By Maureen Mullen
BOSTON Bill Buckner is back in baseball in the Boston area.
Almost 21 years since retiring as a player, and in the season that will mark the 25th anniversary of Boston's 1986 American League championship (and Red Sox fans don't need to be reminded about its ending), Bill Buckner will once again be wearing a baseball uniform locally.
But it won't be a Red Sox uniform. Buckner will make his managerial debut with the Brockton Rox of the independent Can-Am League. It's an opportunity that has been presented to Buckner several times over the years, but until now the timing wasn't right.
"I just thought it'd be a fun challenge," Buckner said by phone Tuesday afternoon from Idaho, where he makes his home. "I like the shorter season and the competitive level. Regular non-independent league minor-league baseball, you're so concerned with developing players and doing that sort of thing, where the independent league is all about trying to win some games and have fun, play baseball. And I like that."
Buckner, who turned 61 in December, was a second-round pick of the Dodgers in the 1968 draft out of Napa High School in California. He made his big-league debut the next season, and hit .289 with 174 home runs, 1,208 RBI, and 2,715 hits in his 22-season career with the Dodgers, Cubs, Sox, Angels and Royals. He won a batting title in 1980 with the Cubs when he hit .324. In five seasons with the Sox, (1984-87, 1990), he hit .279 with 48 home runs and 324 RBI in 526 games.
This is Buckner's first professional managing job. Save for a short stint as a minor-league hitting instructor for the White Sox in the mid-1990s, his involvement with baseball since his retirement has been at at the amateur level.
"Just local with the kids," he said. "I've coached all the way from Little League up to college summer leagues. The managing thing is something I've always wanted to try. So I get to get a taste of that."
And with the youngest of his three children now 21, the timing is right.
"I had thought about it," he said. "But when my kids were home and my son was playing, I wanted to be around that. There were a couple of opportunities I've passed up along the way. But I thought this would be a good jump start.
"It's just the commitment, being away from home. I had gotten used to being home and kind of like it. My kids are growing up. My son's still playing baseball, and I'm trying to stay involved with that.
"Managing Brockton just seemed like it'd be a fun challenge."
With a playing career that spanned 2,517 games over parts of four decades, Buckner has a good deal of wisdom to offer young players especially in a league comprised mostly of players whose own careers may have never fully launched or have become derailed.
"I think that I was successful because I made a decision early on in my professional career that I was going to do whatever it took to get better than the guy that was next to me," Buckner said. "You got to understand that you got to do something to make yourself stand out. If you want to get to the next level, you got to put the time and effort into it. You got to be physically and mentally totally into it every day, every at-bat, every pitch.
"Not everybody's capable of doing that. But I think that if the players see the enthusiasm that I have and how I'm willing to go to bat for them and work hard, and how I was successful, then maybe they'll understand that and that'll help them out."
For someone who has never managed professionally, though, he knows it will be a challenge.
"I think managing, 75 percent of it is dealing with the pitching staff," he said. "So that is something that I need to stay on top of. As far as the everyday players, that'll all work itself out. I've watched good managers that have had success . . . If you're prepared, things'll work out. And I've always been one to prepare the best I can."
What is he most looking forward to?
"Being at the ballpark, doing something that we did when we were kids for fun," he said. "And probably the biggest thrill I get out of it is having players have success and being able to help them. There's that element of players getting a second opportunity in this league. Some of them have had success in getting back into organized ball. So that's an issue, too. If a player is serious about it, I'll do everything I can to help him get back and use my knowledge of the game to try to get them to that next level."
Getting back into organized baseball is something he might like to do down the road. But for now, he's looking no further than Brockton.
"Yeah, that's a possibility," he said. "But it's not the reason I'm doing it. I'm just going to focus on doing the best job I can this summer and have some fun. That's where I'm going to put my focus. If something else comes along the road, or if I say, 'Hey, I've really enjoyed this and I'm going to come back and do it again,' or 'I'm going to try to get a job somewhere else,' . . . that's not even in the line of thinking right now."
He played his last major league game in a Red Sox uniform, May 30, 1990, going 1-for-4 in a 4-3 loss in Texas. But, it is one game on a Saturday night in New York in late October 1986 that many Sox fans remember. Buckner bore the blame for a long time for that World Series loss. But, it hasn't prevented him from returning to the area. Two World Series championships since then can do wonders to soften fans' memories.
He's been back to Fenway Park since retiring, including Opening Day of the 2008 season after the Sox won their second World Series in four seasons. He threw the ceremonial first pitch to former teammate, right fielder Dwight Evans. As he walked to the mound from the outfield, Buckner was given a long standing ovation from the sellout crowd.
"It'll be fine," Buckner said of returning to the area. "The people there were good to me, and it'll be fine. It'll be all about baseball next summer. It's got nothing to do with my career. I'm not going to be getting any hits or getting anybody out."
His main goal for the season?
"Create a good baseball environment so people will come out and enjoy the games," he said. "It's all about enjoying the game of baseball. If you play good baseball, people like to watch it. And hopefully it'll be a great summer and we'll have some success."
Maureen Mullen is on Twitter at http:twitter.commaureenamullen