By Steve Politi
CHATHAM, N.J. -- They arrive to their latest autograph show in a silver Nissan Altima, and in case you think a quarter century has altered their respective places in the universe, here is proof to the contrary:
Mookie Wilson rides shotgun.
Bill Buckner sits in the back.
They are 33 minutes late to the show at Legends Gallery, a local memorabilia and framing shop, but the customers in a line snaking through the exhibits don't seem to mind. They are mostly Mets fans, including one who lugged a piece of the old outfield wall from Shea Stadium here to get it signed, but there are a few citizens of Red Sox Nation, too.
This is their moment of shared history, one personified by the two graying former ballplayers who sit on tall stools behind the counter.
You can't help but marvel at how utterly uncomfortable this must have been at first -- Buckner signing his name on that same iconic photo, the one where the slow roller slips into right field as Wilson storms up the first-base line into history, as Wilson waits to do the same -- but those days are long gone.
There is a sixth stage of grief, it turns out, when it comes to sports infamy. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. And, finally, monetization. Wilson and Buckner have been cashing in on Game 6 of the 1986 World Series for longer than they can remember now.
"Oh, man. How many years?" Buckner asks his partner.
"We started kind of late – maybe four or five years after," Wilson replies.
"It was almost like, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em,'" Buckner says.
"That's a good way of putting it! That's exactly it right there!" Wilson laughs.
And, along the way, they have become the Bobby Thomson-Ralph Branca of their generation.
Thomson and Branca, inseparable in baseball history for The Shot Heard Round The World, became attached at countless memorabilia and autograph shows later in their lives. They became a vaudeville act of sorts, entertaining the crowds waiting to pay for their signatures. Thomson always used the same line when he talked about his partner: "It's like we were married." Except, for the Giants outfielder and the Dodgers pitcher, there could be no divorce. It really was a death-do-us-part relationship, one that ended when Thomson died in 2010.
Wilson and Buckner always will have that same link. So there were two options: Hide from it or embrace it. And, all these years later, here they are.
"I think it was more awkward for me because as ballplayers, you understand the pain and you understand each other's pain," Wilson, 57, says. "And I didn't know how he would receive me through everything. He actually broke the ice. He made it a lot easier for me."
Buckner, 63, nods his head. But make no mistake: It takes just a few minutes watching them to know that Wilson has the easy part of this tandem. A nun named Theresa Chiappa asks to pose for a photo between them, and after the iPhone clicks, she turns and pats Buckner on the shoulder.
"I want to thank you for helping us win," she says.
He has heard it all by now. The Buckner who was bitter over how a long and successful career had been overshadowed by one moment is gone, replaced with one who insists he wants "to be positive about things in life." So there he was, in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm a couple years ago, earning redemption by making a diving catch to save a baby from a burning building.
Still: It doesn't take much prodding -- none, actually -- before he admits that the way that play is perceived still bothers him.
"The whole thing was crazy to begin with," he says. "It didn't add up. It wasn't the seventh game; it was the sixth game. We might not have won the sixth game anyway. The whole thing didn't add up. It was just the perfect storm -- New York/Boston -- and that bothered me because I thought there were other mistakes that were made in that game and some of the other games we didn't win.
"I've had multiple shows or articles written about it and people will come up and say, 'Hey you got screwed, we want to make it come out the right way.' And it never does. It never does. It's just the way it is -- they tell you they're going to do it the right way, and the next day you hear them, 'Buckner lost the World Series.' It's almost like they tried to make a story out of the story instead of just letting the story be the story. Because the real story? It wasn't that good."
He can't change it now, so he's stopped trying. He neatly signs his name on that same photo, again and again, before Wilson signs his own and adds the date -- 10/25/86 -- every time. They had another show in Long Island before this, and they'll have a big one in New Rochelle, N.Y., next.
They've become good friends through all of this, with Wilson marveling that "in all the years we've been knowing each other" Buckner never told him that he likes to scuba dive. A customer at the shop asks them if they'll sit in a pair of seats taken from Shea before it was demolished, and just like that, they look like a couple of buddies taking in a ballgame.
"Look at that center fielder out there!" Buckner cracks. "He should have caught that ball. What's his name … Mookie Wilson?!"
Wilson leans back and laughs. He was dealt the better hand from the start in their relationship, with that slow roller forever slipping into right field. But he knows this is true: It's better with the man who let that ball bounce between his legs cracking jokes at his side.
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Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. Follow him on Twitter: @StevePoliti.