The Many Realities of Bill Buckner

A loose argument for fiction in a nonfiction universe

by Chris Tarry

On May 5th, 1967, eighteen-year-old Bill Buckner was about to graduate from Nappa High School in the northern California town of American Canyon. As a two-time All-State wide receiver, he’d briefly considered a career in football, but it was baseball at which he truly excelled. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the second round straight out of high school, making him one of the youngest players chosen that year. He would go on to marry his high school sweetheart, Jodi, and they would have three children; two daughters Brittany and Christen, and a son named Bobby. His life was unfolding as if preordained, and he was quickly becoming one of the game’s top new players. Little did he know that his entry into the Major Leagues would set him on a collision course with history, the Boston Red Sox, and a bouncing ball that would forever challenge the notion of fate, destiny, and the timing of a single life-changing moment.

Max Tegmark was born on May 5th, 1967, in Sweden. By the age of sixteen he’d programmed (and sold commercially) his own word processor for the ABC80, one of Europe’s first personal computers. By the time he became one of the world’s top cosmologists, expanding the field of quantum mechanics as a professor at Stanford University, he’d become a proponent of a little known theory by the then deceased scientist, Hugh Everett. The concept, called The Theory of the Universal Wave Function (or many-worlds interpretation), had been outlined in Everett’s 1956 thesis, and been overlooked by much of mainstream science. Everett’s paper had sat unread in the vaults of Princeton University for nearly ten years, and when it was discovered, Max Tegmark and others helped propel the revolutionary ideas it proposed into mainstream acceptance. Everett’s theory went like this: All possible alternative histories and futures are real, each representing an actual “world” (or universe). Every decision we make, every action we take, creates a split, a new universe that continues down a different path from our own. Everything that could have happened is playing out in an alternate existence. Everything imagined, or that could be imagined has happened (or will happen), somewhere in the universe, eventually. Max Tegmark outlined the importance of Everett’s discovery during an interview with Mark Oliver ,Everett’s son, for the BBC documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives., “In my personal opinion,” he tells Mark, “your dad’s theory is one of the most important discoveries of all time. I would put it up there with Einstein’s relativity theory, and Newton’s theory of gravity.”

In the May 5th, 1967 issue of Life magazine, Omega was touting its new Constellation line of watches, and when it came to time, no one measured intricacies of a single moment quite like Omega: Omega has been selected by NASA as standard issue for Astronauts in the historic Gemini and Apollo programs. It is also the official watch for the 1967 Pan American Games, Canada and the 1968 Olympics, Mexico… where a difference of 1/100th of a second can mean a new world record. Omega was making inroads into the world of professional sports. Their branded digital clocks, an invention that would come three years later, would eventually become the standard of time by which most sporting events were measured. From swimming pools and soccer fields, to tennis courts and the scoreboards of professional baseball, Omega timepieces became ubiquitous reminders of the importance of time, and an impressive tool when documenting sport’s most critical moments.

In 1967, the short story “The Night That All Time Broke Out,” was published in the science fiction anthology, Dangerous Visions. Harlan Ellison, the book’s editor, received a special citation at the 26th World Science Fiction Convention for editing what was then called, “the most significant and controversial SF book published.” The story, written by Brian W. Aldiss, depicts a future world in which time itself has been concentrated into a substance that is inhaled and used as a drug. The user regresses to an earlier time period, a place where the fictive universe and the ability to right imaginary wrongs holds a powerful grip over society. When an explosion at the factory that produces the gas causes a widespread regression of civilization, the world is forced to consider the true meaning of time, and the possibility of a rewritten history.

Also published in 1967, Dannie Plachta’s short story, “The Man From When,” involves a character who accidentally destroys the planet when he travels backward eighteen minutes in time. The “Butterfly Effect”, as it became known in science fiction, holds that any variation of the past would cause irreparable damage in the present. The future, however, is a blank slate, and if Max Tegmark has anything to say about it, the concept of the mulitverse (and the mathematics that have proven its existence) holds within it the possibility of every future outcome. If the theory is true, nonfiction, fiction, and all stories, regardless of how real or un-real they may be in this world, are playing out right now in a universe not altogether different from our own. A place where Dannie Plachta and Brian W. Aldiss’ visions of time and a fictional future, are as real as they are.

Bill Buckner was traded to the Red Sox in 1984. He’d been a standout player with the Chicago Cubs (where he’d been traded after his time with the Dodgers), and at one point was the Cubs’ sole representative in the 1981 Major League All-Star game. By 1986, as a member of Red Sox, he would help lead the team to their first serious chance at a World Series title in sixty-eight years. In game six of the best-of-seven series, the Red Sox led the New York Mets by three games to two. A win in the sixth game would clinch them the Series. In the bottom of the tenth (extra innings), with the Mets Mooky Wilson at bat, the Sox were one out away from ending the longest World Series drought in baseball history, and putting to rest a curse that had haunted the organization (and their fans) since 1919. During that fateful year, the Red Sox sold a then struggling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, thereby setting in motion one of the most widely believed superstitions in modern-day sports. The Curse of the Bambino (as it came to be called), pointed to the Babe Ruth trade as the reason Boston hadn’t won a World Series in over six decades.

With the score tied, the Mets were at bat with a runner at second, and Boston was one out away from the win. Bill Buckner was playing first base. The pitch to Mookie Wilson looked like it was going wide, but then, unexpectedly, Mookie swung and connected with the ball in the flimsiest of ways. It rolled toward Buckner at first base, what the press would later call a “slow roller,” the type of hit, they argued, that could have been caught by a ten-year-old. Buckner stepped off the bag, lowered his glove, and waited for the ball to come to him. He only had to scoop it up, tag first base, and abolish the Bambino’s curse forever. As the ball rolled toward his glove, it took an imperceptible hop, as if it tipped by fate itself, and bounced through his legs. The Mets’ Ray Knight, who was at second base, rounded third and scored on the error. The Mets won the game 6–5.

