Buckner, not Bonds, played like Hall of Famer

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My Views

By Stephen Thomas

    Recently filmmaker Ken Burns released his addendum to the famous “Baseball” mini series, updating the history of the professional game over the past 20 years.

    As exciting as baseball history can be, even to an average fan of the sport, the new Burns edition brought both good and bad memories.

    As unfortunate as the game itself over the years, Burns presented a prevalent problem that will plague baseball and its precious history for decades: Steroid use and abuse.

    The film focused on Barry Bonds, arguably one of the greatest all-around talents in the game’s history, a player who gave up a natural Hall of Fame career to bulk up and attack the popular home run numbers being scorched by other “juiced” players.

    When the sport’s spotlight left Bonds for steroids, Bonds used steroids to get it back, tainting his entire career, one that could’ve gone down in the game’s history as the best ever.

    I watched painful memories dating back to the players’ strike of 1994, resulting in the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

    I watched as the classic game was ruined, in my opinion, by the introduction of interleague play, which continues to skew the many records that were once so precious to the game’s rich and unique history.

    Interleague play led to more playoff games and wild card teams, meaning teams not good enough to win a division could still earn an opportunity to win a World Series.

    I watched the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, both of whom used steroids to shatter previous records. I could remember hating it back then because I knew there was something wrong about it all.

    Through the pain, the show reminded me of some good points, such as the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 after 86 years of being “cursed” for trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, who had won 26 Series in that time.

    Of course, the Red Sox were a wild card team, which slightly brought the excitement level down personally. Beating the Yankees brought it back up, however.

    Watching the 2004 celebrations in the midst of the steroid saga made me think of something else: Bill Buckner.

    Most sports fans recall Buckner as the Boston Red Sox first baseman who let a ball roll through his legs in the 1986 World Series, one that the Sox realistically could’ve won but didn’t.

    Buckner became the all-time baseball goat, ridiculed by many fans for his mistake. The error technically did not lose the World Series; Regardless, the ridicule remained and increased through the following years.

    At one point following his retirement from the game, Buckner moved his family to Idaho, where they could better avoid constant media scrutiny, fan heckling and even death threats.

    When I think of Buckner I picture a player who was a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, collecting over 2,700 hits in a long playing career.

    In 1986 Buckner played in every regular season game for the Red Sox. They would’ve never made it as far as they did without his efforts.

    And he played hurt. He could barely run during the World Series but he gutted it out anyway, appearing in every Series game.

    Buckner played fair and square. He didn’t cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs. If there were ever a player that could’ve used that ‘assistance’ it was Buckner during the 1986 Series.

    Upon reflection, I can’t understand  - after the Red Sox finally won two championships, and after all of this steroid abuse and disregard for the history and sanctity of America’s National Past-time - why Buckner remains the goat.

    I still see Mark McGwire involved in the game as a coach. A guy that cheated for years, lied about it for years, then admitted it while begging forgiveness through crocodile tears.

    Some of these cheaters will soon be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Though eligible, McGwire has not been selected. A big question surrounds whether or not the juicers would be selected because their statistics, as well as their character, may be considered forever tainted.

    Buckner never got fair consideration for the Hall of Fame, most likely because too many people think only of that one play in one game in 1986, without  noticing his injuries or the fact that he played the entire year without a day off.

    Buckner played the game the right way, with hustle and determination and consistency, all trademarks of the Hall of Fame character that is supposed to be considered as part of the voting.

    His work ethic and character, combined with a long, solid playing career, still seem worthy of at least Hall of Fame consideration, yet Buckner never receives it.

    I remember, as a young Red Sox fan in 1986, being brought almost to tears and screaming at Buckner for missing that ball. And I let that hurt fester inside for a while.

    Thanks to a reinforcement of baseball ethics via Burns’ latest work, I will now, and likely forever, see Buckner in a different light, as a hero, one who played the game the way it is supposed to played.