Baseball: Buckner batting to clear his name: Richard Weekes on the former champion leading baseball's winter tour to Europe

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The Independent Online
BILL BUCKNER could not believe that on his first day in London a piece of his past he thought was buried across the Atlantic would get up and kick him in the teeth.

The former National League batting champion, whose playing record over 22 years will give him a claim to a Hall of Fame berth in 1995, came to England last weekend as part of major league baseball's winter expeditionary force, spreading word of the summer game to clinics of coaches and players across Europe.

Buckner's six-man team had already been to Italy and the Netherlands, one of three groups that had traversed the continent from Paris to Prague, Cologne to Barcelona. Last stop was London, or the US International University at Bushey in Hertfordshire, to be precise, where some 270 British baseball believers had signed up for three days at pounds 20 a head to get the inside pitch on pick-off moves, squeeze plays and the secrets of the swing.

Buckner had turned out on his first morning for a photo opportunity at a West End sports store, and the man from the Times had laid straight into him about The Error. 'He went on and on and on,' Buckner said, 'suggesting why hadn't I committed suicide or something. I can't believe how big it is; it's all over the world now.'

It happened at Shea Stadium in October 1986, in game six of the World Series. In the bottom of the 10th inning, Buckner's Red Sox were one strike away from beating the New York Mets 5-4 and bringing the city of Boston its first championship in 68 years. Then the Red Sox reliever, Bob Stanley, threw a wild pitch past the catcher, and the Mets levelled at 5-5. Mookie Wilson, the Mets batter, chopped the next pitch into the ground and it bounced innocuously towards first base. Buckner, fielding there some way in from the line, had to move smartly, but it looked an easy out. So they would go to the 11th.

Buckner got himself in line, his head went down, his glove went down. . .but the ball rolled on through his legs as if a father on the beach had nutmegged his young son. Ray Knight scored from second, Shea turned into a madhouse, and though Boston still lived to fight another day in game seven, the momentum was now with the Mets and they took the Series 4-3.

Some said it was the Curse of the Babe, retribution upon Boston for trading the legendary Babe Ruth to the Yankees, but everyone said Bill Buckner was The Man Who Lost The World Series.

What he has had to suffer since then can perhaps only be understood by those who have also been tipped from the lip of triumph into the pit of ignominy in the blink of an eye, like Don Fox slicing wide from in front of the sticks in the 1968 Challenge Cup final or Doug Sanders fluffing his 18-inch putt to win the Open at St Andrews two years later.

It hurts Buckner when people assume that he choked. 'I'm too much of a competitor,' he says. 'I had gone 40 or 50 games without an error.' But what burns him most is his belief that he was falsely accused on the main charge. 'You think of the Red Sox losing the World Series,' he says, 'and I can say I was part of that team. But I didn't lose it myself. It was a team effort. There was no guarantee we were going to win (at the time of the error). I don't like to point a finger at fellow professionals, because I've had it pointed at me so much, but I think the big blow was when they tied the game up.'

A case of Bill passing the buck, perhaps? Look at the film of that 10th inning at Shea, and you will find a strong case for the defence. Calvin Schiraldi, Boston's closing pitcher, took a two-run cushion into the bottom of the inning, but after two quick outs he gave up three base hits and the fire was raging. In desperation, John McNamara, the Red Sox manager, pulled Schiraldi and turned to Bob Stanley, but instead of a fireman's hose the new pitcher brought a can of petrol.

Buckner may have failed to close the back door - 'The ball just kind of bounced to the left a little bit. I didn't really do anything wrong, I didn't lift my head up. It was just a miscalculation' - but by then the flames were already licking the first-floor windows.

Buckner has had plenty of time to ponder on the twin impostors since then. He finished playing in 1990, and at first got as far away from baseball as he could, developing his own private Idaho, where he runs a large ranch. But he missed the smell of the ballpark and the humour of the locker room, and when Toronto offered him a job as a hitting coach with their reserve teams, he jumped. 'My job is to prepare players for when they get the call to the majors,' he says.

He gave the Bushey gathering - a youthful crowd of many colours in their Braves tops, A's jackets and Pirates caps - his guide to hitting, talking mainly of mechanics: keeping the bat as long as possible in the hitting zone; shifting the weight smoothly on to the front foot; developing muscle memory with thousands of practice swings.

But later he reflected on a different lesson drawn from his years in the major leagues. 'We Americans have a distorted idea of sport,' he said. 'With us it's win, win, win. We forget that it's a game, that it's meant to be fun.' It might have been a lot more fun for Bill Buckner but for one small error in the 1986 World Series.

(Photograph omitted)