Max Tegmark expanded on Everett’s multiple universe theory by looking at space and its unlimited distances. He coined his research, “The Theory of Everything,” which argues: All structures that exist mathematically also exist physically.

In an article in Scientific American, the heart of Tegmark’s work on the concept of the multiverse theory is described this way: One of the many implications of recent cosmological observations is that the concept of parallel universes is no mere metaphor. Space appears to be infinite in size. If so, then somewhere out there, everything that is possible becomes real, no matter how improbable it is. Beyond the range of our telescopes are other regions of space that are identical to ours.

In his paper, “100 Years of the Quantum,” Tegmark points to the Delayed Choice Experiment as way of understanding odd behaviors when it came to the motion of a single proton. The Delayed Choice Experiment is a variation on the famed Double-Slit Experiment, which states: Matter and energy can display characteristics of both waves and particles, thereby suggesting the ability to exist in two places at the same time. This observation is often given as proof when arguing the existence of multiple universes. Interestingly, in his paper, Max Tegmark graphically depicts the Delayed Choice Experiment in the form of a baseball diamond (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Explanation of the Delayed Choice Experiment represented in the form of a baseball diamond.

When the particle leaves home plate as both a photon and a wave, it bounces off the mirror at first base and travels toward second. But it also travels through the mirror out into right field, thus existing in two places at the same time.

Buckner Boots Big Grounder! said the headline in the Boston Herald the next morning. And after the Red Sox blew a three-run lead in game seven, handing the championship to the New York Mets, history was set; it would anoint Bill Buckner as the poster child of the choke. It would be another eighteen years (2006) before the Boston Red Sox would finally win a World Series, putting an end to the Babe’s curse. During those long years, Buckner’s error and the myth surrounding it would metastasize into the greatest “what if” story in professional sports. Actor Charlie Sheen paid $93,000 dollars for the “Buckner Ball” at auction in 1992. A few years after Buckner’s error, a perennially loosing softball team in Washington DC changed its name to The Bill Buckner Emulation Society. In 1997, the Boston rock band Slide released an album entitled, Forgiving Buckner. The ball was on loan for a time in the Mets Hall of Fame, and while it was there, it became the most popular artifact in the museum.

“I’ll be seeing clips of this thing till the day I die. I accept that,” said Bill Buckner years later. “On the other hand, I’ll never understand why.”

On May 5th, 1967, eighteen-year-old Bill Buckner is about to graduate from high school. He’s a star football player, but his future is in baseball. He’s got a girl and that girl is on her way to becoming his wife, Jodi. That day, the closest available weather station to American Canyon (Hamilton AFB, CA), reports the following conditions: Temperature 60.1 degrees Fahrenheit, wind speed 5.1 knots, precipitation zero inches: ten degrees above the average temperature for that time of year and extremely dry. Bill Buckner stops to grab a Pepsi from Verne’s Corner Store. He’s just gotten out of school for the day and is on his way to Fagiani’s, on Main Street, a bar where he’s worked part time since the tenth grade. His dad told him a part-time job would help put hair on his chest and some money in the bank, and goddamnit William, you can’t count on baseball to pay the bills.

What he hasn’t yet told his father (and this is a worrisome thing for sure) is that he has decided to quit baseball and focus on his dream of becoming a football star. There had been the phone call from the LA Dodgers that morning, and hey, wasn’t it a wonderful thing, that feeling of being desired. But baseball isn’t for him, he knows this now, and as he walks to work, school backpack slung over his shoulder, Pepsi in hand, he thinks about the life that lay ahead of him. He thinks about Jodi and wonders if they’ll work out. Because there are other girls, and man-oh-man Jodi really let him have it today at school when he told her he hadn’t called the Dodgers back. Maybe Jodi wasn’t for him after all? Maybe a different girl (like Erica Wilson. Jesus, that girl!). Maybe she would be a little more understanding. Maybe she was the kind of girl you marry and knock out a few kids with? Erica had been in the stands at every one of his high school football games, that brunette hair of hers bouncing around like a shampoo commercial every time they scored.

So here’s eighteen-year-old Bill Buckner now, across the street from Fagiani’s, the traffic on Main a little heavier than usual. The town installed its first traffic light a week ago, and is it ever a high tech looking thing among the plainness of American Canyon.

He waits on the corner for the light to change. No sense dodging traffic on such a beautiful day, he isn’t in a rush, his shift doesn’t start for another fifteen minutes. He takes another swig of Pepsi, thinks about Jodi again and how they’d borrowed (stolen!) his father’s Chevrolet last Friday night and driven up to Make Out Point. Thank Christ they’d gotten the car back in the garage before his father woke up.

The light turns yellow, then red, and the traffic stops. Bill Buckner steps off the curb. He checks his watch, the Omega his father bought him for Christmas. He still has a few minutes, perhaps he’ll grab a pack of baseball cards from the smoke shop down the street? Maybe he’ll get to work early and start on cleaning out the grease trap. He is halfway across the street now and suddenly has this curious sensation that this decision, this very moment, will determine the fate of the rest of his life. Go left and it’s Erica Wilson and a couple of toe-haired kids (five of the rug rats if you can believe it!). Go straight, and he marries Jodi (she would want him back in baseball, that was for damned sure). Head toward work and suddenly he’s the famed Bill Buckner, the guy who catches the game winning touchdown pass during the 1986 Superbowl between the Dallas Space Monkey’s and Venezuelan Troglodytes, immortalized forever as a hero, carried on the shoulders of his teammates and loved by all. Because for everyone who is there to witness it, that story, this reality, is the only one they know.