Buckner, Bartman, and Denkinger

Perhaps you saw the reaction of Red Sox Nation to Bill Buckner throwing out the first pitch on opening day in Fenway. The four minute ovation was the longest received by any of Boston’s sports stars that day including Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Bobby Orr and Tedy Bruschi. In order to understand the significance of the event, you need to know that in 1986 the Red Sox were on the verge of breaking their then 68 year streak without winning a World Series when Buckner allowed a ground ball go through his legs in the tenth inning. Having lost game 6, the Red Sox went on to lose game 7 and Buckner went from being a well-liked ball player to the modern manifestation of the “Curse of the Bambino.”

What followed is almost unimaginable. Red Sox fans and media made Buckner’s life miserable. In addition to being the punch line of jokes, topic of songs, a reference on The Simpson’s, he and his family have received death threats for the last 20 years. One joke went as follows, “Bill Buckner tried to commit suicide today. He jumped in front of the train. But it went through his legs.” In order to escape the spotlight, Buckner moved his family to Idaho and started a car dealership. In context then, the warm reception Buckner received on Tuesday was Sox fans welcoming him back from exile.

Flash forward to October 14, 2003 with the Cubs only five outs away from clinching the National League Pennant and earning a chance to win their first World Series since 1908. Luis Castillo hit a soft pop fly down the left field line that was just off the playing field. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou reached over the wall to catch the ball when cub fan Steve Bartman reached out and made the catch himself. The Cubs went on to lose both the game and the series. The biggest loser though was Bartman who had to be escorted out of the park by security as other fans showered him with debris. Due to death threats and other abuse, Steve Bartman’s life will never be the same.

While he’s never been welcomed back to Cubdom, Bartman did recently get some sort of reprieve when Alou, now with the Mets, said that he wouldn’t have been able to catch the ball anyway. If true, one can’t help but wonder why it took almost five years for Moises to state this publicly. Cubs fans would have reacted entirely differently to Bartman had Alou said this after the game.

The call made by Don Denkinger in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series will never be forgotten by Cardinal fans (and never forgiven by some). With the Cards leading the Royals 1-0 in the 9th, first base umpire, Don Denkinger, mistakenly called Jorge Orta safe when replays showed that he was clearly out. Kansas City came from behind to win Game 6 and then won Game 7 the following night to win their first and only World Series. Cardinal fans were angry with a few going so far as to threaten the life of Denkinger and his wife.

Over the past few years, some Cardinals have tried to reach out to Denkinger. In September 2005, he was a guest speaker at a 20th anniversary dinner celebrating the Cardinals’ 1985 team and benefiting the Whitey Herzog Youth Foundation.

What is there to learn from these stories?

1. Reconciliation is good for the soul. It was good to see Bill Buckner wipe tears away as he walked to the pitcher’s mound and the fans stand a cheer a man so many had mocked. It appeared to be good for both parties to acknowledge that the past was well the past. Perhaps Bartman could throw out the first pitch of 2009 in Wrigley?

2. These stories also reveal the idolatrous position that sports has taken in so many people’s lives. When a player’s bad play, an umpire’s bad call, or a fan’s bad judgment results in death threats, it’s obvious that something has gone seriously haywire in our value system. When a game’s outcome is seen as more valuable than a person’s life, it is evidence that someone has entered into our society and switched the price tags so that things of great value are minimized and things of lesser value are maximized. Sports can be a wonderful outlet providing opportunities for exercise, building relationships, and can even unite a city. But when it becomes all important, it also has the power to destroy a person’s life.

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