History

Bill Buckner, Greg Luzinski and the necessary struggles in being a sports fan



Greg Luzinski made a key defensive error in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

The following is a guest post written by Mitchell Nathanson. Nathanson is a professor of law at Villanova University and the author of The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball Team’s Collapse Sank a City’s Spirit. Nathanson has also penned a biography of Dick Allen and is putting the finishing touches on a biography on Jim Bouton. 

Of course, we all remember where we were when we saw that play unfold. Or, if we were too young to have seen it, we’ve been told about it countless times. The long-suffering franchise finally on the brink of postseason success after decades of failure heads out onto the field with a 5-3 lead and needing only three outs to secure victory. The late-inning defensive replacement typically sent out all season like clockwork inexplicably remains on the bench but it doesn’t seem to be a problem; this game is wrapped up, we tell ourselves. We’ve suffered with this franchise for years, so in our giddiness, we don’t complain about the decision, or even question it. We’re just going to enjoy the moment.

The next 10 minutes would be pure hell, as, in retrospect, we knew they were destined to be. Of course, the ball finds the lame fielder – “Why the hell wasn’t he replaced?” we now yell to anybody and nobody at the top of our lungs — at the worst possible time, causing all hell to break loose and the game, as well as the entire series, to swing against us. Before we know it, the game is over and we’ve lost, 6-5. Yes, there’s still another game to be played, but we know it’s over even though technically it isn’t. Before the series is even completed, we know this is just the latest chapter in the rotten history of this miserable franchise. OUR miserable franchise. No matter what happens from that point on, we’ll talk about this moment for as long as we live. We have no choice. More than anything else, this moment defines what it means to be a fan. A Phillies fan.

In the immediate aftermath of Bill Buckner’s death, an untold number of social media posters and sportswriters lamented the fact that he’d be remembered for his one moment of ignominy during the 1986 World Series, rather than his lifetime of accomplishments. Phillies fans can relate as our “Buckner moment” preceded Buckner’s by nearly a decade. Nine years earlier, on October 7, 1977, Black Friday shrouded the city of Philadelphia when manager Danny Ozark inexplicably left Jerry Martin on the bench in Game 3 of the NLCS, sending Greg Luzinski out for a ninth inning of infamy that would overshadow the totality of an otherwise solid career.

The Bull misplayed an eminently catchable fly ball off the bat of Dodger pinch-hitter Manny Mota, turning the final out of what should have been a 5-3 Phillies victory and a 2-1 (best of five) series lead into a 6-5 loss and a trip the following evening to the soggy gallows. Luzinski, like Buckner, never liked talking about that moment, for obvious reasons. He’s struggled with it for four decades now, sometimes turning testy when it’s brought up, sometimes insisting that, in fact, he did catch the ball rather than trap it against the wall, replay evidence to the contrary be damned. We should move on from it, he insists, as do the Buckner well-wishers who are right now flooding the blogs and sports pages with pleas to consider Buckner the man, Buckner the total player, rather than Buckner the goat (not greatest of all-time goat, either).

They’re wrong.

They’re wrong because it’s moments like these that make baseball, well, baseball. At the Major League level the game exists not for the players but for us – the fans. It exists for those singular moments we witness and then can’t ever forget. Some of them are glorious: Tug McGraw raising his arms in exhausted triumph in 1980 or Brad Lidge falling to his knees in 2008. And some of them are nightmarish, like Luzinski’s in 1977 or Mitch Williams’s gopher ball to Joe Carter in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. But all of them are equally unforgettable. In fact, it’s thanks to the darker moments that the bright ones shine that much more brilliantly. It’s the contrast that throws the glory into a sharper, more satisfying relief.

Yes, the dark moments are painful. For us and, more acutely, for those directly involved in them. It hurts to be the goat. It hurts far worse to be the goat in front of what feels like the entire world. But that’s baseball. That’s why it’s the big leagues. That’s why we not only watch, but care so much. Not only because of the potential for glory, but for the possibility of searing pain. If it didn’t hurt, we wouldn’t love it like we do.

So thank you, Greg Luzinski. Thank you, Mitch Williams. And thank you, Bill Buckner. Not for your years of accomplishments but for your indelible moments of disaster. For it’s those moments that remind us why we keep tuning in.

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