Giant Killers: 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IMay 29, 2009

Before the season began, they were typically picked to finish fourth in their own division.

Fred Claire, the embattled General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, managed to pry open the tight-fisted grip Peter O’Malley had on the organization's coffers. Claire was convinced that one fiery superstar, with a World Series ring and several All-Star game appearances to his credit, was the key to turning the Dodgers around.

Kirk Harold Gibson boarded a plane for Hollywood, clutching a then-Dodger record free agent contract: three-years, $4.5 million.

That would barely purchase a utility infielder today.

But back then, in the halcyon days of the late 1980s, it entitled the Dodgers to the services of a snarling ex-football player who tackled the baseball diamond with a gridiron mentality.

Gibson played hard, and when that didn’t work for any reason, he played harder.

To say that Kirk Gibson was intense would be like saying the Yankees have won a few World Series titles.

The following excerpt from a dinner conversation between Claire and Gibson the night Kirk was signed tells the entire story very succinctly:

Gibson: “I just want to win. And I just want you to know, I may have

               to bang some heads.”

Claire:  “Kirk, why do you think you’re here?”

Claire, whose very job was on the line, was determined to get his laid back Boys in Blue to overachieve for a change. He looked north to Oakland, which was building a new dynasty, for some of the players that he needed.

He brought in Mike Davis as another big bat to support Gibson and feared slugger Pedro Guerrero. Davis was another investment of almost $2 million.

On December 11, 1987, the Dodgers, Athletics and New York Mets concluded a complicated three-way trade. The Mets had coveted a hot young Dodger prospect, Jack Savage, and A’s farmhand Kevin Tapani. The A’s were beside themselves over the Dodgers’ seasoned hurler, Bob Welch. Los Angeles had a hungry eye on bullpen help.

Everyone got what they wanted.

Claire sent “Grape Juice” and Matt Young to Oakland, and Savage to Queens. The Athletics moved Tapani and Wally Whitehurst to the Mets.

The Dodgers, in turn, received crafty lefty relief specialist Jesse Orosco from New York, along with embattled closer Jay Howell and shortstop Alfredo Griffin from Oaktown.

For anyone who did not follow Orosco’s early career—remembering him from his days when he was generally employed only to get lefties out—the hurler was one of the most versatile relievers ever to take the mound.

He began his career as a long reliever (peaking at 13-7 with a 1.47 ERA, 17 saves, and 42 games finished in 1983, notching 110 innings in 62 games and finishing third in the NL Cy Young race).

He then became a closer (31 saves in 1984, and 85 from ’84 to ‘87) for Davey Johnson and the Mets. The Dodgers, however, signed him primarily for the set-up role.

Howell was to be the closer, and Dodger fans were nervous about the idea.

Jay had burst onto the scene with 29 saves and a 2.85 ERA with Oakland in 1985. The law of diminishing returns immediately set in, as he fell to 16 saves and a 3.38 ERA the following season (respectable enough), and then 16 saves with a 5.89 ERA in 1987.

He certainly didn’t appear to be the answer to the Dodgers’ woes as bullpen stopper.

Acquiring Griffin was huge, too. LA had suffered for years from woeful defense. The arrivals of Davis and Gibson moved Guerrero, for instance, back to third base (reluctantly), where he was a butcher.

That being the case, Claire absolutely had to improve his infield defense. Griffin fit the bill, as one of the slickest-fielding shortstops around, including a Gold Glove in 1985 with Oakland.

Still, the Dodgers had some serious question marks entering the season.

Would young Franklin Stubbs finally be the answer at first base, a position where the Dodgers had struggled mightily since letting Steve Garvey walk to the San Diego Padres in free agency?

Would Steve Sax go back to having the yips on his throws to first base?

At third base, would Guerrero’s exploits as a batsman outweigh his liabilities in the field?

With Gibson in left field and Mike Marshall in right, who among Mike Davis, Mike Devereaux, and John Shelby would step forward to claim the starting job in centerfield?

And which Jay Howell would Los Angeles see: the phenom who rode a back-breaking curveball to 31 saves and a 2.85 ERA in 1985? Or the more recent vintage that could only manage 32 saves in the following two seasons, with an unsightly ERA of 4.52?

