On Monday night, the Arizona Diamondbacks will begin a three-game set against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Nothing out of the ordinary for Kirk Gibson's D-Backs. Just an early May series that will likely count for little in the grand scheme of the 2013 season.
But do you think Gibson has any idea it's been 25 years? Since, you know, it.
Yeah, it's been that long. Not exactly that long, mind you, as Game 1 of the 1988 World Series between the Dodgers and Oakland A's took place on Oct. 15. If the Diamondbacks are still playing on that date this year, Gibson will no doubt have to answer an endless stream of questions about it.
But since there's no guarantee that Gibson's D-Backs are still going to be playing on that date, much less a guarantee that they'll be playing at the very park where it all went down, we might as well recognize the 25th anniversary of it now while the getting's good.
And now's the time for me to stop referring to it as it. If you'll follow me this way, we'll step in the TARDIS and go relive one of baseball's all-time great moments: Gibson's pinch-hit walk-off homer off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
It All Started When...
If I wanted to make this a simplistic retelling of the tale, right now I'd be telling you about how Gibson came to be a hobbled wreck heading into the '88 Fall Classic.
But the roots of Gibson's homer go much deeper. The story of how he even found himself in a Dodgers uniform in 1988 is a fascinating one.
Early that year, an arbitrator determined that Major League Baseball owners had acted in collusion against free agents following the 1985 season. Gibson was one of the players victimized by the scheme, as he didn't get an offer in free agency other than the one the Detroit Tigers were offering.
"Once Detroit announced its desire to re-sign Kirk, all the clubs that had previously expressed an interest in him said flatly, 'We wouldn't be interested in Kirk Gibson at all,'" Gibson's agent, Doug Baldwin, told Bob Spitz of the New York Times. "They wouldn't even make us an offer lower than Detroit's. So it was clear that we either sign with the Tigers or be frozen out."
Per Baseball-Reference.com, Gibson made only $1.2 million in 1986, quite the bargain for a guy who topped 25 homers and 30 steals for a second straight season.
When the arbitrator's decision came down in 1988, however, Gibson was one of seven players around the league who were granted free agency. To use a baseball term, it was basically a make-up call.
This is how Gibson ended up in Los Angeles. The Dodgers offered him a three-year, $4.5 million contract in late January, and he accepted it.
The Dodgers had won the World Series as recently as 1981 but had finished under .500 in both 1986 and 1987. They needed a shot in the arm, and Gibson was just the guy to deliver it. He was bringing both power and speed to the table, as well as his trademark intensity.
The Dodgers found out all about Gibson's intensity during spring training when lefty reliever Jesse Orosco made the mistake of playing a prank on him by putting eye black in his cap. Gibson was so enraged that he flat-out walked off the field before an exhibition against the Chunichi Dragons.
"I've been going through the third degree on this. The guy's getting ready for a game and somebody messed with him. He doesn't go for tricks, so you don't do it again," said Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, via the New York Times.
Gibson's teammates came to understand the drill. Even better, they began to respond to it. By the end of the season, they were marching to Gibson's beat.
Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax told Ira Berkow of the New York Times that Gibson had brought "an intensity to this club," and he made it clear how lucky the Dodgers were to have him.
"It's his attitude," Sax said. "He's a tough guy, and a winner. You ask anybody in the league and they'll tell you they'd like to have Kirk Gibson. I get on first base and hear guys saying that all the time."
Fueled by Gibson's intensity—and, to be sure, his 25 homers and 31 stolen bases—the Dodgers won 21 more games in 1988 than they had in 1987. Gibson would be named the National League MVP, and he went on to play the hero role in the NLCS against the New York Mets as well, hitting a pair of crucial homers to help the Dodgers win in seven.
But it was during that series that Gibson's already beat-up body became officially broken.
Gibson had strained his left hamstring and injured his right knee in the NLCS against the Mets, and Ira Berkow noted in his column about Gibson's intensity that he was so hurt that he couldn't even join in the celebration after the Dodgers won. He was in the trainer's room getting treatment.
Peter Gammons, then of Sports Illustrated, would later write that Gibson "wasn’t even supposed to be able to limp" heading into Game 1 of the World Series against Tony LaRussa's heavily favored Oakland A's.
