Buckner showed talent, character in Minors

Garvey remembers their years together in the Dodgers system

Bill Buckner, a 1968 second-rounder, won a PCL championship with Spokane in 1970 and reached the bigs for good in '71.

By Shlomo Sprung / MiLB.com | May 31, 2019 10:45 AM

Steve Garvey still remembers the day in 1968 when he met Bill Buckner, who died Monday at age 69.

It was a week before the Pioneer League season began, at a hotel in Ogden, Utah, where they were sent to begin their professional careers in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

"I remember walking into the hotel and seeing five, six guys talking to this jovial man," Garvey said, "and it turned out to be Tommy Lasorda."

Buckner, Bobby Valentine and Tom Paciorek were talking to the man who would be their manager that season in Ogden and would go on to manage Buckner and Garvey at Triple-A Spokane as well.

"I walked up and Lasorda turned around and said, 'This must be The Garv,'" the 10-time National League All-Star recalled.

Their lives changed forever after that, Garvey said, as he and Buckner began a close friendship that lasted more than 50 years. It started that day with practicing, bonding and building a team together. And what a team it was.

Garvey and Buckner both signed as part of the legendary Dodgers Draft haul of 1968, which yielded six future All-Stars and 23 All-Star Game appearances, both records, according to MLB.com's Jim Callis in a 2015 story. Dodgers director of scouting Al Campanis selected Garvey, Buckner, Davey Lopes, Paciorek, Valentine, Doyle Alexander and Ron Cey.

"The greatest Draft in MLB history," Garvey said.

Buckner (l), Lasorda, Garvey and Valentine were with Ogden in 1968 (Ogden Raptors)

Buckner was a little quiet at first, mainly because his father, Leonard, had recently died, Garvey remembered.

"He was recovering from that," Garvey said. "We all tried to keep him busy and keep him involved. But he was such a competitor right from the beginning. Nobody was more competitive than Billy."

It was an Ogden team made up of an abnormally large number of former football players. Valentine was an All-American tailback from Stamford, Connecticut. Garvey played at Michigan State and Paciorek played at the University of Houston, where he was a defensive back drafted by the Miami Dolphins. Buckner was a star tight end at Napa High School in Vallejo, California.

"We all kind of had been dual-sport guys," Garvey said.

Ogden won the Pioneer League in 1968 with a 39-25 record. Buckner batted .344 that year and Garvey hit .338 with 20 homers and 59 RBIs. Garvey always remembered Buckner for how intense he was on the field, and how he loved to hit.

"Lasorda always said that for Garvey and Buckner, if the pitcher released the ball, we were swinging at it," Garvey said. "If you look at the stats, we both didn't walk very much."

Buckner walked 12 times and struck out 16 times in 64 games in that 1968 season. It was the beginning of a legendary trend -- he almost never fanned. In his 22 Major League seasons, the most he struck out in a season was 39 times, in 1984.

"He just had such a great, compact left-handed swing," Garvey said. "He was really a spray-the-ball-over-the-field player, good speed, solid defensive player. Nobody dove more for balls than he did or hustled harder, and that's why he was the type of player that led by example."

They both made the jump to Double-A in 1969 with the Albuquerque Dodgers of the Texas League, managed by Del Crandall.

Buckner (far right) donned a throwback uni in 1969. (Albuquerque Journal archives)

"We grew up together on and off the field," Garvey said.

Though the team finished 67-69, Buckner spent some time at Triple-A Spokane in the Pacific Coast League and the pair were both September callups to the Major Leagues for the first time. Buckner played one game without making a plate appearance, and Garvey went 1-for-3 in three games in Los Angeles.

The duo went to Spring Training in 1970, hoping to get more than just a cup of coffee at the Major League level.

"He and I battled, and we both ended up making the roster and going to LA together," Garvey said, "and getting an apartment in Marina del Rey. We were on our way to the Hall of Fame. By April 25, I think, we were both sent down to Triple-A."

Buckner hit .191 in 28 games with the big club in 1970, and Garvey played 34 games and batted .269.