One thing was certain: Gibson was going to pay huge benefits.

Spring Training 1988 began rather inauspiciously.

On the day when Kirk was set to make his spring debut, Orosco decided to prank his new teammate, as a sort of “Welcome to the Dodgers” initiation. He smeared eye-black inside the rim of Gibson’s baseball cap.

When Gibson took his hat off to start running wind sprints, he noticed that people were laughing at him. When Kirk rubbed his head in consternation, the stuff got all over his face, in his hair and on his uniform.

Gibson was livid. Let Jay Howell give you the play-by-play of Kirk Gibson’s tirade:

“I was in the clubhouse with some of the pitchers,” said Howell. “(Kirk) comes in and rips his uniform off. Buttons are flying everywhere, just flying.

“He says, ‘No wonder you f*ckers were in last place last year. Bunch of f*cking comedian motherf*ckers. You’re laughing all the way to f*cking last place.’”

Gordon Verrell, a writer for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, points to the incident as a key to the season that ensued.

“The chemistry took a turn that very day,” Verrell began. “(Gibson) put the fear of hell in everybody. Especially Mike Marshall. He was terrified of Gibson.

“Marshall put up huge numbers in the minors. But if he wasn’t 100 percent healthy, then Marshall wouldn’t play. . . Marshall played hard that year, and he played well. I really don’t think that happens without Gibson.”

The Dodgers came out of the blocks well, and found themselves in first place by May 26. By July 18, they had stretched the lead to eight games.

A losing streak left the lead in jeopardy, though, and a locker room showdown between two of the biggest stars on the team—Gibson and Guerrero—threatened team unity.

Fred Claire was faced with a critical decision.

He traded Guerrero to the St. Louis Cardinals for lefty starter John Tudor, one of the pre-eminent control artists of the 1980s (think a slightly harder throwing version of Jamie Moyer).

Though Claire insists the timing of the trade was coincidental—“It wasn’t a matter of wanting to move Pedro. We needed to have more pitching down the stretch.”—the Dodgers, in truth, had six capable starters once Tudor came on board, and that doesn’t even include the 43-year old Don Sutton, who was still on the roster.

At any rate, the Dodger machine began clicking on all cylinders again, riding the otherworldly pitching of Orel Hershiser (a major league record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, including five consecutive September shutouts) to a National League West title with a modest 94-67 mark.

First up were the big, bad Mets. The same Mets who had defeated Los Angeles 10 of 11 times in 1988. The most talented team in the NL, perhaps in all of baseball.

The names just rattle off the tongue: Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Ron Darling, and Randy Myers on the mound. Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Howard Johnson, and Kevin McReynolds in the field.

The Mets seemed to have fate on their side when, in Game One of the series, Hershiser added eight more innings to his superhuman scoreless run, but lost a 2-0 lead in the ninth as the Bums fell, 3-2.

The final run scored on a little dinker that dropped in front of John Shelby, who was playing far too deep in centerfield given the circumstances.

The home team dismantled young David Cone, who had gone 20-3 in the regular season, en route to tying the NLCS with a 6-3 triumph.

Jay Howell was infamously booted from Game 3 for having pine tar on his glove, and the Mets streaked to an 8-4 win. The Dodgers fought back to win the fourth game, and the teams split Games 5 and 6.

The Mets were staring down the barrel of Hershiser in Game 7, and the Bulldog came up money with yet another shutout, a 6-0 series-clinching gem.

If that weren’t enough giant killing, next up for the Dodgers were the Bash Brothers: the Oakland Athletics.

Having spent Hershiser just to make the World Series, the Dodgers turned to one of their most overlooked acquisitions from the Fall of 1987.

Most the nation had not taken notice on September 3 when the Dodgers selected a young man by the name of Tim Belcher as the “player to be named later” to complete the August 29 trade of Rick Honeycutt to the A’s.

Oakland needed a left handed relief specialist for the stretch run, and Los Angeles deemed Honeycutt expendable. Belcher was plucked from AAA and placed on the Dodgers’ major league roster. He started five games in 1987 and won a spot in the rotation the following spring.

Now, a little more than a year after the trade, the Sporting News Rookie Pitcher of the Year (going 12-6) was facing one of the most formidable lineups in the major leagues.

The Oakland Athletics had bludgeoned their way to 104 victories that season; their top three power sources of Jose Canseco (42 HR), Mark McGwire (32 HR), and Dave Henderson (24 HR) managed 98 long balls, while the entire Dodger team tallied 99.

Even worse, 25 of those home runs had come from the irascible Gibson, who—knowing no speed except all-out, all the time—wrenched a knee and tore a hamstring in the NLCS versus the Mets.

Pete Guerrero had been traded. Gibson was hobbled. That left Mike Marshall (20) as the leading home run hitter on the team; the runner-up, John Shelby, had managed 10.

Don Baylor had broken the age-old rule against giving the opposition “Bulletin Board” material when he had mused out loud that he was disappointed that the A’s would not be facing the best that the National League had to offer (the Mets).

That statement fired the Dodgers up. They were relaxed, they were huge underdogs with nothing to lose, and they were motivated.

That, my friends, is a formidable combination.

They stormed out to a 2-0 lead on a two-run home run by Mickey Hatcher (tying his total for the entire regular season).

Jose Canseco one-upped Hatcher by absolutely obliterating an offering from young Tim Belcher, crushing a heat-seeking missile of a drive to straightaway centerfield that dented the NBC television camera.

Oh, it happened with the bases loaded. The A’s now led 4-2.

The Dodgers and their feisty band of little-engines-that-could refused to fold. Belcher and company kept Oakland off the scoreboard for the rest of the game while scratching out a run of their own.

Then, Dennis Eckersley took the hill for the ninth, with the mighty A’s leading, 4-3.

Eck had saved 45 games that year during the regular season, with a 2.35 ERA, only five home runs allowed, and a mere 11 walks in 72.2 innings.

When he came into the game in these situations, it was game over.

What unfolded next was too inconceivable to be dreamed up by a team of Hollywood writers.

During the bottom of the ninth, NBC cameras kept panning the Dodger dugout, looking for Kirk Gibson. Vin Scully pronounced him unable to play.

Gibson had other ideas.

Though he could barely walk, he got wrapped up and began hitting off a tee. At length, he relayed word to manager Tommy Lasorda that he had one good swing in him if the situation warranted his use.

The first two Dodgers batters went down quickly in the bottom of the ninth. With Mike Davis—himself a former Athletic, who had slugged as many as 24 homers in a season for the team—at the plate and light-hitting Dave Anderson in the on-deck circle, Eckersley nibbled the edges of the plate with Davis.

Eck was too careful with Davis, and walked him.

Gibson had quietly made his way to the bench, far out of sight of the fans, barely this side of the tunnel. With two outs and the tying run on first, Lasorda decided that the time was now to play his wild card.

He sent Gibson up to the plate, and the Dodger faithful (myself included, watching at home) went berserk.

Said Tommy Lasorda years later, “God, I got goose bumps when I heard the reaction.”

Gibson looked overmatched. He could do little more than foul off Eckersley’s fastball. It seemed like a miracle—and a moral victory—for Gibby to merely draw into a 3-2 count.

For some odd reason, though, after Gibson had just barely fouled off another Eckersely fastball, catcher Terry Steinbach and his star hurler decided to fool Gibson with a slider.

Instead, they gave him an offering he could put his bat on. Swinging virtually one-handed, the powerful Gibson drove the pitch on a majestic arc toward rightfield. It looked like a base hit.

But the ball kept on carrying!

The next thing Dodger fans knew, the ball was gone, safely over the rightfield wall. The crowd erupted.

As I watched in amazement, the fans in Chavez Ravine made such a ruckus that the NBC cameras literally bounced from the vibrations of the roar.

Los Angeles had won Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, 5-4!

Gibson would play no more in the series, and when Mike Marshall sat out Game 4 with a migraine, the Dodgers famously sent out a starting lineup that had produced 36 home runs during the entire regular season.

It did not matter. They won that night, 4-3, to take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series.

Hershiser played the role of Superman again in Game 5, nailing down the Series with a 2-0 whitewash.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have not so much as appeared in a World Series since.

But that magical October in 1988, my beloved Dodgers were the ultimate giant killers. There will never be a better story told than that one, at least, not in my lifetime.

All quotes courtesy of the book, True Blue, © 2001, by Steve Delsohn.


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