave himself a chance.