Bill Buckner flubbed it. Ed Montague didn't.
Montague, the rightfield umpire who picked up what many consider the most famous baseball in Mets history on an October night at Shea Stadium 20 years ago, started a journey that has come almost full circle. Today, the treasured, tobacco-stained horsehide is firmly in the hands of a worthy caretaker: a devoted Mets fan who grew up in Great Neck.
"That ball and the one that Reggie hit for his third home run of the game in the 1977 World Series are two of my favorite pieces," said Seth Swirsky, 46, a songwriter, author and memorabilia collector now living in Beverly Hills. "When you think of it, I guess it's kind of cool that they both ended up with a guy from Long Island."
To be sure, the ball that left Red Sox reliever Bob Stanley's hand toward batter Mookie Wilson in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series has had a circuitous route for two decades.
When the ball scooted under first baseman Buckner's glove and Ray Knight scored the winning run, it was pocketed by Montague, who inscribed it with a small "X" near a seam to identify it. He then gave the ball to Arthur Richman, the Mets' traveling secretary. "He thought I would appreciate having it more than he would," Richman wrote in an authentication letter in May 1992.
In the crazed clubhouse after the game, Richman presented the ball to Wilson and the jubilant centerfielder autographed it: "To Arthur. The ball won it for us. Mookie Wilson 10/25/86".
Players passed it around and kissed it; some tobacco stains remain.
Richman held the memento until 1992, when actor Charlie Sheen submitted an $85,000 bid by telephone during a live auction of sports memorabilia conducted by Leland's at the Southgate Tower Hotel in Manhattan. That far surpassed the expected price of about $10,000. With the Leland's premium, Sheen paid $93,500 for the ball.
Enter Swirsky, an aspiring songwriter working in Manhattan in 1986. "My first Mets game was Game 4 of the World Series in 1969. I was 9," he recalled in a telephone interview this week. "Then I kind of drifted away in the '70s, fell in love with the Islanders in the early '80s, then got excited about the Mets again in 1984, '85, with Gooden and Hernandez and Carter and Dykstra, and I thought, this is not that different than in 1969. I could still love the Mets. I watched Game 6 dumbfounded like
Eventually his songwriting talents paid off. He wrote two pop hits for Taylor Dayne, a Long Island singer, and other performers, and began acquiring memorabilia in 1995, including a baseball signed by the Beatles on the day of their concert at Shea in August 1965. When Sheen put his collection up for auction in 2000, Swirsky bid $63,500 for the ball.
Swirsky will fly here with the "Mookie ball" for the 1986 Mets reunion Saturday. He and Wilson have exchanged letters and they met in a radio studio in 2003. Swirsky met Buckner for only the first time about two weeks ago at Wrigley Field, but didn't mention the baseball that has haunted the former player. "I just couldn't bring it up to him," Swirsky said.
Could there be some New York magic left in the ball? Swirsky thinks so. In the 2003 ALCS, when the Yankees were down 4-0 in Game 7 and on the brink of playoff elimination by the Red Sox, he and his son were watching the broadcast. The youngster had counted the Yankees out. "I went downstairs and brought out the 'Mookie ball' and another signed by Babe Ruth and three members of the Yankees' Murderers' Row in 1927 and put them next to the TV," Swirsky said. "The game starts to turn a little, and
then up comes Aaron Boone and we all know what happened. I'm saying this with a wink, but I'm convinced that it was kind of a Red Sox 'curse' moment."