Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.
By Clemente Lisi
NEW YORK — Mookie Wilson’s ground ball in the bottom of the 10th inning that skipped through first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs and into the outfield during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, allowing Ray Knight to score the winning run, has been called a lot of things.
It’s been called legendary. It’s been called amazing. Just don’t call it divine intervention if you’re asking Wilson about it.
“God always presents situations, but I don’t think God puts people in position to be criticized to benefit another,” Wilson said.
The Mets would go on to win the next game and World Series that fall. Wilson didn’t know it at the time, but years later he would foster a lifelong friendship with Buckner, who would go on to endure taunting and even death threats for years.
“Even after ’86, it would be four years before we ever talked,” Wilson recalled, saying the encounter happened during the 1989 season when Buckner was playing for the Kansas City Royals and he’d been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Wilson, now 67, said he spotted Buckner at the ballpark at then-Royals Stadium, but had tried to avoid him. Since Buckner had been the subject of death threats because of that bobbled play, Wilson said he feared the first baseman would take it out on him.
“He stood over me with the bat and he said, ‘Hey Mookie.’ I said, yes. He said, ‘You want to hit me some ground balls?’ That’s how we became the best of friends.”
Wilson said Buckner, who died in 2019 at age 69, was a practicing Catholic. Wilson, a Baptist and an ordained minister since 2014, said faith and love for Jesus ultimately brought them together. They become unlikely friends, often doing speaking engagements together and appearing at baseball card shows to sign autographs.
“He would call me late at night sometimes and ask me for Bible verses,” Wilson recalled during a recent appearance at New York’s Sheen Center as part of “Faith: The Competitive Edge” speaker series. “He was a man with a big faith.”
If not for that now-famous play, the two would never have become friends.
“I do think things happen for a reason,” he said. “I would never have met Bill Buckner.”
Wilson — whose given name is William and nicknamed Mookie as a child because of the way he asked for milk — grew up in a religious home in Bamberg, South Carolina, where he and his 11 siblings loved to play baseball.
Bamberg, Wilson said, was a town of “500 people and eight churches.” Wilson said his father instilled a love for God and baseball in him.
Wilson pitched for Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School, where he won a state championship. After graduation, Wilson signed a letter of intent with South Carolina State University, but the school discontinued its baseball program.
As a result, he attended Spartanburg Methodist College in 1974 and ‘75. Wilson was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fourth round of the 1976 amateur draft, but decided not to sign.
Instead, Wilson, who would become known for his speed on the bases, said he transferred to the University of South Carolina, where he played in the outfield and pitched. The Gamecocks played in the 1977 College World Series, losing to Arizona State University 2-1 in the championship game. Wilson was named to the All-Tournament team as an outfielder.
In 1977, he was drafted in the second round by the Mets. While in the minors, Wilson, known for his speed, was promoted to AA Jackson in Mississippi the following year. It was that year that Wilson’s brother Richard fathered a boy named Preston. On June 22, 1978, Wilson married the boy’s mother Rosa Gilbert at home plate at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium. In doing so, he became both the boy’s step-father and uncle. The ceremony included an archway of bats held up by his teammates.
“There is so much to share when we talk about fathers and young Black men,” Wilson said. “I was very conscious to be present in my son’s life. Yes, I was not his biological father. That was never a thing. I was his father.”
Asked about fatherhood, Wilson said, “You don’t have to be perfect — but you have to be present.”
In 1980, the Mets called Wilson up to the majors. His life would be forever be changed.
“I didn’t really appreciate my religious faith until I got to New York,” Wilson said jokingly, adding that his first trip ever to the Big Apple came that season.
Wilson said New York fans could be very demanding — but admitted he “ never prayed to win.”
“You have to have that inner strength to stay humble,” Wilson added.
Wilson, who would go on to have a 12-year major league career, retired after the 1991 season. In 2001, Wilson and his family released a gospel CD entitled “Don’t Worry, the Lord will Carry You Through.” In 2014, he penned a book “Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the ’86 Mets” that detailed his life and career.
These days, he has a part-time gig as a Mets ambassador and continues to serve as a mentor. Despite his work as a philanthropist and minister, Wilson said it’s the play that ultimately helped the Mets win the World Series that people ask him about most.
And he insists God had nothing to do with it.
“People say that [it was an act of God] because the unexpected happened,” he said. “The reason for that is baseball. The unexpected happens in baseball.”
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor at Religion Unplugged and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. He is the author of “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.” Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.