Learning from Bill Buckner

The Red Sox veteran accepted responsibility for his 1986 World Series gaffe, and he lives with a kind of grace now. Pete Rose and Ann Coulter, listen up.

Published July 31, 2002 9:46PM (EDT)

The old ballplayer with the brush mustache let his poker face slip for a moment and smiled at the image. "Me. On the Mets' bench."

He had just experienced as odd a two-hour span as any athlete ever has. After an absence of nearly 16 years, he had returned to Shea Stadium, the scene of one of the most notorious moments in baseball history, one that he starred in. And not a soul -- not a player, not a reporter, not a fan -- had given him a hard time about it. Here he was, transported back to the scene of a disaster of his making, in an America in which we can't tell who's yelling louder about how much to blame everybody else is, Ann Coulter or Pete Rose. Yet all but a handful of the 47,000 people at Shea Stadium never even let on that they knew he was there.

On some cosmic level, perhaps, he had earned the benign neglect of history. For one thing, he'd acknowledged his mistake, from the beginning. "You saw it," he'd said at the time. "Not good." Now, with the exact measure of understatement he'd used that grim October night long ago, he described his return to Shea. "It was nice," he said simply, and that was all he needed to say.

Perhaps that stoic willingness to shoulder responsibility is why, on a cool Friday night in July, as he sat in the stands at Shea Stadium in New York, the most intrusive anybody got with him was to wander over and ask, "You're Bill Buckner, aren't you?"

Buckner was so blasi about it that he claimed he wasn't certain if it was the first time he'd been back. It was at Shea Stadium, of course, that in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, a ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson of the Mets skittered between his legs and past first base and into baseball history, concluding as nightmarish an inning as could be recalled by even the fans of that Freddy Krueger of franchises, the Boston Red Sox. Buckner could have made excuses -- he shouldn't even have been out there hobbling around the infield on his bad ankles, the inning should have been long over, they should've already been celebrating the championship -- but it was still Buckner's error, and he lived up to it.

If Bill Buckner has a poker face, Pete Rose's is a perpetual Munchian scream of woeful denial, and Ann Coulter's is that of a swaggering pirate, complete with eyepatch. I confess I had never thought of Buckner and Rose as subjects for contrast, let alone Buckner, Rose and Coulter. But as I watched Buckner laugh with old baseball pals, as I remembered the younger Buckner whose Boston teammates used to tell me projected a kind of infectious calm, I got to thinking about how the three of them join together to vividly paint the opposite ends of some deep American spectrum about assuming responsibility.

Rose is about to complete Year 13 of his nonstop insistence that he didn't do it -- bet on the baseball team he was managing -- even if he signed a document saying he did. In that time he's blamed a dead commissioner of baseball, a fired commissioner of baseball, the current commissioner of baseball. He's dragged reporters and players into his ever-enlarging sinkhole. He's made fuzzy-cheeked minor leaguers liable for reprimand by falsely claiming they had asked him to coach them. He's claimed that his letters seeking reinstatement have been returned unopened and that the only phone numbers his lawyers have been given to call have been disconnected ones.

His most newly minted rationalization, if you haven't heard it, is that 1989, the year of his banishment for having allegedly wagered on the games of the team he managed, is so long ago that murderers convicted that year have already gotten out of prison. He appears to have figured out why he didn't get very far with his earlier argument: that even if he had bet on the Reds, all of the evidence suggests he never bet against them, so that made it ok. Of course, a manager betting on his own team every day might, on some relative scale, be ok; a manager betting only periodically must necessarily be suspected of using his better pitchers in the games on which he'd wagered, and not in those he didn't - a kind of passive-aggressive game-fixing.

But I tend to think Rose is a lot closer to understanding what he did, and why people hold it against him, than is Ann Coulter. Since Sept. 11 she has been a veritable out-of-control firehose of venom, whipping around crazily, streaming invective wherever she happens to point. I wouldn't be so disturbed if I sensed there was a glimmer of irony in this new book of hers, some quick wink of Buckner-like acknowledgment that "Slander" might be read not as a title, but as a description of the contents.

Alas, no. It will never occur to Coulter that in the vast crowd of us who appeared on television news in 1998, and focused entirely on the itinerary of President Clinton's genitalia, she was up near the front. It's a big crowd, and some of us tried to disperse it. But we're all there -- I'm including myself -- and as we head to purgatory for our sins, if not hell, we should all solemnly acknowledge that in fact there most obviously was something else to which we should have been paying attention, and didn't.

Last September I went back and checked the logs of my old MSNBC show and discovered to my surprise that in the two months before we changed the meaning of the parent company's acronym to "Nothing But Clinton," my most frequent guests were James Dunegan, a craggy bespectacled man who talked endlessly of terrorism and the Middle East and the threat of anthrax being delivered to Broadway, and Dr. Richard Haas, then of the Brookings Institution, who warned constantly of terrorism and the Middle East and the threats to, and in, this country.

Then one day Mr. Dunegan and Dr. Haas were swept away, never to appear again. Instead we got Terry Jeffrey and Bob Barr and Christopher Hitchens, and our lower-grade sister shows got Newt Gingrich and Barbara Olson and Ann Coulter. That I escaped Coulter was merely a throwaway favor from my masters. They had been hinting she'd have to be a guest sooner rather than later. Then she went over-the-top: Despite an eye infection, she could not keep herself off television. I begged my bosses not to make me interview a guest who was literally wearing a huge, distracting eyepatch. Thus my imagery of her as a pirate: For a week she continued to flail away at the wrong evil while looking like a refugee from some camped-up version of "Treasure Island." But not on my show.

Mistake me not here: Ann Coulter didn't cause Sept. 11. Not in a billion years would I accuse her, or any of the others (not even Barr), of that. But with hindsight one has to ask why the prospect of a country unprepared for terrorism wasn't a sexy enough topic for her and the others to use to pound Clinton and the Democrats. Certainly they got with the program after Sept. 11, blaming Clinton for being soft on Osama bin Laden and terror. The Clinton folks struck back, and for a while it was compelling television controversy and worthwhile political debate, a hot TV commodity that at least contained some crumb of public good. Why wasn't that interesting before Sept. 11?

Last fall when Coulter reacted to the death of her friend Barbara Olson on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon with pronouncements that might have made the Crusaders blanch, I defended her. I lost friends on two planes, and two more at Cantor Fitzgerald, and I argued that on top of her personal grief, she was operating from some extremely human wish to undo the horror. Perhaps, I said, deep inside her there was some vague connection of the dots between her share of the responsibility for the transformation of "News" into "Nothing But Clinton," and our unpreparedness for the attack. Perhaps she was getting ready to reckon with her own small but significant role in distracting the country from what should have mattered in 1998. No one rallied to my line of thinking. Slander certainly chased away anybody who was considering doing so.

Thus stand this odd trio of my creation: Pete Rose, his hair ever more absurdly tinted and his self-defense ever more absurdly obscure; Ann Coulter, bellowing without pause so she can't hear even her own conscience if it somehow elects to whisper "j'accuse" at her; and Bill Buckner, leaning on a batting cage at Shea Stadium, for a time still literally stuck within that hundred-foot radius of where it all happened, smiling at the irony and receiving back what he emits, a gentle Zen-like acceptance.

While Buckner's error is the most obvious and the most easily proven, with the most obvious consequences, it is also -- more important -- the least protested. Rose and Coulter could learn something from him.

But they probably won't.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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