By CATHAL KELLY
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Years after he'd been chased out of New England and retreated to the edges of Major League Baseball, Bill Buckner still had to hear about that play. Once a week at least, he reckoned.
He became a roving instructor in the Toronto Blue Jays minorleague system. During a stop at the Boston Red Sox affiliate in Pawtucket, R.I., a kid handed him a ball to be signed. As Buckner took it, an older man said, "Don't give him the ball. He'd just drop it." Buckner gave his autograph, went back to stow his equipment, then returned to throttle the man. After that, he briefly retreated from baseball altogether. "I don't want my kids to be hearing about it all the time," Buckner told Sports Illustrated at the time.
Buckner's mistake was the sort that happens all the time in baseball, or any other sport - letting a ball get by him. It was the confluence of error and timing - two outs in extra innings of a game that would have won the Red Sox the 1986 World Series - that made it notorious.
When you break it down, you can see the evolution of Buckner's error. He was cheating toward second base against New York's Mookie Wilson. When the ball was chopped down the firstbase line, fear of Wilson's speed caused him to overreact. He had to turn awkwardly across his own body and reset his legs.
Buckner's trapper was enormous, more of a net than a glove. As he lurched and twisted to his left, his momentum caused the glove to close. So instead of sliding into the leather, the ball skimmed past his mitt and through his legs.
Buckner played in the bigleagues for more than 20 years.
He made five MVP ballots. But his reputation as a competent ball player died in that instant.
The rage directed at him was so overwhelming that Wilson has spent subsequent years telling people he probably might have beaten Buckner to the bag even if he'd caught it (a well-intentioned lie).
It took years for Boston to get over it, and a few more than that on Buckner's end. He came back to Fenway in 2008 to throw out a first pitch and got a standing ovation. Boston was coming off its second championship in four seasons and had the luxury of being magnanimous.
Buckner said afterward he had forgiven the city, rather than the other way around. His bitterness is still palpable and, let's face it, understandable. One mistake does not a career make, in any profession. We'd all like that benefit of that doubt.
Athletes often don't get it, which brings us to the unfortunate case of New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams.
On Sunday, Williams became football's Bill Buckner.
His missed tackle on the final play of an NFC divisional championship game gave the Minnesota Vikings what may be the most bizarre and unlikely comeback in the history of the NFL.
Where Buckner had to wait to be ripped in the pages of the newspaper and by people he saw on the streets, Williams was getting it instantaneously online.
The kindest of his amateur critics advised him to put his phone in a wood chipper. More than a few people wished him dead.
Like Buckner's error, Williams's was compounded exponentially, by the score, the timing and the occasion. Even worse, it looked absurd.
Williams was the last man back on what would have been the final play of the game. All he had to do was tackle a receiver. How he got him down, how many yards he'd gained - none of that mattered. All he had to do was bring him to the ground.
As Minnesota's Stefon Diggs rose to receive the ball, Williams was on a high-speed collision course from behind.
At the last minute, Williams ducked out of the tackle. The Vikings receiver landed untouched, recovered his footing and jogged in unmolested for the winning score.
At first blush, Williams's decision-making is inexplicable.
Upon replay - watching him dive in clumsily at the only point he will fly under an airborne Diggs and then kneecap his own teammate - it gets worse. It looks perilously close to match fixing.
But after a cursory step back, you can begin to see what happened. Coaches will have drilled into Williams during the preceding timeout that the main concern is not taking a pass-interference penalty, thus setting up a game-winning field goal.
He's a rookie who's never been in a situation this charged. He was amped up and came in too hot. Realizing at the last instant that he was about to strike Diggs before the arrival of the ball, he bailed on the play.
In slow motion, you can see the wheels in his head start to turn as he comes in - a thought bubble pops up above him: "Oh no."
That's the difference between panicking and choking. When you panic, you stop thinking.
When you choke, you think too much. Though he only had an instant in which to do so, Williams overthought it.
After the game, Williams apparently wept openly. He wasn't able to provide much of an explanation beyond, "That's on me," but he did the smart thing in talking at all. He'll get points for that.
Of his teammates, Williams said, "I don't feel like anyone in here is down on me or anything like that."
But there was no forgiving embrace in the immediate aftermath. No one on the Saints devoted their postgame talk to feeling bad for Williams.
Mostly, they felt bad for themselves.
The to-and-fro of the Buckner backlashes - get him; leave him alone; but he screwed up; but he's human; but he's paid a fortune to do this; etc. - took years to play out in the preinternet environment.
With Williams, we're already into the third or fourth wave.
That's one small mercy for the 21-year-old.
Unlike Buckner, he's at the beginning of his career, rather than on the other side of the hill. That's another positive.
Williams is a marvellously talented player and will have many years to work his way out from under this.
But there is only one way to wash away Williams's mistake - New Orleans has to win a Super Bowl.
Until that happens, Marcus Williams will hear about it everywhere he goes, forever.