"The team wasn't very good, and we both started Opening Night, and we were struggling," Garvey said. "And Walter Alston brought us both in and said, 'Fellas, you're going to have great futures, but you can't do it at this time here. We're going to have to take you in and out of the lineup so much [that] I want you to go down to Spokane and play every day there.'"

So the two got on a plane to Spokane, and Lasorda was waiting for them at the airport.

"We said, 'Are we going to have lunch?' And he said, 'No, we're going to the ballpark, and I'm going to throw batting practice to you.'"

Garvey believes the PCL Spokane Indians squad of 1970 deserves a place among the best teams in Minor League history. Spokane went 94-52 that year and had a plus-209 run differential, 799 scored to 590 allowed.

There was a point during that season when Buckner was at his most quintessentially intense. Garvey remembers him coming to the plate on one Sunday with the bases loaded, Spokane trailing by a run, and striking out to end the game.

"He didn't say a word," Garvey said. "He was fuming."

After the game, Garvey and Valentine went back to an apartment they shared with Paciorek and Buckner. Some of the players' girlfriends were up from Southern California for the weekend and came by for dinner.

"They had cooked this great barbecue," Garvey recalled. "Corn, potatoes and big steaks."

Everyone sat down at the table and Buckner still hadn't said a word.

"Just steaming," Garvey said. "His girlfriend puts this great looking steak on his plate, and he looks at it and he picks it up and he throws it against the wall. And it hit the wall and it just kind of stuck like suction, and it started to ease down the wall. And as it kept easing, we looked at each other and we started to laugh. And finally he started to laugh."

After the laughter had subsided, Valentine told Buckner that if he didn't want the steak Valentine would gladly have it.

"And Bill got up quick and grabbed the steak and put it on his plate and started cracking up," Garvey said. "That was how into the game he was and how much pride he had."

That Spokane team was led by Buckner, Garvey, Paciorek, Valentine, Lopes and Bill Russell on offense and Alexander, Charlie Hough, Doug Rau and Geoff Zahn on the mound. They won their division and swept Hawaii for the title.

Garvey and Buckner came up to the big leagues for good in 1971, and Russell and Cey joined them. Lopes came up in 1972.

Lasorda (l), Valentine, Garvey, Buckner, Tommy Hutton and Bill O'Brien in 1970 (Spokane Indians)

"We were all very competitive in a good way," Garvey said. "We were all suddenly caught up in the spirit of the Dodger organization, but we still drove each other to be the best on the team. And I think that's one of the reasons why we kept winning championships. By the time 1973 came along, we started to take that base and build the Dodgers that people remember."

The way most obituaries told Buckner's story this week, leading with his infamous error in the 1986 World Series, does a severe injustice to him as a person and as a player, according to Garvey.

"It's not necessarily what you are, but who you are. And he defined who he was," Garvey said. "He always said he assumed responsibility for that play. He was always a man and stood up and assumed it. How he handled that defined who he was. It always made me proud."

Buckner had always wanted to teach hitting after he retired, and he did, serving as the hitting coach for the Chicago White Sox in 1996-97, and filling the same role with the Rookie-level Boise Hawks in the Cubs organization from 2012-14.

Garvey's son, Ryan, spent a few years in the Minor Leagues and played with Tri-City of the Northwest League in Buckner's last year with the Hawks.

"And we went into Boise, we spent time with Billy at his house and talked about hitting. He just loved the game."

Garvey also called his longtime friend a great Christian, husband, father and human being. He saw Buckner in January at a card show in Westchester County, New York, where he heard the devastating news of Buckner's illness.

"I hear 'Hey Garv,' and I knew it was his voice," Garvey said. "I went over to him, he looked at me and said, 'Garv, I have dementia.' And I said, 'Billy, I'm so sorry.' And I hugged him."

When Garvey learned of Buckner's death of Lewy Body dementia on Monday, he knew that his good friend of over 50 years was no longer suffering and finally at peace.

"I've always loved him," Garvey said. "And, sadly, we've lost him, but he's in God's hands. I'm quite sure that God re-created that play and Buckner fielded it cleanly and stepped on the bag, and that was it."

Shlomo Sprung is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @sprungonsports. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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