AL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES : California vs. Boston : He Has Forged a Great Career on Bum Ankle : Buckner Is Ailing Again but Giving Boston His Best

Times Staff Writer

Now, 18 years after he left Napa High School and the California wine country to sign with the Dodgers, Bill Buckner continues chasing his concept of a vintage season:

A .330 batting average, 25 home runs, 125 runs batted in.

Chasing? Limping is more like it.

That's evident as Buckner attempts to survive the American League playoffs in which he is 3 for 22. The .136 batting average is as painful as the portrait Buckner presents in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse.

First base? He seems more suited to playing the fife or drum while posing for a patriotic poster.

An ice bag is strapped to his back, protecting a pulled muscle. Another is wound around the left hamstring, which is strained. He rests his left foot in a tub of ice, reducing the persistent inflammation produced by bone spurs on the outside of the ankle.

Fire and ice.

It's Buckner's image. This is the way it has been since April 18, 1975, when he slid into second base in a Dodger Stadium game against the San Francisco Giants and suffered a severe strain to the left ankle.

He has since undergone three operations and will have a fourth for removal of the spurs when this postseason tournament ends.

He uses ice daily and has used acupuncture, ointments and just about every other remedy in a struggle to cope with the pain.

This season, he has had four cortisone injections in the ankle. He also has had two in his left elbow and two more in his left knee.

That's a total of eight, a career record.

John McNamara, the Boston manager, shook his head in admiration and said:

"Buck reminds me of a rodeo cowboy limping off to his pickup truck, throwing his saddle in the back and driving off to his next performance. He gives you 100% of whatever he's got. He's one of the finest competitors I've ever been around."

The fire has been Buckner's trademark for 17 major league seasons. If Pete Rose is Charlie Hustle, Buckner is different only in that he is Charlie Hobble. It's as if the ankle becomes only a minor irritant when there's a fastball to hit.

Buckner, for example, batted .340 in September before aggravating the ankle injury in a stolen base attempt and getting only one hit in his last 15 regular-season at-bats. Thus, he has only 4 hits in his last 39 at bats.

"It's just not there," he told the Boston Globe Monday. "Ever since I hurt my back and ankle a couple of weeks ago, I really haven't gotten going.

"Saturday, it felt good and I hit the ball hard four times. Yesterday, I was one for four. I'm just trying to do a little better."

He has consistently managed to do that, despite the bad ankle.

Consider:

--In addition to winning the 1980 National League batting title at .324, Buckner has batted .300 or more seven times and never less than .272 before hitting .267 during an injury-marred 1986. He has 2,464 hits to rank third--assuming that Pete Rose and Tony Perez do not play next year--among active players, trailing Steve Garvey and Reggie Jackson.

--At 36, an age when most athletes are considering retirement, Buckner has provided the Red Sox with two of the most productive seasons of his career, justifying the 1984 trade that sent pitcher Dennis Eckersley to the Chicago Cubs.

Buckner appeared in 114 games after his May, 1984 acquisition, batting .278 and driving in 67 runs. He then appeared in all 162 games for the first time in his career last season, batting .299. He set career highs for runs batted in (110), doubles (46), extra-base hits (65) and total bases. He equaled career highs for home runs (16) and hits (201). He also set a big league record for assists by a first baseman with 184.

This year, rebounding from a struggling start (he was hitting .238 on July 2), he established a career high for home runs with 18, drove in 102 runs, hit in 17 straight games down the stretch to equal his career high and batted .338 in his last 38 games, a span in which the Red Sox beat back final challenges by Detroit and Toronto.

In his two full seasons with the powerful Red Sox, he has 212 RBIs, one less than Jim Rice, who leads the club for that period, and he has gone from seventh to sixth to third in the batting order, a position generally belonging to the hitter best combining power and consistency.

It's an impressive compilation, but what if the ankle had been 100% over the years?

"I'd have stolen 50 bases a year and won more than just one batting title," Buckner said. "I'd have 200 to 300 more hits and could be certain of getting 3,000.

"Considering that everything else has been fine, I could have counted on playing until I was 42 or 43, so it will probably shorten my career by a few years.

"I also don't think I would have been traded by the Dodgers (in a 1977 six-player deal with the Cubs that sent Rick Monday to Los Angeles). I'd probably still be in Los Angeles, which means it cost me a few championships and a chance to play my entire career in good weather.

"On the other hand, not too many guys have played as long as I have or been as productive. And in some ways it has made me a better hitter.

"I came up to the Dodgers as a guy who would choke up and punch the ball to left field. Once I hurt the ankle I had to become more of a power and RBI man with the capability of pulling the ball.

"I mean, if you can't run, you better be able to hit."

The biggest change came after his arrival in Boston, where batting coach Walt Hrniak virtually rebuilt his stance and stroke.

"I completely changed my style and reached my potential as a hitter," Buckner said. "I was basically an upper-body hitter who used his arms to generate power. Now I do it with my legs. I have more leverage, more drive, which is why I'm getting more RBIs and extra-base hits.

"When you consider the caliber of hitters we have here and the fact that I've just about driven in more runs than any of them (in the last two years), that's a pretty good feeling. If I could have had a good first half this year I'd have driven in 130 runs. The last two months have probably been the best two months of my career."

They were, at least, until a stolen base attempt aggravated the weak ankle. Then, he suffered a back strain. In the wake of Boston's clinching of the American League East, Buckner sat out most of the final week trying to recuperate.

Trying, he said, to reduce a major limp "back down to my normal limp."

Buckner said he has played with a limp since 1975. He said he has periodically run decently, but the ankle always is sore. He had one operation in September of '75 and another in October. He played 154 games the next season, deciding that it had gone so smoothly he would undergo one final operation after the '76 season in an attempt to fully rehabilitate the ankle.

But the ankle became infected, and Buckner had to use a cane when he went to spring training with the Cubs in '77.

"I didn't know if I'd ever play again," he said. "There were times that season when I played with tears in my eyes."

Now he would also like to savor the possibility that one more operation will cure the limp.

"I think that if the ankle was just decent I'm capable of having the best year of my career," he said. "I'm still looking for that one year where I hit .300 with those 25 homers and 125 RBIs. I think I can do it, but it depends on my health."

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