When Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson arrived at The Ripken Experience Sunday, a Ripken staffer handed the keynote speakers an outline of talking points.
“Don’t worry about it,” Buckner told him. “We’ve got it covered.”
His answer seemed obvious. Sure, they could have stuck with the baseball basics: sportsmanship, effort and teamwork. But with these two men on the same field, there’s a natural subject: Game 6 of the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox – and the play that forever linked their names in baseball lore.
With two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, Wilson smacked a 3-2 pitch to the first base side of the infield. Bucker moved in front of the grounder and lowered his glove, only to watch the ball roll past his mitt and between his legs. The Mets won the game and later the series.
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Many fans and media types blamed Buckner for costing the Red Sox their first title in nearly 70 years. Unfairly, they defined Wilson and Buckner by that single play. Wilson was the hero. Buckner was the goat.
So why appear together in Myrtle Beach nearly three decades later to tell that story to a group of 12- and 13-year-old ballplayers?
“I look at it as an opportunity,” Buckner said. “I could have gone out there and just talked about baseball and not even mentioned the World Series. Why would I not take advantage of the situation? These kids are at the formative years of their life. If there’s something that Mookie said or I said that can help them down the road, it was worth the trip.”
His fellow speaker agreed.
“It’s not about us anymore,” Wilson said. “It really isn’t. It’s about what we can do [for] the next person.”
Over the years, the two former competitors have become buddies. They’ve appeared at card shows, charity events and autograph sessions. The events started a few years after their playing careers ended. Buckner retired in 1990 and Wilson followed him in 1991.
“I was a little hesitant about it initially,” Wilson said. “You never know how people are going to react. … I just had too much respect for Bill. I felt like it would be disrespectful to ask him to go public and talk about an unfortunate situation. … To us, it was just part of the game, but people didn’t see it that way.”
“I’m portrayed as the guy who lost the ’86 World Series,” Buckner said. “The punishment didn’t fit the crime.”
Despite that difficult legacy, Buckner embraced the partnership. The appearances brought in some extra money, and he enjoyed the reactions he received from supporters, many of whom sympathized with him.
“I can’t tell you how many fan mail letters I’ve gotten from people who thanked me for how I handled adversity and it helped them,” he said. “God does things for certain reasons and we don’t always understand. But he’s got a plan and you’ve just got to go along with it.”
The two men don’t get to spend much time together outside of their public appearances. A South Carolina native, Wilson still makes his home in Columbia. Buckner lives in Boise, Idaho. But after speaking engagements, they catch up. They talk about their families, swap old baseball stories or chat about fishing. Faith has also become a topic of conversation.
“I didn’t know that he was a Christian,” said Wilson, a minister who learned of Buckner’s faith through their appearances. “A lot of people say they’re Christians. That’s the type of term people throw out loosely. But after being around him so much, he lives what he says.”
Buckner discussed his faith with the young players Sunday. He talked about the infamous error and how it affected him.
“In the eyes of the baseball world, I lost the game,” he said. “It was a tough thing to deal with. I had to look at it [like this]: God had a plan for me, and he wouldn’t put me in a situation that I couldn’t handle.”
This summer, The Ripken Experience has welcomed a lineup of well-known baseball names. The former big leaguers kick off each week’s tournament with some advice for the youth.
Tracy Cleghorn, whose son Nicholas plays right field for the Suffolk (Va.) Sluggers, was pleased with the message from Wilson and Buckner.
“I like how they worked together and talked about both sides of what happened in that game,” she said. “[The young players] learned something from winning and losing. That’s important for them to remember.”
For two aging athletes – Buckner is 65 and Wilson is 59 – sharing baseball’s lessons with a new generation goes beyond a single game or play.
“It’s not about winning a game in ’86,” Wilson said. “I didn’t even wear the [World Series] ring. It’s great to have it, but it’s not about that anymore.”
Understandably, Buckner prefers to discuss his more pleasant baseball memories. Playing in two World Series and an All-Star game. Winning a batting title. Spending 22 years in ballparks across the country.
But are those experiences worth the frustration of the ’86 series? Yes, he said. Gratitude is a lesson, too.
“The bottom line is we feel very blessed to be able to do what we do,” he said. “Would I do it all over again the exact same way? Heck yeah.”