Mets-Red Sox: The Story of the Ball That Got Through Billy Buckner's Legs
"A little roller up along first...behind the bag. It gets through Buckner. Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it."
It's a call that Mets fans have heard hundreds of times, and it's a call that never, ever gets old. It's the same call that brings Red Sox fans close to tears, and it's the call that reinforced the Curse of the Bambino.
Mets fans of a certain age will tell you exactly where they were when Mookie Wilson's groundball down the line went between Billy Buckner's legs, and for people in New York, it is one of the most defining plays in the club's 48-year history.
ESPN voted it as the second most memorable moment of the last 25 years (losing out only to the 1980 Miracle on Ice victory in Lake Placid which topped the 100-strong list) and the Mets voted it as their No. 1 historic moment of all time.
Lost in the excitement of Ray Knight hopping and jumping towards home plate on that October night in 1986 was the ball that created history. As the fans celebrated and the Red Sox filed away, right field umpire Ed Montague snatched it up from the floor, took a pen, and marked a small 'X' near the seam. Who would have known that some 24 years later it would be on display for fans everywhere to enjoy.
The baseball that Mookie hit—yes, the baseball—is now on display in the New York Mets Hall of Fame and Museum, and I had the chance to speak with the owner of the famous ball, L.A.-based songwriter Seth Swirsky.
"It was picked up in the outfield by the right field umpire and he put an 'x' on it and gave it to the Mets traveling secretary Arthur Richman," Seth said.
"Arthur then went into the clubhouse and gave it to Mookie and said 'This is the one' and Mookie kissed it, everybody kissed it, and there is a tobacco stain, and there was just this big celebration, and the Mookie wrote on it 'To Arthur, the ball won it for us.'"
After holding onto the ball for several years, Richman eventually put it up for auction in 1992.
Tina Mannix, the senior director of marketing at the New York Mets, said: "Arthur got the ball from one of the umpires and Mookie actually told me that Arthur called him to ask for his permission to sell it and give the money to charity.
I had always heard, 'Grr Arthur Richman sold it.' I never knew that he had sold it for charity and I never knew that he had asked Mookie's permission to, which I think was great."
Just to be sure that the ball up for auction was the “Buckner Ball”—as it came to be known—Arthur also wrote a letter to verify the ball’s authenticity. Dated May 26, 1992, he wrote: “This is the actual baseball, hit by Mookie Wilson, which went between Bill Buckner’s legs in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox at Shea Stadium Flushing, New York.
"Ed Montague, who was the right field umpire for that game, picked up the baseball. He later presented it to me, saying that he thought I would appreciate having it more than he would…This baseball is 100 percent authentic."
The ball was eventually snapped up by actor Charlie Sheen for $93,500, and the star held on to the ball for almost eight years until he decided to part with a lot of his sporting memorabilia collection in 2000.
Seth said that when the ball was originally up for auction in 1992, he wasn’t collecting at that point. He said he didn't think he even read about the auction. "I wasn't a collector then, I was a songwriter," he admitted.
"I started writing letters to baseball players in the mid '90s for the fun of it to show my young son one day and they became my first best-selling book called Baseball Letters.
"In the midst of writing these letters I would find out different things about the players and I just got into the history of baseball in a big way and before I knew it I was bidding in an auction here and trading there.
"And then before I knew it I was getting these fantastic artifacts...Reggie Jackson's third home run ball from Game Six when he hit three in a row, the letter Judge Landis wrote to Shoeless Joe Jackson forever banning him from playing baseball again for his 'throwing of the World Series' in 1919..."
That is where he was in April 2000 when Charlie Sheen was changing his life a little bit and decided to rid himself of his memorabilia. Seth stayed up late into the night to bid on the ball and he came away with the high bid, well after 3 a.m. Eastern time.
"I'm a kid that grew up in Great Neck on Long Island. I was at the '69 World Series.
"I was a kid that went to camp and used to bring a transistor radio and played shortstop on my camp team and right in between each play the whole summer of '69 I'd pick up the transistor radio and hear 'Al Weis hit a home run' or 'Tom Seaver struck out the side' all the great Mets from '69.
