Thursday, April 10, 2008

Historical Revisionism at the Old Ballyard

The most illuminating comment this blogger ever heard about the 1986 World Series came from an unlikely source in an unlikely place.

One August night in 1990, Mike Greenwell, Red Sox left fielder, Joe Giuliotti, Sox beat writer for the Herald, and yours truly were sharing a post-game beer and post-game philosophy in a hotel bar in Cleveland. The conversation moved to the topic of the Sox' relationship with their adoring and suffocating fan base.

Greenwell was and I assume still is not known for introspection. But the subject matter caused him to pause for long thought before speaking.

"You know," Greenie said. "I know 1986 was tough for the fans, very tough. But I wish they realized that it was pretty tough for us, too."

Just so. The idea that fans care more than players about games won or lost is a monstrous fallacy. Professional athletes like money, but those who aren't tormented by the psychic need to win don't make it to the top. It takes some irrational dark force to get an individual to put the work in. It's ambition and competitiveness on HGH, with a hat size twice that of Barry Bonds'.

In the final analysis, when the 1986 Series ended, fans mourned, but they eventually went on to something else. They rooted for the Patriots, Celtics and/or Bruins. Hell, maybe some of them spent time with their families or read books. Nothing's impossible in sports.

When the Sox lost the Series, they were stuck with it. Losses don't go away no matter how often you win. I assure you Tiger Woods could bore you senseless describing every putt he ever missed. It's the price paid for having the need to succeed.

This brings us to Bill Buckner and his return to Fenway to throw out the first pitch last Tuesday. This was a genuinely moving moment, at least for me, but not for the reasons commonly supposed. It wasn't about the fans. They were bystanders, as they should be.

Count on a Herald front page headline to misfire. The standing ovation Buckner received was not "forgiveness." As astute Sox fans have mentioned since, the fans forgave Buckner for his error in Game Six long ago. He was probably the first goat of that traumatic inning to be absolved by Sox followers, long before 1990, let alone Tuesday.

Don't believe it? Try and imagine what the reaction would have been if the overwrought marketers in the front office had brought back Calvin Schiraldi or John McNamara to throw out the first pitch of the 2008 season. The boos would've blown back either guy west of the Connecticut River.

Besides which, 22 years is a long time. The number of Sox fans who were around in 1986 is diminishing daily, and their replacements have a different take on 1986. It's history, and history is trauma once-removed-not traumatic at all. My daughter Hope is a Sox fan. She's 18. Bill Buckner has the same relevance to her experience of her team as does Harry Frazee.

No, the interesting part of Tuesday's ceremony, the interesting part of Buckner's role in 1986, has been HIS reaction to that catastrophe, not the fans. Through those 21 1/2 years, Buckner has tried so many different means of coping with the memory it was easy to see he couldn't cope at all.

First, Buckner retired to Idaho. That didn't work. He tried taking it as baseball nostalgia, making memorabilia appearances with Mookie Wilson. He tried cozying up to Boston fans, he tried cutting his ties to the franchise. Evidently, nothing worked.

When Buckner wept on the mound Tuesday, he wasn't acknowledging the ovation, or being moved by his memories of his Sox career. He certainly wasn't weeping because the fans were forgiving him.

Bill Buckner was forgiving himself. Finally.


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