Wednesday, February 27, 2013

#505 - Bill Buckner

If anyone outside of Fred Merckle is a poster child for one play overriding a whole career, this guy is it. Years from the time this photo was taken Bill Buckner would be at Shea for a moment that many too many saw as defining but in reality was just a bad incident magnified by being on a large stage. But that moment is years away and when this shot was taken Billy Bucks was in the midst of his first full-time season as a Dodger. Incumbent first baseman Wes Parker retired after the ’72 season and LA was still trying to figure out to which infield corner Steve Garvey truly belonged and that transitional time gave Bill the opportunity to finally grab a starting lineup spot. So he spent a bit over half the year manning first base until Garvey segued in to do his Lou Gehrig thing, and then moved to his future permanent spot in left field (permanent being a relative term since we are talking baseball). And while Bill didn’t reach his .300-plus average of ’72, he did have a solid offensive year with the low strikeout total – 34 in ’73 – that would epitomize his work down the road. More than one time he probably wished his days at Shea were all as benign-seeming as the one this photo represents.

Bill Buckner grew up a sports star in southern California and in high school excelled at both football and baseball. In the former sport he was a speedy wide receiver who was All-America twice and still holds school records for all-time receptions and receiving yardage. His junior year in baseball he hit .667 to win the state’s Mr. Baseball award (three years after future teammate Willie Crawford won it), and he then came back to hit .529 as a senior. That year was ’68 and the Dodgers made Bill their second pick that spring. Good pick. Bill hit .344 in Rookie ball the rest of the summer while leading his league with eight triples. In ’69 he killed the ball in the IL, hit .307 with pretty good power in Double A, and upped it to .315 in Triple A. That year he also put in his first pro time at first as the outfield was crowded with young guys and Garvey was being groomed as a third baseman. In ’70 Bill put in more time at first than in the outfield in Triple A and hit .335 with 33 doubles and 74 RBI’s with only 45 strikeouts.

In ’71 spring training Buckner slammed the ball at an over .400 clip and spent just about all his time in right, splitting time primarily with Willie Crawford and taking space vacated by Andy Kosco – who had gone to Milwaukee – and Bill Russell, who was moving to shortstop. Bill’s steady numbers got him a spot on the Topps Rookie team that year. In ’72 he also filled in at first for Parker, upped his average over 40 points, and dropped his strikeouts to 13. After Garvey took over first late in ’73 Bill moved to what would be his regular spot the duration of his LA stay in left field. In ’74 he did a real good Willie Davis impersonation – though with a lot less K’s – by hitting .314 with 83 runs and 31 stolen bases as one of the big reasons LA won the NL Championship. In his first Series he hit .250 against the A’s. In ’75 LA ran into a big injury wall and one of the most devastating was to Bill’s ankle, which he severely sprained sliding into second that season. That injury and a subsequent one later that year would pretty much derail the speed upon which his game was built. But Bill was a gamer and after hitting only .243 while active in ’75 he bounced back the next year to hit .301 on 193 hits and even stole 28 bases. After the season the Dodgers had a shot at power hitter Rick Monday, who couldn’t agree to terms with the Cubs and so Bill and shortstop Ivan DeJesus went to Chicago for Monday and pitcher Mike Garman.

Buckner wasn’t crazy happy about going to the Cubs from a pennant contender (his misgivings were right on since LA won three division titles and a Series while he was in Chicago) and for a while there was a shot he wouldn’t go. The Cubbies were pretty much a .500 team during Bill’s tenure there but it wasn’t because of him. In seven full seasons back at first base he averaged a touch over .300 with over 30 doubles, eleven homers, and 74 RBI’s. He only struck out a bit over 20 times a season and he had a couple big years. In ’78 he hit .323 and in ’80 he led the NL with a .324 while hitting 41 doubles. In ’82 he moved a couple spots lower in the lineup and hit .306 with 15 homers and 105 RBI’s, both career highs to that point. In ’81 – when he was an All-Star - and ’83 he led the NL in doubles, with 35 and 38 respectively. But Bill was a big competitor and things in Chicago didn’t always go swimmingly, like when in ’82 he and manager Lee Elia got into a fight. That was also the season he had to turn to a hypnotist – ironically met through recent post subject Eric Soderholm – to help him recover his stroke. While Bil and his manager made up, early in ’84 he would be on the move again, this time to Boston for pitcher Dennis Eckersley.

Again, Buckner’s timing was short of optimal as he missed the Cubbie’s big division title push. While the Cubs got a Hall of Fame pitcher in the trade, Boston got the better deal as Eckersley became a free agent and would have been on the move anyway. Off to a crappy start in Chicago, Bill rallied the rest of the way to hit .278 with 67 RBI’s in about two-thirds of a season in Boston. He then got into the power game the next couple years, getting his lifetime  highs of 201 hits, 46 doubles, and 110 RBI’s on 16 homers in ’85 and parking a career high 18 with 102 RBI’s in ’86. By that year his ankle was affecting him a bit defensively and in a bunch of games Dave Stapleton would replace him on the field in late innings. Unfortunately that didn’t happen on the big play in Game Six of the Series and Bill accrued that negative image to his baseball resume. It would contribute to a very tough start to the ’87 season when constant riding by fans at Sox games led to a mid-’87 release though he was hitting .273 with 42 RBI’s at the time. California picked him up pretty quickly. There he raised his average 30 points as a DH the rest of the way and then reprised that role and did some work at first with Kansas City through ’89. In ’90 he re-signed for a brief stay back with Boston and retired early that season. He finished with a .289 average on 2,715 hits, 498 doubles, 174 homers, and 1,208 RBI’s. Though his speed was mostly taken away pretty early he managed 183 stolen bases and was caught only 73 times. He finished with 453 K’s or roughly one per every 21 at bats. In the post-season he hit .204 with five RBI’s in 23 games.

While playing Bill purchased some ranch property in Idaho which he continued to run with his brother for a bunch of years. He also developed some commercial and residential real estate near the Boise area. In '92 he returned to baseball as the Toronto minor league hitting coach which he did through the '95 season. He then became the White Sox hitting coach which he did through August of '97 when he was released. He then took time off of baseball though he used to do a bunch of autograph shows with Mookie Wilson in memory of that magical '86 moment. Bill returned to Boston as manager of the Brockton Rox in 2011. After doing that for a year he hooked up with the Cubs in 2012 as a minor league hitting coach. As of this writing there is noise he will re-join Brockton in 2013.

Topps doesn’t exactly do a deep dive on Bill’s back of card stuff. He does have one of the clearest signatures so far.

Bill gets with Joe through another former NL West guy:

1. Buckner and Cliff Johnson ’80 Cubs;
2. Johnson and Joe Niekro ’75 to ’77 Astros.

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