Memories grow fuzzy over time, but Kirk Gibson hasn’t forgotten. Nor has Dennis Eckersley.
Twenty-five years is a long time, a generation ago. Yet every detail from that October night remains vivid.
How could it not? When Gibson’s home run sailed over the right-field fence at Dodger Stadium in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, it was the shot heard ‘round Los Angeles – one of those “do you remember where you were?” moments.
The Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since then, but as they begin their quest for a sixth championship in L.A., the memory of Gibson’s historic moment remains as clear as the San Gabriel Mountains beyond center field.
The date: Oct. 15, 1988. The score: Athletics 4, Dodgers 3. The situation: bottom of the ninth. Eckersley was warmed up, and the gates to the visiting team bullpen swung open for him. He saved 45 games that season; he was automatic, virtually unhittable.
This is what transpired before, during and after Gibson hobbled to the plate — his legs barely able to keep him upright — in the words of those who were there.
Tommy Lasorda, Dodgers manager: Everybody felt Gibson wasn’t going to play. He was laying on the training table, and every inning I’d run in there just to see him and say, “How you doing, big boy?” And he’d go (thumbs down), just like that.
Gibson: Actually I got hurt in Game 4 — or was it Game 5? — in New York (National League Championship Series). We immediately got an injection and then I came back. I think I sat out Game 6 and then played in Game 7, and that’s when I got on first base and tried to break up a double play. But because of my hamstring, I kind of went into second funky and twisted my knee on the bag. That added to the discomfort. That night, I went to my home in Santa Monica and got in bed and put pillows under each of my legs and propped them up. I just thought, “I’ll figure it out.” At that time, you always think you’re invincible. I slept and got up about 5 in the morning and immediately got out of bed and said, “Yeah, this doesn’t feel bad.” Then I jogged across my living room floor and it grabbed me and I said, “This isn’t good.” I got to the stadium and told them I didn’t think I could play.
Gibson didn’t come out for the traditional pregame introductions in which players line up along the baselines. He remained in the clubhouse, hidden from view, as the Dodgers took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on Mickey Hatcher’s home run. But Jose Canseco’s grand slam off Tim Belcher in the second put the A’s in front.
Vin Scully, Dodgers and NBC broadcaster: We were in commercial for the bottom of the ninth, and I said to the producer and director in the truck, “I know you’re busy, but do me a favor when we come out of commercial. Follow me.” So when they come out of commercial, the first shot you saw was the blimp looking down at Dodger Stadium. And I remember saying, “If you were here with us in the ballpark, the first thing you would do, you would be looking into the Dodger dugout.” Wham! There’s a shot of the dugout, and now they pan the dugout, the whole length. And I said, “You’d be looking for Kirk Gibson. He’s not there, so obviously he won’t be playing tonight.”
Gibson: The way the game was unfolding, we were getting down to it and down to the last inning. I knew who we had on the bench, and when Vin said that, I just kind of stood up and said, “My ass. It’s time to get dressed.” That’s not to say I wouldn’t have gotten dressed anyway if he didn’t say it, but he did say it. And I was vocal to whoever was around me at that moment.
Mitch Poole, Dodgers clubhouse attendant: It was around the seventh inning when he asked me to grab his uniform. He was in the training room, on the table. He actually heard Vin Scully talk on the air about how “we’ll be without the services of Kirk Gibson, I guess for the whole series.” That’s when he asked me to get his uniform. We went down by the cage. It was really small. I remember getting the baseballs for him and waiting for Ben Hines, our hitting coach, to come by and work with him. We were losing, and Ben was on his way to the bench, and when he went by us, Kirk asked him, “Ben, you want to help me out here?” Ben goes, “No, why don’t you have Mitch help you?” So I started putting balls on a tee for him, and then I started tossing to him. He was grimacing, but in between all of that he just stopped and he looked at me. I was tossing balls to him in the same general area of where that backdoor slider was going to be. He goes, “You know, Mitch, this could be the script.” That’s what he said.
Eckersley retired Mike Scioscia on a pop fly to shortstop, then got Jeff Hamilton to look at a called third strike. One out away from a Game 1 loss, Lasorda sent Mike Davis, a former A’s outfielder who hit just .196 after signing with the Dodgers as a free agent, to pinch-hit for Alfredo Griffin.
Davis fouled off Eckersley’s first pitch, then took four balls wide of the plate to put the tying run on base.
Eckersley: To me, looking back, that was the mistake, that I didn’t go after Davis. But I had too much respect for him. I had played with him the year before and he hit 22 home runs, so I knew he had some pop. Meanwhile, what did he hit that year, .200? And I nibbled with him. He could run. You didn’t want to put him on. I didn’t even think about Gibson coming up. (Dave) Anderson was on deck.
Mike Davis: That first pitch that I fouled straight back, I couldn’t believe that I missed it, but I did. If I could get that back and make contact, I could’ve been the hero instead of Kirk. But you can’t rewrite history, and I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I was just trying to play my role and get us closer.
Mike Scioscia: You’re always feeling, just get somebody on base and hopefully you can gain some momentum and get things happening, even with two outs. We were able to do that with Mike Davis. Not that you expect Kirk to ever hit a two-run home run but you’re hoping he can bloop one in, do something, get that game tied and keep going.
Meanwhile, Gibson was still hitting off a tee in the Dodgers’ small batting cage. Each practice swing was painful, but in his mind, he believed his adrenalin would take over when he emerged from the dugout – assuming he could.
Poole: He says, “Go down and tell Tommy I can hit.” When I went down there, Tommy wouldn’t listen to me. Tommy was managing, and I was yelling at him like I’m a fool. I’m yelling, “Tommy get over here,” but he kind of brushed me off. I yell, “Gibby wants to talk to you.” So he ran over to me, and I said, “Gibby said he could hit.” So he went up there where the cage was, and Gibby told him that if Davis gets on, he wants to hit for Anderson.
Lasorda: I went up the tunnel, and the SOB had his uniform on. He said, “I think I can hit for you.” I got out of there quick before he could change his mind. I didn’t say anything to him except when I saw them walk Davis. I said, “OK, big boy, get your ass out there and do the job.” The drama that was attached to that home run was what made it so very significant. Shoot, the guy never came out for the introductions. He never came out for the game.
But when he emerged from the dugout, bat in hand, Dodger Stadium erupted. Scully told a national TV audience, “And look who’s comin’ up.” Gibson wiped his bat with a pine tar rag, circled the on-deck circle nervously and took several practice swings.
“All year long, they looked to him to light the fire, and all year long he answered the demands until he was physically unable to start tonight,” Scully said. “With two outs, you talk about a roll of the dice. This is it.”
Eckersley: It took a half an hour for Gibson to get up there. I’m anxious anyway and it’s like, for crissake, get in there. It was a show. But I still thought I would get him out. I thought he was a lamb. The scouting report on him, we spent maybe 10 seconds. We said, “Gas him. Can’t catch up with the fastball. If he ever plays, gas him.” And I did, until the back-door breaking ball.
Gibson fouled off two pitches, then reached out for a fastball off the plate and hit a weak bouncer down the first-base line that rolled foul. He was barely able to make it halfway down the line on his bad legs.
Eckersley: He looked brutal. Then he got a little ground ball topper, and me and (first baseman Mark) McGwire were standing over it, right down the first-base line. I’ll never forget it. I saw a picture of it. If that ball’s fair, I tag him and let’s go home. You always look back at something like that and think, “Oh my life could’ve been different if that ball’s fair.” It wouldn’t have been a big deal. I would’ve gotten him out and we would’ve won the first game of the World Series. We might’ve gone on to win the damn thing. Who knows?
Finally, after almost getting picked off by A’s catcher Ron Hassey, Davis stole second base on ball three, putting the tying run in scoring position. But the Dodgers were still one strike away from a 4-3 loss.
Gibson: We had something really magical going in ’88. It was like my calling, like someone told me, “Come on, let’s go. It’s time for you to do your thing.” I believed in it. I remember hitting a little dribbler down the line and it wasn’t pretty. Then Mike Davis started to steal, and when he finally got to second base I remember within my mind thinking, “Just dink it over the shortstop. Drive him in and tie it up.” It’s really all I was thinking at the time.
Lasorda: You put him up there in that situation because you figure this guy’s capable of hitting a home run. He’s got power. But I told our coach, “If he gets two strikes on him, I’ll play for a tie. I’ll steal Mike Davis. We can steal on Eckersley all day long.”