"So I'm a diehard longtime fan. I went to Shea Stadium, I went to the World Series at nine years old in '69, and I really grew up with it. So for me to end up with it was a tremendously humbling experience and I was very glad to be able to lend it to the Mets, and I'm so, so happy that fans are getting a good feeling from it."
Seth reunited Mookie Wilson with the ball when he brought it to Shea Stadium in 2006 for the 20th anniversary of the '86 World Series victory and he said he had no hesitations about loaning the ball to the Mets for the inaugural year of the new museum.
As Eric Strohl, the senior director of collections at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, said: "As far as that moment in history goes, it was a pretty drastic part of Mets history. I would say that probably ranks up there as one of the most important moments in all of Mets history."
While the ball may be seen as ‘priceless’ to some Mets fans, there is—like most things in life—a price attached if you dig deep enough. Seth actually got the ball at the bargain price of $63,945, almost one-third cheaper than what Sheen had paid for it some eight years earlier, and now it has rocketed in value.
While Seth and the Mets refused to disclose how much they agreed the ball was worth when they signed documents to have the ball on display at Citi Field, Seth said it is fair to say it has increased in value multiple times over.
"I'd say it's worth between $500,000 and $1,000,000 if you look at some of the prices of equally-valued things...Babe Ruth's home run at the very first All-Star Game in 1933 went for $900,000, Mickey Mantle's first home run ball almost $1,000,000, Mark McGwire's home run ball—although it was overpriced at the time—went for $3.2 million.
"But for me, I want to share my pieces, I don't want them hidden away. I just want to make sure they are secure. I see myself as a guardian, someone who has a responsibility to keep these pieces in good shape. This is real, real history here and it's my job to protect it.
"I always imagine a nine-year-old kid walking through the new Mets museum with his dad and his dad saying to hi, 'Let me tell you about that game.' For me, that’s the Bobby Thomson game that my dad would tell me about. And I'm just imagining that kid being thrilled, and so any way I can give back to the Mets makes me completely happy."
It’s not just fans who get a kick out of seeing the ball. One day, Seth was being interviewed on the field at Dodger stadium by legendary broadcaster Vin Scully, the man who made the now-famous call of that World Series moment.
Seth decided to bring the ball along to show Vin, and before he knew it he was surrounded by players and clubhouse staff all hoping to get a glimpse of the ball.
"Vin Scully takes me out on the Dodgers' field and he's asking me about my different books, and at the end of the interview I said 'Can I ask you a question?' He was taken by surprise, and I pulled out the Mookie ball because he was the one who made that famous call on TV...'a little roller up along first...'
"All of the players were on the field working out—it was the Marlins against the Dodgers—and Mike Lowell comes over. Then Bill Robinson, who was coaching first base for the Mets that night, comes over, and soon everybody is over there wanting to touch the ball.
"These players were 10 years old in 1986, 12, 13 years old playing in Little League, but they all came over when they were supposed to be going through their routines on the field. I’ve never seen anything like it.
"To them, that game [in 1986] was that same Bobby Thomson home run game; that was the shot heard around the world of their generation. That was the moment that was most crystallized. People could talk about Joe Carter's home run that ended the World Series in 1992, but I don't think it has the same kind of clout.
"It's Toronto, it's not New York City. It was the Mets-Red Sox. It had everything made for folklore. So I think that's why it has an 'otherness' to it. And I mean, it was the ball.
"It's never the glove. The game’s called base ball. It's about the ball. It's always about the ball. It's never about the bat. The bat is a great piece, don't get me wrong, the shoes Buckner was wearing was incredible, the glove, all of it's good. I don't denigrate anybody's piece of memorabilia that goes to the play, but it's about the ball.
"This ball mean something to me. I like things that tell a story. My heart is with the Mookie ball because I grew up a Mets fan. All that stuff about Buckner saying he had the original ball was bitter grapes. He was still very stung by it. How could he have the ball? I didn't see him run out into right field to get it. Did you?
"The more that sees it, the merrier."
Seth Swirsky is the author of three baseball books: Baseball Letters (Three Rivers Press, 1996), Every Pitcher Tells A Story (Times Books, 1999) and Something to Write Home About (Random House, 2003). His second solo album, Watercolor Day (2010) has just been released.
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