By Bill Burt
BOSTON — Other than Carlton Fisk waving a home run inside the foul pole after midnight or Jonathan Papelbon jumping 3-feet high in the mile-high Colorado air, a World Series game couldn't touch this one.
Bill Buckner, the one Red Sox alum who exemplified, cruelly, 86 years of misery, curses and outright choking, came home. This time, though, Buckner, a former Andover resident, was the only one shedding tears.
Nearly 37,000 fans gave the former first baseman, who strolled slowly from the left field garage door in front of the Green Monster to the pitching mound to throw out the first pitch in yesterday's Red Sox home opener, a five-minute standing ovation.
Buckner's emotional moment came after the Red Sox players received their jewel-studded World Series rings and the 2007 championship flag was raised in center field.
"It's about time," said Paul Bassett of Lawrence, who attended the game with his 10-year-old grandson Joey Ronca of Derry, N.H. "It was a nice surprise. Buckner didn't deserve what he got. This organization always does the right thing. I'm happy for Bill Buckner."
Along his route to the mound, Buckner waved to the fans wiping away tear after tear. After rebuffing several requests from the organization to return to Fenway Park, Buckner decided it was time.
"I had to forgive," said Buckner, breaking down briefly during a press conference minutes after throwing out the first pitch.
"Not the fans, they've always been great to me," he said collecting himself. "I had to forgive the media — for what they put me, and especially my family, through ... I didn't feel I deserved it."
He, of course, was talking about the torment, specifically for his wife and two children.
"I have a son in college ball. ... He's had to deal with it," said Buckner. "And I have a daughter in softball. ... It just has been tough and that's not right."
Buckner was asked about one play, a particularly bad one, defining a career. He implied that that is an issue society has to figure out, especially when it comes to teaching lessons to children.
"I realize (professional athletes) accept some of that responsibility," he said. "But is that what you want to do to the kids, that they shouldn't try?"
People sometimes forget that Buckner came back to the team the season after his famed Game 6 World Series blunder in 1986, before he was traded to the Angels, and then for a brief 20-game stint in 1990 before retiring. But since then, he was conspicuous by his absence, including the parade after the 2004 World Series title in which a few dozen Sox alums got their taste of the title.
"It was great to see him," said ex-Sox outfielder Dwight Evans, who was with Buckner on the field and at his press conference, patting his back a few times as Buckner teared up. "Nobody played harder than Bill. Nobody prepared harder."
Buckner said there were many fond memories of playing in Boston, including the standing ovation he received on opening day in 1990, which he said reminded him a lot of yesterday.
"I remember when I was traded here from the Cubs," he recalled. "The first game was a Saturday, in the afternoon, against Kansas City. I remember I got to the hotel the night before, too late to play (on Friday night). I remember looking out the window. I could see the park from the hotel."
Buckner's infamy in Boston has been worldwide for more than two decades now. You can't be a sports fan of any kind and not know of the connection between Boston and Buckner.
"After being around here a certain amount of time you are going to hear about (Buckner and Game 6)," said Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who was among several Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox honored before the game.
Buckner admitted he has followed and even rooted for the Red Sox over recent years, commending the new ownership and the team for their two World Series championships.
"Recently, I've been very happy for them," said Buckner. "They've won two titles ... I give a lot of credit to the organization."
Leave it to former Celtics great John Havlicek, who was among the alums of Boston champs, to sum up Buckner's return.
"It's long overdue," said Havlicek. "It was unfortunate. It's time to move on."
Not only was his wife, Jody, and daughter, Christen, in attendance yesterday, but his daughter works for a TV station in Boise, Idaho, and she was filming her father's return trip to Fenway Park.
"It's helped me accept you guys back in the family," he joked about his daughter working in television.
By the time the game started and the Red Sox took control of the opener against the Detroit Tigers, Buckner's return was still on the minds of many.
"I was 10 when the Sox lost to the Mets. I was devastated for a long time," said Clay Patles of Methuen, who attended the game with his 11-year-old son, Anthony. "I was so happy for Buckner. It made this day even more special."
As for the last remaining vestige of baggage from the decades of misery, yesterday appears to have disappeared forever.
"I will never forget this," said Buckner. "I will be back again. In fact, I look forward to it."
E-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.