Leon Durham played 1,067 games in the big leagues for three teams over a 10-year career. He collected 992 hits, hit 147 HRs and knocked in 530 runs. He had a .277 lifetime BA with an OPS of .831 and stole 106 bags.

His best season was in 1982 when as a 24-year-old Cub outfielder he batted .312, recording 168 hits with 22 HRs, 90 RBI, a .909 OPS and 281 TB accompanied by 28 steals. He was a Silver Slugger Award Winner that season (as a left fielder) and a National League All-Star.

In 1983 Durham’s sizzling first half including 12 HRs and 55 RBI was parlayed into his second consecutive All-Star selection but shortly after the break he was injured and missed the rest of the season.

This sets the stage for 1984.

The Cubs made a number of deals which improved the team as well as some internal moves, acquiring Bob Dernier and Gary Matthews from the Phillies and moving Keith Moreland to right field. This allowed Durham to play first base, essentially rendering incumbent Bill Buckner expendable, the height of irony for the purpose of this tale.

Buckner was traded to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley; Durham hit .279 with 23 dingers and 96 RBI; and the Cubs won the NL East.

Bill Buckner’s career in the bigs was more than twice as long as Durham’s. In twenty-two seasons and 2,517 games played he amassed 2,715 hits, hit .289 and racked up 3,833 TB. He had 498 doubles to his credit, 174 HRs, 1208 RBI and even 183 steals.

He was the prototypical contact hitter, striking out 453 times in 10,037 PA or roughly once in every 22.15 trips to the batter’s box.

(To lend clarity to this phenomenal K:PA ratio, in 2017 major league batters have whiffed once every 4.6 PA; last season it was once every 4.74. A decade ago it was once every 5.86 and in 2004 when Juan Pierre logged 147 consecutive PA without a K, the figure was once every 5.92.

For those enraptured by numbers and records, the Elias Sports Bureau offers this: in 1976 Dave Cash of the Philadelphia Phillies went to the plate 223 times in a row without being rung up, the longest streak in the Expansion Era or since 1961. Buckner led the league in this category in 1980, ’82, ’85 and ’86 and finished second in 1979, ’81, ’83 and ‘87).

Playing for the Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Angels and Royals Buckner was the NL batting champ in 1980 (.324) and an All-Star in 1981 (Cubs). Few may remember or even recognize that on April 8, 1974 it was Bill Buckner, playing left field for the Dodgers, who climbed the fence in vain pursuing Hank Aaron’s 715th. HR(caught by Tom House in the bullpen).

Another grossly overlooked tidbit: in 1985 he set the Major League record for assists by a first baseman in a season with 184, a mark which stood for nearly 25 years until Albert Pujols then of the Cardinals registered 185 in 2009.

Long before Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon gold-bricked the moniker, Leon Durham blasted a pitch in 1977 as a St. Louis Cardinals farmhand with Class A Gastonia over the billboard promoting Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco in the Charlotte ballpark.

He was the original ‘Bull Durham.’

In 2006 Bleed Cubbie Blue ranked Durham #62 of The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time.

Not bad for a player who spent just seven full seasons in a Cub uniform; was once traded for Bruce Sutter; and who, when assured by coach Don Zimmer that no ill could come of it, decided to use his first baseman’s mitt which had been soaked through with Gatorade accidentally by teammate Ryne Sandberg before the most important game in the franchise’s history to date.

As legend has it, ten minutes before the fifth and deciding contest of the 1984 NLCS between the Cubs and the Padres at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, Gold Glove second baseman Sandberg — who committed 6 errors all season — accidentally knocked over the cooler filled with Gatorade in the Cubbies’ dugout. Durham’s first baseman’s mitt was saturated, the sticky substance all over it and seeping through it.

As stunned teammates looked on, Durham asked the sagacious baseball lifer Zimmer, “What should I do Zim? Should I still use this glove or my other one?”

The four-time manager, cold-heartedly nicknamed ‘Gerbil’ by Red Sox counter-cultural hurlers Bill Lee and Jim Willoughby in the 70’s and the NL Manager of the Year in 1989 with these very same Cubs, advised Durham, “I think you should go ahead and use that glove anyway, Bull. It might bring you good luck.”

Wrong answer.

Towels, a hair dryer and karma were no match for what was the preordained, the inevitable.

In 1986 at 36 years of age Bill Buckner played in 153 games for the Red Sox, making 681 PA and striking out 25 times. He had 168 hits including 39 doubles and 18 HRs and knocked in 102 runs while batting .267.

These numbers came on the heels of an all-star caliber season in ’85 when Buckner’s play was nothing short of sensational. He appeared in all 162 games, stepping into the left-handed batter’s box 719 times. He struck out on 36 occasions, raking to the tune of: 201 hits; 46 doubles; 16 HRs; 110 RBI; 89 R; .299 BA; .773 OPS; and 301 TB. He also stole 18 bases and was caught stealing only 4 times.

Though there was a slight decline in production from 1985 to 1986, Buckner was still a valuable piece to say the least and his teammates knew it.

Roger Clemens the Cy Young Award winner and AL MVP in ’86 noted, “We saw the work he had to do to get ready to play every day and he was one of the reasons why we were in the position we were in…This guy and the major league career he had were fantastic, and again he was one of the reasons we had a championship season.”

Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs who had 207 hits that season en route to the third of his five AL batting crowns with an other-worldly .357 BA concurred, stating matter-of-factly, “We never would have made the playoffs that year without Bill Buckner at first base…There were countless times he would save you from an error with his glove.”

The San Diego Padres won their first pennant in club history when they climbed back from an 0–2 deficit by winning three straight to eliminate the Cubs in the 1984 NLCS.

While the collar was becoming ever-so-tight around the Cubbies’ necks, they remained confident heading into Game 5 with their ace Rick Sutcliffe — who had shut out the Pads in Game 1 — on the hill.

Jumping out to a 3–0 lead against the Friars’ Eric Show made them feel even better. Leon Durham’s two-run blast got the party started and Jody Davis’ solo shot completed the outburst, without a hitter having been retired in the second inning. The score remained 3–0 Cubs until the bottom of the sixth inning when San Diego scored a pair of runs playing small ball: a bunt; a single; a walk and two sacrifice flies.

In the bottom of the seventh, postseason history was to be made and the most dubious of distinctions was to be indelibly etched.

Cubs fans will never forget it. With a man on second, pinch-hitter Tim Flannery hit a sharp grounder to Durham at first base who watched it scoot under his glove and between his legs.

The infamous E3 was followed by a single and a double, scoring two, with an extra base taken on the throw to the plate and another single. When the dust cleared Sutcliffe was gone and the Padres had a 6–3 lead.

Durham, his top-of-the-ninth at bat producing the first out, was the goat.

He was thereafter joined at the hip with the Curse of the Billy Goat dating back to 1945, so prominent in Cub lore.

The Cubs’ victory in the 2016 World Series — their first in 108 years or since 1908 — surely assuaged the fans and Durham too for that matter.

It took a long time and the 2004 World Series Championship — not to mention those in 2007 and 2013 — for Red Sox fans spanning the globe to forgive and forget Bill Buckner’s epic gaffe in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets.

The Sox ahead 3–2 in games, were one strike away twice — or was it three times? — from winning the game and the series.

Up by 2 runs heading into the bottom of the tenth inning the inimitable hook-nosed skipper John McNamara sent out Calvin Schiraldi for a risky third inning of relief. Schiraldi it should be noted had averaged more than two innings pitched over the course of his 51 appearances in 1986 but the move, at this critical juncture especially, could still be deemed questionable.

(Also questionable among other moves or non-moves was the decision to pinch-hit for the 24-year-old Clemens in the top of the eighth. Although he had already thrown 117 pitches, he’d held the Mets to four hits and two runs (one earned).

According to McNamara in a 2011 interview, “he [Clemens] came off the mound in the bottom of the [seventh] inning and we were waiting there at the steps to congratulate him you know, getting out of the seventh and he came down the steps and he said, ‘That’s all I can pitch.’ Quote unquote…And my answer to him was, ‘You gotta be shitting me.’ And he said, ‘no,’ and he showed us his finger…where he had the start of a paper tear on his middle finger and — well, correct this right here and now — he had no blister whatsoever, and how that got started I don’t know. But it spread rapidly and it continued over the next two years [that] the blister took him out of the ball game. And that is not the case. As sure as I’m sitting here.”

Predictably, Clemens has steadfastly refuted his former skipper’s claims on multiple occasions and McNamara insists that he’s telling the truth.

(For whatever it’s worth, McNamara also confirmed the nasty rumor that Oil Can Boyd didn’t pitch in the deciding Game 7 because he was too drunk to do so).

Schiraldi was looking down the barrel of the Mets 2–3–4 hitters to start the tenth.

It did not go well.

He retired Backman and Hernandez on flyouts to left and center respectively and McNamara looked like Joe McCarthy.

Then Gary Carter singled. Reliever Rick Aguilera’s spot in the order was up next courtesy of Davey Johnson’s double switch in the top of the ninth (Lee Mazzilli taking over for Darryl Strawberry in right and Aguilera coming in to pitch).

And the rest is history.

Pinch hitter Kevin Mitchell: single; Ray Knight: single scoring Carter, Mitchell to third; Schiraldi out, Bob Stanley in; Mookie Wilson up: Seven pitches, 2–2 count, wild pitch scoring Mitchell and moving Knight to second; Tenth pitch: weak roller to Buckner’s left, through his legs and Knight scores without a throw; Ballgame: Mets 6-Red Sox 5.

In 2011 MLB Network ranked this game as the third greatest of the preceding fifty years (“MLB’s 20 Greatest Games”).

Tell that to Buckner and the Red Sox.

Leon Durham and Bill Buckner, once teammates, have shared — and still share — the ignominy of making a crucial mistake at a critical moment in the company of millions.

There are few greater embarrassments and humiliations in the sports world than that which each man has endured. Playing for franchises located in two rabid baseball towns surely didn’t make it any easier.

But what’s done is done and cannot be undone. So you move along, move forward and look back sparingly if at all.

Time really does heal all wounds…if you figure out a way to let it.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in July 2017.]

ADDENDA: Leon Durham, 62, is presently in his second year as the hitting coach for the Louisville Bats, Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. He previously served as the longtime hitting coach for Detroit’s Triple-A Mud Hens and acted as the Tigers’ assistant hitting coach in 2017.

Bill Buckner died on May 27, 2019 in Boise, Idaho at the age of 69.

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