These are heady days to be a Dodger fan. I know. I've been a Dodger fan since I was a kid.
Last night, the Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals went 13 innings in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. It was a tough loss for the Dodgers, 3–2, but Dodger fans are encouraged by the knowledge that their ace, Clayton Kershaw, is scheduled to pitch Game 2 tonight.
I'm not worried. This championship series has begun in much the same way the one in 1988 did.
The Dodgers haven't always lived up to my expectations — but, I will admit, my expectations are always high. I always expect them to compete for a berth in the World Series, and I have usually been disappointed. In my memory, the Dodgers have only played in a handful of World Series — and they've only won two.
The first time they won it all was marred by a strike that wiped out about one–third of the season and forced the major leagues to go to an unconventional playoff arrangement.
The second one came 25 years ago this month, and the victory that wrapped up the National League pennant came on this day in 1988 when the Dodgers won the seventh and final playoff game with the New York Mets.
When the National League Championship Series began, most observers thought it was a foregone conclusion that the Mets would win. They dominated the Dodgers during the regular season — and I do mean dominated. As I recall, the Dodgers only beat the Mets once that season.
But as they wrapped up the regular season, pitcher Orel Hershiser set a record for most consecutive scoreless innings pitched, and the Dodgers seemed to be gathering momentum.
Still, just about every baseball expert spoke of the N.L. crown as being destined for New York. Practically no one gave the Dodgers much of a chance of winning.
At first, it seemed they were right. After facing Hershiser for eight scoreless innings, the Mets rallied from a 2–0 deficit with a three–run ninth against reliever Jay Howell in the opener and took a 1–0 lead in the best–of–seven series. I remember watching that game. That ninth inning gave me such a bad case of heartburn I thought I would never get any sleep that night.
But the Dodgers won the second game the next night to even things up as the series moved to New York for the weekend.
New York won that third game, which was postponed by rain, then the Dodgers evened things up in the fourth game. At the time, I was making one of my whirlwind trips to Little Rock on my days off. The time would come when I couldn't do that anymore, but in October 1988, I still made trips back from Texas to visit my friends — and, when I did, I often stayed with my friend Steve.
He wasn't working that Monday, which may have been the reason why I chose those two days off for a trip. I really don't remember now. Anyway, the Dodgers and Mets were scheduled to play that Monday afternoon. The winner would go back to Los Angeles with a 3–2 lead needing only one more win to advance to the World Series.
Steve and I cheered as the Dodgers rolled to a 7–4 win — Steve was a Cardinals fan and, consequently, a devoted hater of the Mets — and I drove back to Texas that afternoon sorry (as always) to be leaving my friends but eager for the next night's game.
Unfortunately, the Dodgers lost that sixth game to the Mets, setting up a winner–take–all showdown 25 years ago tonight.
When the final out was in the books and the Dodgers had officially won the National League pennant, Hershiser did something I will never forget. He took a step, maybe two, and knelt for a moment of silent meditation before being swarmed by his jubilant teammates.
I made a video tape of that game, and I watched parts of it over and over again. But I probably watched those few seconds of Hershiser immediately after Game Seven ended more than anything else.
It summed up how I felt on that occasion.
It was an impossible dream that came true.
But beating the Mets was only the first impossible dream for the Dodgers. The next was, perhaps, even more formidable. It would require them to beat the mighty Oakland A's.