Eckersley: I hated having to be concerned with runners because I don’t hold them on very well. And a lot of guys don’t run in the ninth anyway because they can’t take a chance. But we threw over there a couple of times for the hell of it. They picked the right spot. They don’t even have to have a big lead off me because I’ve got that kick. I’m not messing around trying to shorten up when this is the out we’ve got to get.
In his book, “Bottom of the Ninth,” Gibson recalls a report from Mel Didier, the Dodgers’ advance scout, who told him that Eckersley would undoubtedly throw him a backdoor slider if the count got to 3-2.
“I’ve seen him freeze George Brett with it,” Didier told Gibson. “I’ve seen him freeze Wade Boggs. If you get him to 3 and 2, get ready to step into it, because it will be that backdoor slider.”
So in the most important moment of his career, Gibson knew what was coming. And it did. He reached out and drove the slider over the right-field fence, giving the Dodgers a 5-4 walk-off win and the momentum for the remainder of the series, which they won in five games. As he circled the bases, Gibson twice pumped his right fist in what has become an iconic video clip for the ages.
It turned out to be Gibson’s only-at bat in that World Series.
Eckersley: It was a backdoor breaking ball that got middle. The reason it got middle was because I had to throw a strike. I thought maybe he’d pull off because he’d seen so many fastballs. But if you saw the dugout the previous pitch, they panned the dugout and (pitching coach Dave) Duncan was raising his hand up and away, like fastball up and away. And it’s history, man. It was supposed to happen.
Gibson: The feeling was 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 never thought about pumping my fist. I don’t know why I did it. It was just an act of emotion.
Eckersley: It was so shocking. It was surreal. Because he crushed it, and he was flat-footed. I mean, c’mon. I wasn’t even supposed to throw an offspeed pitch. Sometimes breaking balls jump off the bat more than fastballs because of the spin. He just caught it perfect. It didn’t just barely get it over the fence. He crushed it.
Gibson: You try to create and predetermine a moment in your head. For me, that was like a check-off. I’ll walk up there, the crowd, Eckersley, the batter’s box, how they’re going to be defending you, what you’re going to see, rounding the bases. You create these moments in your head. I mean, it’s much the same as when you’re a little kid and you played Mickey Mantle, or whoever it was, hitting the game-winning home run. The reality of it is, you play through 100 of those moments and they never come true. But that one did.
Eckersley: It crushed me. I wasn’t second-guessing myself at all. You just live with it. The toughest part of it was walking off the field. I couldn’t get eye contact with anybody. The people on my team felt so bad, they didn’t want to look at me. Nobody would look at me. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world.
While the Dodgers celebrated in their clubhouse, the A’s sat in front of their lockers in dead silence. Dozens and dozens of reporters crowded inside looking for Eckersley and hoping for a quote or two that would explain his horrendous collapse.
But in an incredible display of composure, Eckersley stood and answered the same questions, over and over, as reporters came in waves at him. He never flinched, never exploded, never broke down.
In the years that have passed, Gibson and Eckersley have come to accept and embrace their shared moment. Most players have no need to relive the past, but pitcher and hitter understand its importance in baseball history. Gibson occasionally replays it and listens to Scully’s call.
Eckersley: I’m proud of the way I handled it more than anything else. It was a terrible moment career-wise, but at the same time it wasn’t. It was special. It taught me to deal with that. Nowadays you have a presser (in a conference room) and everybody asks you all at once. But in the old days, 25 years ago, you had to do it one at a time. It was insane. It really was.
Gibson: I enjoy watching it. It’s good affirmation for me and my life. I remember how hard it was and how lucky I was to have done it. There’s really no reason how I accomplished it, given the situation of who I was up against and the state of my physical being. My mentality was good, and I can always say it’s evidence to anybody who believes that they can’t do it, to give them a reason to believe you can, because that’s really what I went on. And some way, somehow, the ball went out of the ballpark and we won the World Series.
Eckersley: I’ve sat down with (Gibson), listened to him and what he went through. But I sucked it up. I’ve always said, “He may have that home run, but I’m in the Hall of Fame, pal, and he’s not.” If this is the only thing I’ve got to deal with, I’m good to go.
Gibson: Twenty-five years, to be honest with you, it seems like it’s fading more, the vividness of it. Although when I come here, I still walk into the stadium, I immediately look up there in right field at the seat where I think the ball landed. I’ve named it Seat 88.