At first glance there's nothing unusual about Bill Buckner's batting routine. Buckner, 32, a lefthanded-hitting first baseman for the Cubs, smooths the dirt on the right side of the plate and digs a hole deep in the batter's box to plant his left foot. He points his right foot toward first while surveying the pitcher and then assumes a conventional stance perpendicular to the rubber. After lightly tapping the plate with his bat, he's ready to swing.
Ah, but that slight, seemingly insignificant tap has made Buckner the scourge of the National League, by triggering in his mind a posthypnotic suggestion. In early August a hypnotist taught Buckner to visualize himself being selective and attacking only those pitches he wants to hit. Feeling nothing but positive vibes, he would see himself making nothing but perfect swings and hitting line drives.
Ever since, Buckner has been in a zone of his own. As the National League's Player of the Month in August, he batted .405, with six homers, 35 runs batted in and seven game-winning RBIs. At week's end he was among the league leaders in batting (.307), runs batted in (91), hits (170), game-winning RBIs (13) and doubles (30) and was headed for the best season of his distinguished 12-year major league career.
As late as Aug. 2 Buckner would have preferred to forget 1982. That day he visited a baseball camp in Darien, Ill. run by Cub scout and former major-leaguer Eric Soderholm. At the time, Buckner was batting .278—fine for most players, but subpar for a .296 career hitter—and he complained to Soderholm that the season was dragging. Soderholm suggested that Buckner see hypnotist Harvey Misel, who has treated many athletes, including Rod Carew, and was also at the camp.
Buckner spent about 90 minutes with Misel that afternoon. "I asked him to visualize how good he felt when everything was going right," says Misel. "Bill realized afterward that he'd been making some mechanical mistakes, particularly opening his right shoulder too soon." Misel asserts—and Buckner agrees—that as a result of their session Buckner became more confident, relaxed and selective at the plate.
It's possible, though, to make too much of the effect hypnosis has had on Buckner. "A hypnotist can't turn a mediocre hitter into a superstar," says Soderholm. "He can help about 10%, which is what has happened in Bill's case."
Buckner, the National League batting champion in 1980, has long been one of the game's toughest outs. While playing for the Dodgers from 1971 to 1976, he had to take numerous pitches as the No. 2 hitter behind base stealer Davey Lopes. Nonetheless, Buckner had only one bad season, 1975, when he hit .243 while trying to play on a badly sprained ankle that eventually required surgery. He underwent surgery again, in October of 1976, for removal of bone chips from the same ankle, and the Dodgers thought so little of his prospects for a good recovery that they traded him to the Cubs along with Ivan DeJesus for Rick Monday and Mike Garman. Indeed, Buckner's ankle has never fully come back; to this day when he walks he feels it snap, crackle and pop like a bowlful of Rice Krispies.
Yet Buckner hasn't had a bad season in Chicago. "Before every game we run through the same 45-minute routine: ice, whirlpool, ultrasound, massage, tape," says Cub Trainer Tony Garofalo. "He could hardly walk when he came here. He worked to get a range of motion, and now he's got it." Buckner's range, however, still is not normal.
Buckner has been compared to Carew and Pete Rose because he hits to all fields and meticulously studies opposing pitchers. But in one respect his style is unique. Most batters take a stride of 10 to 12 inches; Buckner hardly shifts his feet. "The more you stride, the more your body moves and your head moves and your hips lock," he says. "You slow everything down that way. The less movement you have with your legs, the quicker you are and the longer you can wait before committing."
"He can wait so long because he's sure he won't strike out," says Chicago hitting instructor Billy Williams, the former Cub slugger who had a .290 career average, hit 426 homers and bombed in Hall of Fame voting last year. "An average hitter might strike out more than 60 times a year. Bill will do it 20 times and put the ball in play the other 40."
"Bill and Pete Rose are the two best control hitters I've seen," says Cub Outfielder Keith Moreland. "If Bill is fooled by an outside pitch, he'll still drive it to left."
When Buckner was growing up in Napa, Calif., 20 miles outside of Oakland, he established himself as the most competitive kid in town. He was so advanced as a 7-year-old that his mother, Marie, falsified his birth certificate to get him into Little League a year early. "Pretty soon he was telling everyone what to do," says Buckner's older brother, Bob, who helps him manage a cattle ranch near Boise, Idaho. "Nobody could play the sun field, so he told the coach to put him out there. Here was this little kid with freckles showing everyone how to do it."
"I was very goal-oriented," says Buckner. "I was going to go to school and college, play sports and go on to professional baseball." Devoting his time almost strictly to studies and sports, Buckner was an A-minus student at Napa High School and became a member of the Northern California Football Hall of Fame for his record-setting play at wide receiver. The Dodgers signed him out of high school in 1968 and he took just three years to make the big club—all the while attending USC and Arizona State in the off-season. However, he never graduated.
"I didn't spend a lot of time doing nothing," he says. Nor did he spend a lot of time saying nothing. "If he speaks, you'd better listen," says Bob Buckner. Sometimes, however, Bill wishes he had thought a little before opening his yap.
Item: As a rookie Buckner homered off Don Wilson, the late Houston fastballer, and proclaimed, "If they're all like this guy, I'll be all right." In their next meeting Wilson decked him with a low, hard one.
Item: Buckner derided the Oakland team before the 1974 World Series. The A's beat the Dodgers in five games.
Buckner's words were also frequently in the news earlier this year. First, he asked to renegotiate his contract, a practice new General Manager Dallas Green abhors. However, when Green acquired Shortstop Larry Bowa from the Phillies and discovered that Bowa had a higher salary than Buckner, Green relented and signed Buckner to a five-year, $3 million deal. In the aftermath, though, Buckner pressed at the plate and had two well-publicized fistfights—with Gary Carter of the Expos and Cub Manager Lee Elia. Elia and Green now say that all is forgiven and call Buckner the quintessential team player.
"I'm a competitive person," says Buckner. "I'm competitive when I play my wife Jody in gin or cribbage and I don't give her points in tennis or racquetball either. I'm not saying it's a good way to be, but it helps me as a professional athlete. On the field, I'm hyper, aggressive and intense, but basically I'm a conservative guy. I've only had a few fights and been kicked out of three or four games, so it's a little embarrassing when those things happen."
The day after the season ends Buckner will disappear for a month to backpack, hunt and fish. Then he'll pass a quiet if busy winter in Idaho working the ranch, co-managing a video games business and spending time with Jody and their 10-month-old daughter, Brittany.
A little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here? Not a chance, say Buckner's relatives. "He's a stubborn German like the rest of us," says mother Marie. "We have a bowling match every Christmas," says brother Bob. "Loser pays for bowling and drinks. Bill doesn't like to lose at all."