Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Kirk Gibson's Walk-off Home Run

I'm a Los Angeles Dodgers fan. Always have been. I don't really know why. I've never lived in Los Angeles. In fact, I've only been there twice in my life.

I grew up in central Arkansas, which was kind of an extension of St. Louis Cardinals territory. There was a minor league team in Little Rock that was affiliated with the Cardinals for a long time, and, when I was a child, I could always get Cardinals games on my radio. When folks in my hometown went on a summer vacation, nine times out of 10 they went to St. Louis to see a game or two. Heck, even my family did that a couple of times — and no one in my family could be called a Cardinals fan.

It would have been so easy to do as most of my friends did and take the Cardinals as my team. But I guess I wanted to assert my individuality so I picked the Dodgers.

And I have been loyal to the Dodgers ever since.

They haven't always made it easy. Many times, they haven't come close to being in the playoffs. Then, when they have been in the playoffs, they've often found some way to blow it.

They're in the playoffs again this yearm currently facing the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League championship. The Cardinals won the first two games during the weekend, but the Dodgers won Game 3 last night and are hoping to even the series tonight.

I discovered it was a small club, too. that list of Dodger loyalists. I didn't know any other Dodger fans when I was growing up. I met one or two in college, and I met one or two after I finished work on my bachelor's degree so I know that Dodger fans did exist in Arkansas when I lived there. They were just few and far between.

The last time the Dodgers were in the World Series, 25 years ago, I was certain they were going to lose it. They had had a spectacular run that year, beating the favored New York Mets for the National League title, and pitcher Orel Hershiser had had a remarkable year, setting a record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the waning weeks of the regular season.

But the foe in the World Series would be the Oakland A's, an intimidating team that had rolled through their American League competition behind the exploits of the so–called "Bash Brothers," Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Oakland swept the Boston Red Sox in the AL playoffs that year.

The A's won four more games that season than the Mets did. Their 104–victory total was greater than any American League team except one in nearly 20 years — the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who also won 104 games.

I just felt like the Dodgers couldn't compete with the A's. Neither did most sports observers.

In those days, I was working on the sports staff of a modestly sized afternoon newspaper in north Texas. Game 1 of the World Series was on a Saturday night, the one day of the week that a morning edition was prepared — for delivery on Sunday morning. Everyone on the staff was at work from about 3 in the afternoon until midnight.

The game began around 7 that night, and I timed my dinner break so I could run home and start my VCR with the first pitch. That way, I knew I could watch the game later.

As it was being played, though, I tried to monitor it from my desk, which was in view of the newsroom TV (there was no commercial internet to consult in 1988 — I had access to the sports wire, of course, and it provided score updates, but details were sketchy until game accounts began to move). From time to time, people came in from the backshop to ask about the score, and, for much of the evening, it seemed things were going to play out about as expected.

Things weren't going well for the Dodgers. They took a 2–0 lead in the first inning but immediately surrendered it to Oakland when the A's scored four runs in the top of the second.

The Dodgers added a run in the sixth but trailed, 4–3, in the bottom of the ninth.

Kirk Gibson had been the offensive star of the season for the Dodgers, but he was hobbled by injuries to both legs and had not started the game that night. However, in the ninth inning, he decided to make himself available for pinch–hitting duty and came to bat with one on and two out.

What followed was so implausible, so dramatic that no novelist or screen writer could have gotten away with writing it.

Oakland's ace reliever, Dennis Eckersley, was on the mound. No other reliever in the majors had as many saves as Eckersley did that year. Oakland fans regarded him as automatic — and rightfully so.

The count was full, there was a runner at second, and Eckersley threw a slider. Gibson swung, connected and drilled it over the fence.

Most people, when asked what they remember about that moment, will tell you they remember Gibson pumping his right arm in jubilation as he circled the bases.

And I remember that, too. (It was the crowning touch on a moment in baseball history that has truly become iconic in the last quarter of a century. It is always shown in baseball's postseason, along with the clip that is arguably the Dodgers' lowest moment as a team — the Giants' Bobby Thomson's walk–off homer in the deciding game of the National League playoffs against the Dodgers in 1951.)

But what I remember most about that moment is watching Gibson's painful run around the bases. And I use the word run generously here. It wasn't really a run. It was more of a walk that was intended to be a run, but it just didn't work out. Sometimes it was a limp.

Kind of gave a new meaning to the term walk–off. Gibson's spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

But, when you hit a home run, you don't get extra points — or credit — for running around the bases at a record clip. All you've got to do is touch each base — especially the last one.

And that's what Gibson did. The fact that it took him longer than usual to do it simply meant Dodger fans had more time to savor the moment — and A's fans had to suffer through it longer.

By the way, Gibson played for the '84 Tigers.

No comments: