Lay off Bill Buckner, folks -- It's only a game

Jon Nargolis

September 07, 1993|By Jon Nargolis

WERE it an isolated incident, it would be foolish to make much of the latest outrage visited on William Joseph Buckner.

But it was only one outrage among many, against Buckner and others. Something unhealthy is going on here.

A few weeks ago, after almost seven years -- seven years! -- of being taunted by strangers, Buckner finally snapped and laid hands on someone, though without hurting him. Later he said that because of the recurring harassment he might have to move out of New England.

And just what was it that Buckner did to deserve this regular mistreatment by people who never met him?

He missed the ball.

For those of you who do not follow these matters, Bill Buckner was a ballplayer. In 20 years as an outfielder and a first baseman he hit .289. That's very good. Nor was he a bad fielder. OK, he wasn't a great fielder, but he always hustled and he was pretty reliable.

But nobody's perfect, and one memorable evening in October of 1986, Billy Buck let a ground ball skitter between his legs. It was memorable because had he caught it and stepped on first base, his Boston Red Sox would have won the World Series. Because he didn't (though not only because he didn't) the Red Sox failed again, as they have every year since 1918.

So Buckner joined the list of sports goats -- Fred Merkle who forgot to step on second base in 1908, Roy Riegels who ran the wrong way in the 1929 Rose Bowl game and others.

But Bill Buckner didn't kill anybody, betray his country or corrupt the young. He just made an error. This is not a character flaw or even a lapse in judgment. Buckner's mind and spirit were willing. Nothing failed but his hand-eye coordination, nothing was lost but a ball game and, even in the World Series, a ball game is only a game.

Games are great fun to play and exciting to watch.

But they're just games, and Buckner's troubles are only some of the signs that too many Americans take them far too seriously.

There are now 51 all-sports radio stations, twice as many as there were a year-and-a-half ago. For the most part, these stations don't broadcast games; listening to games is one of life's joys.

Instead, they air call-in talk shows which appeal to those who like to shout their passionate opinions about sports. Having passionate opinions about sports is adolescent.

Some of these callers must be the same people who get so upset about a college football team's losses that they break the windows in the coach's house, or who spit on coaches of losing basketball teams as they walk down the street.

These are not teen-agers. They are grown people who are missing a vital component of adulthood. Most of us who love sports love them because we played them as kids and then started following the local team. For some, that team was the first emotional attachment -- the first love interest, really -- outside our immediate families.

And we kept those attachments into adulthood for the very good reason that they provide emotional excitement which is all the sweeter for being superficial and transitory. When your team is locked in a close game or race, you're tense. If they win, you're ecstatic. If they lose, you're miserable.

Well, not really, because down deep you know that . . . it's just a game. In a few minutes, in a day or two at most, you'll stop being miserable. You'll even enjoy discussing your misery with your friends at work or at your favorite tavern.

Somehow, this inherent understanding of the insignificance of sports, sustaining the sanity of even the most devoted fan, is being lost.

And it isn't just sports. Entertainment and entertainers, too, are objects of obsessive and excessive reverence. So many young people immerse themselves in the intricacies of rock music that their delusion that it is high art supports a major industry.

Everywhere, there seems to be an inclination to behave most passionately about that which is vicarious. Whatever else this is, is an indication of lives devoid of significance. Only people whose lives are empty at the core would pervert the wonderful diversion that games should be by trying to use them as a substitute for meaning.

Get a life, folks. Read a poem, write a symphony, plant a garden, build a cabinet, soup up a car, join a cause (but remember: Those who disagree with you are your fellow citizens, and may even have a point), learn astronomy.

Oh, and root for your favorite team, with deep devotion but

without losing all perspective.

And leave Billy Buck alone. He didn't hurt anyone. He just missed the ball.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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