Gibson was able to limp, alright, and that would turn out to be good enough.
The Story of Game 1
We all know the narrative of Gibson's home run. It goes something like, "Man is practically knocking on death's door. Man summons the will to pinch-hit. Man pinch-hits. Man hits ball far."
Pretty much, yeah.
Gibson really had no business playing at all in Game 1 against the A's. None. Zip. He really was too hurt.
The story, according to Gammons and many others, goes that Gibson couldn't even overcome the pain in his legs when he tried to take a few swings at home in his living room before Game 1. According to Rick Weinberg of ESPN.com, he then got shots of cortisone and xylocaine once he got to Dodger Stadium.
Even then, Gibson was too much of a wreck to even make it out onto the field for the pregame festivities. The only Gibson on the field that night was Debbie Gibson, who sang the national anthem.
For a second there, it actually looked like Gibson not playing was going to work out. Mickey Hatcher, Gibson's replacement in left field, hit a two-run homer off Dave Stewart in the first inning to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead.
But like I said, it was only for a second. The Dodgers' slim lead evaporated in the top of the second inning when A's slugger Jose Canseco launched a grand slam to center field that clanked off a TV camera and gave the A's a 4-2 lead.
Stewart did his part to make that lead hold up. He ended up pitching eight innings, holding the Dodgers to only one additional run.
Where was Gibson while his teammates were struggling to get runs off Stewart?
Lasorda recalled in a 2008 special for the Los Angeles Times that Gibson was restricted to the trainer's room, giving his manager "the thumbs down" every time he went down to ask for an update.
But the truth is that Gibson wasn't stationary the whole time.
According to Gammons, Gibson got fired up when he heard Dodgers announcer Vin Scully say the following during the eighth inning when the Dodgers were down 4-3 and everyone knew that Eckersley would be on the mound in the ninth:
The man who is the spearhead of the Dodgers offense throughout the year, who saved them in the League Championship Series, will not see any action tonight, for sure, [Gibson] is not even in the dugout.
Gibson's reaction to that?
"[Bleep] it!" he shouted. Then he grabbed an ice bag, threw it on his right knee and said, "I'll be there."
Gibson started hitting some balls off a tee in a batting cage below Dodger Stadium, and at one point he sent a clubhouse attendant named Mitch Poole to fetch Lasorda.
Lasorda recalled what happened next:
"Not now Mitch," I hollered. But he wouldn't leave me alone.
"Gibson wants to see you."
I ran up the tunnel to see what was going on, and that's when he told me.
"I think I can hit for you, Skipper."
Gibson knew the situation. He knew that Eckersley was set to face the bottom of the Dodgers lineup in the bottom of the ninth, and that the pitcher's spot was due up fourth. If somebody got on base, he wanted to be the guy at the plate with the chance to win it.
"This could be our script," Gibson told Poole at some point.
It was never going to be easy for the script to come to fruition against Eckersley. He had saved 45 games during the regular season and was known neither for giving up walks nor hits. His WHIP in 1988 was 0.87, and he had allowed only three baserunners in six innings in the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. The odds of him putting somebody on were pretty slim.
The odds got slimmer once Eckersley got Mike Scioscia to pop out to start the inning and then struck out Jeff Hamilton looking for the second out. That put things in the hands of pinch-hitter Mike Davis, who had hit just .196 with a .260 on-base percentage during the regular season.
But meanwhile in the background, Lasorda was pulling strings.
According to Weinberg, Lasorda told Davis to go up to the plate and call time on a few pitches so Eckersley's timing would be thrown off. On top of that, Lasorda sent light-hitting shortstop Dave Anderson out to the on-deck circle to mess with Eckersley's head.
Instead of Gibson, I put Dave Anderson in the on-deck circle. Ron Hassey, the catcher, got Eckersley's attention and pointed to Anderson. Eckersley sees Anderson on deck and looks at Davis in the batter's box, and knows he isn't going to let Davis hit it out of the ballpark.
The plan worked to perfection. Davis did indeed disrupt Eckersley's timing—"The guy’s hitting a buck ninety," he would later complain, "what the hell’s he doing calling timeout?”—and ended up walking on a 3-1 pitch.
