The Times West Virginian

May 12, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: Buckner has special day

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — It was to be a day like no other for Grant Buckner, but he didn’t sense it.

Oh, there were differences, for sure, beginning with the West Virginia University power hitter’s arrival at Hawley Field to find the day being cold with a strong wind gusting out toward left field.

No matter what the level, when a hitter arrives at the ball park on a day like this, the juices flow a little better.

Back in the day, when the Cincinnati Reds were the Big Red Machine and on the road in Wrigley Field, the bus ride was hilarious when the wind was blowing out, for the Johnny Benchs, George Fosters and Tony Perezes of the world knew the balls would be flying out onto Waveland Avenue.

Take May 9, 1976, when they beat the Cubs, 14-2, with Ken Griffey Sr., Dan Driessen, Pete Rose, George Foster and Tony Perez hitting home runs, Perez nailing two of them.

The level of ball doesn’t matter on this, as Buckner found. When he arrived at the ball yard, the flags standing stiff in the breeze, he and his teammates began laughing and joking.

“You can’t wait to get in the batter’s box,” Buckner said.

It would be a hitter’s day at Hawley Field, but who knew it would turn into the day it did.

No matter how strong the wind, hitting a baseball remains the most difficult thing to do in sports, even for those swinging aluminum bats. The advantage is all to the pitcher.

He has eight fielders behind him. You stand alone, nothing but a stick in your hand.

He knows what pitch he will throw. He knows where he will throw it. He throws it when he’s ready, not when the hitter is.

Where else can you fail 70 percent of the time and be considered a Hall of Fame success than as a hitter?

And, when the wind is blowing out, the pitcher is trying to keep the ball away, trying to keep it down where you can’t lift it into the wind.

Who would know that Grant Buckner would hit three home runs on this day and drive in a school record 10 runs?

Certainly not him.

And let us get one thing certain here, while the wind was blowing, Buckner says he got all three of his home runs, the two three-run shots and the grand slam.

“I hit all three pretty well. They would have gone out without the wind,” he said.

Now you may wonder what really happened here, how a player who had hit only five home runs prior to that day could produce so much.

It is the phenomena known as “The Zone.”

You see it happen in every sport. A basketball player begins hitting shots he never hits. A quarterback completes 12 straight passes. A swimmer sets a personal high he or she never approached before.

Something happens that really can’t be explained.

“It was like I knew what was coming,” Buckner said. “It was see the ball, hit the ball. I was laying off pitches I couldn’t hit.”

In truth, most hitters get themselves out. They go after borderline pitches, indecisive. They may not make out then, but they fall behind in the count and become prey to anything the pitcher wants to do.

But a hitter in “The Zone” barely flinches at a pitch he can’t hit. No checked swings, no indecision.

The baseball looks as big as a grapefruit. The fast ball comes in slow motion.

And you hit it.

What’s more, as the game goes on, your confidence grows and it becomes even easier.

Buckner’s third home run, with the bases loaded, came on a changeup, a pitch meant to fool him.

If he’s 0-for-3 and eager, he probably gets fooled. But here it didn’t matter, changeup or fastball, he would be on it like a wolf on a lamb chop.

This kind of thing had happened to Buckner before, although not to this extent. As a kid, in an American Legion game, he had gone 5-for-5 and hit for the cycle and drove in, as he recalls it, five runs.

But this day there were 10 RBI in a game the team had to win to have any chance to make the Big East playoffs, which remains a long-shot but, at least, a possibility.

Oh, there is one other thing you get from being in the zone. You get to wear a badge and, as Buckner reported to practice on Monday, he was wearing his in the form of an ice pack on his back, where he’d been plunked by a pitch, which is the price a hitter pays for hitting three home runs and driving in 10 runs.

He didn’t seem to mind at all.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.