Thirty years after his error in the 1986 World Series, people still talk of pulling a ‘Buckner’. Might ‘Doing a Freddie’ go the same way? It was the one last wafer-thin wisecrack that made Bill Buckner snap. On 4 July 1993 he was signing autographs in a parking lot outside McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, and when a boy passed him a ball to sign a man passing behind them said: “Don’t give him the ball, he’d just drop it anyway.” Buckner left, dumped his stuff in his truck, came back, grabbed the man by the collar and pinned him up against a wall. Buckner managed to stop himself from punching the guy – “thank God for that” – but it was right around then that Buckner finally decided it was time to for him and his family to quit Massachusetts and move to Idaho.
Buckner had a 20-year career in Major League Baseball, turned out for five different sides, made 2,715 hits in 9,397 at-bats. But he’s famous for one thing – letting a ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson slip between his legs in the 10th innings of game six of the 1986 World Series.
The heroism, the glory ... the cock-up
Read moreThe Red Sox were so close to winning the series that the trophy had already been brought into their clubhouse, along with a case of champagne. Then Buckner’s mistake cost them the game. Two days later they lost game seven too, and the series with it. Seven years later, the fans were still ragging Buckner about it “at least once a week during the season”.
Thirty years later, people still talk about pulling a “Buckner”. Eduardo Núñez had one just last month, while he was playing third base against the Yankees. Earlier in the summer, JR Hildebrand spoke about his “Buckner moment” when he crashed on the last bend leading the Indy 500. Back in January, New Orleans safety Marcus Williams had his Buckner when he missed a tackle that allowed the Minnesota Vikings to win their play-off game in the last seconds. Back in 2015, Barack Obama gave a speech in Boston in which he said that if the Republicans shut down the government it would be like “a ground ball slipping through somebody’s legs”. He got booed.
There are three ways to get that famous playing sport. If they name something after you it usually means you either invented it, perfected it, or flubbed it so hard no one will ever let you forget. Like Freddie Burns. Whose horrific five minutes against Toulouse last Saturday led the Guardian’s headline writers to coin the phrase “Doing a Freddie”.
So 115 years later, the fourth Ashes Test from 1902 is still called “Fred Tate’s match” because he dropped a catch at square leg. It was off Joe Darling, who was on 17 at the time, then went on to make the top score of 37. Just another 20 runs, then. But then Australia only won by three and Tate was the last man out too, bowled, for four.
It was the first, and last, time Tate ever played for England. He is supposed to have said that he had “a young lad at home who’d put it right for me”. The boy was called Maurice, and he grew up to become one of England’s greatest bowlers. Which sounds like the sort of story we tell ourselves just because we like to hear a happy ending. Because they don’t often have them, these Icarus stories.
Look at Lindsey Jacobellis. Back at the 2006 Winter Olympics, Jacobellis had such a big lead coming into the home stretch of the snowboard cross final that she decided to throw in a method grab just “for fun” as she came over the penultimate jump.
Bath’s Todd Blackadder urges Freddie Burns to ‘get back on the horse’
Read moreShe crash-landed, was overtaken by Tanja Frieden, and fetched up in second place. Jacobellis has won five world titles in snowboard cross, but never another Olympic medal. Since that race in 2006 she crashed in the Olympic semi-final once in Vancouver 2010, then again in Sochi in 2014, and then finished fourth, by just 0.003sec, in Pyeongchang this year. “Wouldn’t it just be nice if the media didn’t harangue me for something that happened 12 years ago?” Jacobellis told the New York Times. “I’m sure we can go into everyone’s past 12 years ago and pick out something that they coulda, shoulda, woulda done. It’s just mine was on a world stage.”
It would be nice. Only, not all sports fans are. Which is why there’s something almost heroic about DeSean Jackson’s pigheaded refusal to learn from his mistakes. In the 2005 Army Bowl, Jackson decided to celebrate a touchdown by turning a somersault into the end zone. Only he landed the ball one foot short of where it needed to be so the score didn’t count.
Then, in his rookie season for the Eagles, he ruined what would have been his very first NFL touchdown when he tossed the ball behind him as he crossed the goalline. Which didn’t stop him celebrating a 90-yard touchdown against the Cowboys by spinning on his heel and falling backwards over the line.
As for Buckner, well, he went the best part of 10 years without ever returning to Fenway, or having anything much to do with baseball. But he finally made his peace with what happened to him. He came back to throw out the first pitch of the 2008 season, and even turned in a cameo riffing on it all in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm a couple of years later.
In the end, all those photos and baseballs he signed put his kids through college. “It just amazes me. I don’t quite get it. I have come to the understanding that it is here to stay, so I try to look at it in a positive way,” he said. After all “there were a lot of players a lot better than me, and a lot of people can’t remember them”.