Then, out from the dugout popped Gibson. In his words, "just the way [it was] supposed to be."
And, of course, we all know Scully's call: "And look who's coming up."
That's precisely what the 55,983 packed into Dodger Stadium did, and they went ballistic. Gibson admitted after the game that their approval of his appearance did not go over his head.
"The fans really pumped me up," he said after the game was in the books. "I didn't even think about the pain. I was just trying to visualize hitting."
On the flip-side, Eckersley was just trying to visualize pitching. His plan was to feed Gibson fastballs on the outside of the plate, with the idea being to test the slugger's wounded legs.
Gibson fouled off the first two fastballs to quickly run the count to 0-2. The third pitch was another fastball that Gibson dribbled down the third base line that looked for a moment like it had a chance to be an easy out before going foul. Two balls later, the count was 2-2 and it was apparent that Gibson was not going to go quietly.
And then Davis did Gibson a favor.
Davis took off for second base on Eckersley's 2-2 pitch, a slider that just missed off the outside corner. Hassey didn't even bother making a throw to second, meaning Gibson was now in a situation where he didn't have to worry about driving the ball.
“That was important for me, because all I had to think about was shortening my swing and trying to get a hit to score him," Gibson later said.
All the same, Gibson knew his scouting report. The count was 3-2, and that meant Eckersley was probably going to try his luck with another backdoor slider.
The scouting report turned out to be dead-on.
Eckersley did indeed throw Gibson a backdoor slider, a decision that he would later describe as "dumb" because it was "the one pitch he could pull for power."
Indeed, and what happened to that pitch, Mr. Eckersley?
"He hit the dogmeat out of it.”
That he did. Gibson flicked Eckerley's 3-2 slider over the fence in right field for a two-run homer that gave the Dodgers a crucial victory and set the Dodger Stadium crowd on a roar. Then came the iconic image of him pumping his fist while rounding the bases.
Had Twitter been around in those days, the following terms would have been trending:
- DODGERS WIN
- OMG GIBSON
- Damn Kirk
- WTF Eckersley
While Gibson was being mobbed at home plate, Gammons wrote that bullpen coach Mark Cresse quietly snuck away to the clubhouse with a special assignment in mind. He found Gibson's locker and put a sign over it.
The sign simply read: ROY HOBBS.
Sometime after Game 1 of the World Series was in the books, Eckersley told Gammons and other members of the press that it wasn't the end of the world.
“Hopefully it woke us up. We know now it’s going to be a long, tough World Series," he said.
He was wrong. Gibson's home run was no mere wake-up call or bump in the road. It was a staggering blow from which the A's wouldn't recover.
Orel Hershiser spun a three-hit shutout in Game 2 of the series at Dodger Stadium, and the Dodgers went on to seal the upset in five games. Through it all, Gibson never went to the plate again.
And it's a good thing he didn't. It's also a very good thing that the Dodgers went on to win the series after his homer. Without these circumstances, baseball fans would have been left with an entirely different, less interesting narrative with an extremely short shelf life.
The narrative that's been built up over the last 25 years is one of baseball's all-time great stories, and you have to think it still resonates so well because it's unlikely that we're ever going to see anything like Gibson's homer again.
The odds of it even happening were one in a million, for starters. Beyond that, teams are just so darn careful with injured players nowadays. Situations that could potentially turn minor injuries into major, career-altering injuries are best avoided, no matter the circumstances.
In addition, the Gibson narrative has managed to avoid debunking. That's not an easy thing for tough-guy tales to do.
Shoot, not even Michael Jordan's famous "flu game" performance is safe anymore. Not since Jalen Rose came out and implied that His Airness was actually playing through a nasty hangover rather than the flu. Probably bogus, but certainly plausible.
Why has nobody ever debunked the Gibson narrative?
Probably A) because he really was that messed up and B) because any implications to the contrary wouldn't get very far seeing as how the guy wasn't even healthy enough to play in Games 2, 3, 4 or 5. The Dodgers wouldn't have held him out of those games just to uphold the narrative, you know.
No, what happened was legit, and legitimately amazing.
And that's as true now as it was 25 years ago in 1988.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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