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It's October 6 ... and I'm thinking about Buck
Seventeen years have gone by since that Friday that Buck O’Neil died. I was sitting at home when the phone rang, and it was Bob Kendrick, and I knew before he said a word. Buck had been in the hospital for a while, but his health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse a few days earlier. I was supposed to go see him a little earlier that week. Bob asked me not to go. He said I wouldn’t want to see Buck that way … and Buck wouldn’t have wanted me to see him that way.
I have thought about Buck a million times over the 6,208 days since Bob called. Most of the time, those thoughts make me smile, like a few days ago when somebody asked me to name my favorite barbecue in Kansas City. These days, there are a bunch of new barbecue places in Kansas City to talk about, but when Buck asked me that question all those years ago, there were basically two: Arthur Bryant’s and Gates.
“What’s your favorite barbecue?” Buck asked me.
“Bryant’s,” I said, even though I knew Buck was strictly a Gates man.
“Oh, what does a white boy like you know about barbecue anyway,” Buck said.
I just thought about a time I was at the Royals game writing a column for The Kansas City Star, and the Royals fell behind by a lot — not an uncommon experience — so I wrote my column early and then went downstairs to sit with Buck and watch for a spell.
“Don’t you have to write something?” he asked me, and I told him I already had it written and I would send it when the game was over.
“Hmm,” he said, and then together, we watched the Royals mount an unlikely comeback. Buck turned to me with this huge smile on his face and said, “You might want to head upstairs and get your pen out and do some rewriting.”
Which I did.
Today, I do think about how much Buck would love this game of baseball, how excited he’d be about these playoffs, how much he would love players like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman and Corey Seager and Corbin Carroll and Adley Rutschman and Yordan Alvarez and Bryce Harper and Sonny Gray and Spencer Strider and Zack Wheeler and so many others.
I think about how much he’d love Clayton Kershaw. Buck has been gone long enough now that even though Kershaw is a baseball elder statesman trying to go on after all the fastballs and sliders have taken their toll … he came up in 2008, 18 or so months after we lost Buck. Oh, Buck and Clayton would have been pals. Buck, as much as anything, loved artists at work. Clayton Kershaw is one of the great artists in the history of this great game.
I remember once sitting with Buck O’Neil before a game began — I don’t even remember where it was — and he said, “Yeah, feeling those butterflies.”
And I said, “You still feel butterflies before a game, even though you’re not playing.”
And he said: “Yeah. Feel ‘em every time. You don’t know what you’re going to see.”