Perfect Theater: Inside an Iconic Home Run
The year was 1988. The nation was preparing to vote in a presidential election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Overseas, the Russian policies of perestroika and glasnost signaled the waning of the Cold War. The “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and James Worthy, had just clinched their fifth championship of the decade, after which, unbeknownst to them, they would make way for the ‘90s and a new NBA dynasty led by Michael Jeffrey Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Across town, a new dynasty of its own was budding. Led by the “Bash Brothers,” Mark McGwire and Jose Conseco, the Oakland Athletics entered the 1988 World Series as the heavy favorites to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had secured the National League pennant by upsetting the New York Mets in seven games.
Oakland closer and hall of famer Dennis Eckersley: “I was happy the Dodgers won because they shouldn’t have beaten the Mets. The better team was obviously the Mets. The Dodgers just played over their heads. I was happy when the Dodgers won because I thought they were the easier team to beat. I didn’t want to go to New York.” (source)
So it was that most of the sports world viewed the 1988 World Series as a fait accompli, a formality, mostly ceremonial. But that, as they say, is why they play the games.
In Game 1, the Dodgers jumped out to a 2-0 first-inning lead, but the A’s promptly responded by scoring four in the top of the second. They carried a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, and when Eckersley, the godfather of modern closers and the first pitcher to be used almost exclusively to pitch the ninth inning, retired the first two batters, everything was going according to the baseball gods’ script.
But every good script has a twist. After belting a 12th-inning, game-winning homer in game four of the NLCS, Dodgers outfielder Kirk Gibson suffered a severely strained hamstring in game five while attempting to break up a double play. With the help of injections, Gibson gutted out games six and seven, but the pain only worsened in the leadup to game one of the World Series.
NBC announcer Bob Costas: “I remember coming on the air and saying, ‘First item of business: Kirk Gibson will not play tonight.’ We had been told he was out. That was how we set the stage for Game 1.”
Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda: “He was really suffering, and he couldn’t do it. If he had half a chance of doing it, he would have done it. … Every inning I’d go into the clubhouse and stand at the door of the trainer’s room and say, “How are you feeling, big boy?” Maybe he’d feel better and come back out, and each time he put his thumbs down and I’d go back out.”
What the world didn’t know, though, was that upon hearing legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully announce that he wouldn’t play, Gibson at that moment decided otherwise.
Dodgers ace Orel Herschiser, who was slated to pitch game two, was in the video room, scouting the A’s.
Herschiser: “When Vin Scully said Gibby wasn’t going to play, he got so mad. He got up, got the ice off and got his uniform on and went to go hit. … He couldn’t even bend back over to put the ball on the tee after he hit it. All he was trying to do was find a stance so that when he swung the bat, he wouldn’t fall over.”
Still, Gibson sent a clubhouse worker to get Lasorda.
Gibson: “When Tommy finally came waddling over, I said, ‘Hit Davis eighth, and I’ll hit for the pitcher.’”
Davis, whose season had been admittedly subpar, walked on five pitches, and as he trotted down to first, Lasorda called pinch-hitter Dave Anderson back to the dugout. As he exited the field, Gibson came hobbling out to a raucous welcome.
Gibson: “I told myself when I stepped out onto the field that the ovation and the environment would be outstanding and I wouldn’t hurt anymore, and it was true. I didn’t stay in the on-deck circle very long. I just walked up there.”
The joy was short-lived though as Gibson quickly found himself in the hole 0-2.
Eckersley: “He fouled away the first two pitches, and after he swung, he looked so feeble. I thought I was going to blow him away. I thought he was a lamb. I’m thinking I’m going to throw him a high fastball and he’s done.”
Herschiser: “It was terrible. Just terrible. We were in the dugout thinking he shouldn’t have even tried to hit.”
Gibson: “I remember hitting the little dribbler down the line, and it wasn’t pretty.”
After trying twice to steal and retreating after Gibson’s foul balls, Davis finally took second.
Gibson: “When Mike Davis finally got to second base, I thought just dink it over the shortstop, just score him and tie it up.”
After working the count to 3-2, Gibson recalled the advice from longtime Dodgers scout Mel Didier, who told the left-handed batters that against Eckersley: “Partner, sure as I’m standing here breathing, you’re going to see a 3-2 backdoor slider.”
Gibson: “Does that mean I just sat there and looked for it? No. It’s just subconsciously how you operate. I read a book from Jack Nicklaus a long time ago that when he stands on the tee, he visualizes the ball rolling into the cup. He doesn’t think about the swing, he thinks about the end result. That’s kind of where I was.”
McGwire: “That backdoor slider was probably the only pitch he could get the barrel on the ball, and he got it. I knew it was gone.”
Costas: “When you look at the swing, it’s almost flat-footed. It’s all arms. How the hell, with that swing, he hit the ball that way, I’ll never know, and I don’t know that he knows.”
Lasorda: “I knew it was gone, and I got very vulgar about it in the dugout.”
Gibson: “That feeling was pretty awesome. I didn’t know what to do. There are so many things that go through your mind in a short period of time. I thought about my parents and everything they went through when I left Detroit. That’s my most vivid memory as I was running around the bases.”
Scully: “When he hit the home run, naturally, I let the crowd go bananas. I didn’t say anything for over a minute, and then I said, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” I don’t know where it came from. Sometimes I often think the inspiration comes from above. It was the most theatrical home run I had ever seen. You looked on stage and he wasn’t there, and suddenly he appears on stage and the crowd erupts. He’s limping, and then suddenly he hits the home run. The whole thing was theater. It was perfect theater.”
From there, the Dodgers didn’t look back. They clinched the 1988 World Series in five games. The A’s would go on to win the World Series in ‘89 and make a third consecutive appearance in ‘90, where they lost to the Cincinnati Reds. But whether or not the A’s would have won the World Series had Gibson not hit the home run is, of course, debatable — the Dodgers clinched in five games. However, it’s also hypothetical. The dynasty that should’ve been never was. Instead, a legend was born.