25th anniversary: the Kirk Gibson game

Twenty-five years ago today, one of the most famous home runs in baseball history was hit. It’s the sort of game identified simply by that one swing. Today is the silver anniversary of the Kirk Gibson Game.

First the background: On paper, the 1988 World Series looked like one of the most one-sided and uncompetitive match-ups ever.

Representing the AL were the mighty Oakland A’s. They had stormed through the season with a 104-58 record. They had two of the most dynamic young stars in baseball in their lineup. Outfielder Jose Canseco had—at the tender age of 23—become the first member of the 40-40 club with 42 homers and 40 steals. First baseman Mark McGwire wasn’t nearly as impressive, hitting “only” 32 homers, but he was still just a year off a rookie campaign in which he clubbed a league-best 49 homers.

The A’s team scored 800 runs, second most in the league. Not bad for a club playing half of its games in a great pitcher’s park.

The pitching staff was also great, with a league-best 3.44 ERA. Dave Stewart went 21-12, anchoring a staff of quality veterans including Bob Welch, Storm Davis and Curt Young. But the real pitching talent came in the bullpen. Dennis Eckersley, once a solid starter, had transformed into one of the best closers in baseball. And he was one of many, accompanied by Gene Nelson, Eric Plunk Rick Honeycutt and more.

The rival Dodgers looked far less impressive. They had won just 94 games, 10 fewer than Oakland. The Dodgers had a rather tepid offense for a pennant winner. The best hitting infielder was Steve Sax, who hit .277 with 28 extra base hits in 160 games. The outfield was better, but the only dangerous bat was Kirk Gibson’s, and he was hobbled by injuries as the World Series began.

The Dodgers did have some great pitchers, but overall the clear favorite was the A’s. After all, it was the A’s who blew through their League Championship Series, sweeping the Red Sox in four games. The Dodgers barely squeaked by the Mets in seven games, and at one point even needed ace starter Orel Hershiser to pitch out of the bullpen.

But all that meant nothing. Oct. 15, 1988 was Game One of the World Series, the Dodgers hosting the A’s. The A’s appeared to have the advantage, as the layoff since the ALCS allowed them to set up their rotation with ace Dave Stewart going in Game One, while the Dodgers had journeyman starter Tim Belcher as the best pitcher ready to go.

Early on, it looked like the Dodgers were going to prove all their doubters wrong. They they had a two-run homer in the bottom of the first from Mickey Hatcher, who’d had just one homer in the regular season.

But those early good feelings soon departed. Just moments after Hatcher’s home run, the A’s reminded everyone who had the real power at the plate. In the top of the second, the A’s took a 4-2 lead, courtesy a grand slam homer by (of course) star slugger Canseco.

After that, both teams’ pitchers took command. Neither team scored until the sixth, when a single by veteran Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia closed the gap to one run, 4-3 A’s over the Dodgers. But that’s where the score stood heading into the bottom of the ninth.

Trailing the A’s entering the ninth was no one’s idea of a good place to be. Sure enough, out of the bullpen came uber-reliever Eckersley. And making it even worse, the Dodgers had the 6-7-8 hitters in their batting order due up. So an underwhelming lineup’s bottom would be all that stood between Oakland and a Game One triumph.

First up was Scioscia. He was a former All-Star and already had an RBI. But Eckersley made short work of him, inducing a limp pop-up to short. Next up: third baseman Jeff Hamilton. He batted .236 with no power or plate discipline, and Eckersley overwhelmed him, striking him out.

Now the A’s were just one out from victory. Down to ther last out, Dodger skipper Tommy Lasorda had Mike Davis pinch-hit for shortstop Alfred Griffin. Davis was a familiar face to the A’s—he had played for them from 1980-’87. But he was a strange pick for a pinch hitter. He batted under the Mendoza line in 1988, with a .196 average. Nevertheless, he was the Dodgers’ last hope.

Against his former teammate, Eckersley uncharacteristically lost his command. He had issued just nine unintentional walks in 72.2 innings, but sure enough he issued a free pass to Davis in just five pitches.

OK, so the tying run was on. But Eck was still Eck, and the pitcher was due up. When Davis drew his walk, you could look to the on deck circle and see that the best the hitting-depleted Dodgers could do for a pinch hitter was utility infielder Dave Anderson, he of a .249 average and two homers in 116 games. Somehow, I doubt Eckersley was scared.

But wait! Here is the part you’ve all been waiting for. The Dodgers sent Anderson to the on-deck circle with no intention of using him. They figured if they had the tying run on, they’d try a roll of the dice. Little did the A’s know, but in the practice room, Kirk Gibson was warming up, taking some practice swings.

Gibson wasn’t doing too well with his practice swings. So hobbled by injuries that he was practically limping on both legs when he moved, the best he could tell the coaches was that he thought he had one good swing in him. One good swing? Sounds like the dialogue from a bad movie, doesn’t it?

Well, no one paid Gibson for his words anyway. They paid him to hit and to the delight of the packed house of 55,983 fans in Dodger Stadium, the year’s hero came out of the dugout to hit.

This was the ultimate in all-or-nothing. Gibson could barely walk, let aloneg run. He needed to make really solid contact or fail. It was home run or bust.

And Gibson came up swinging. He fouled off Eck’s first pitch. Then he fouled off the next one, falling behind 0-2. Gibson had trouble standing properly after finishing his swing. Now L.A. was done to its last strike.

After a few throws to first, Eck faced off against Gibson again, and he hit a bouncer down the first base line. Gibson took off as fast as his damaged wheels could take him, but fortunately for him, the ball rolled foul. It was still 0-2, but Eckersley clearly looked better so far.

On the next pitch, Eck threw one outside, but A’s catcher Ron Hassey took the occasion to try to catch Mike Davis unawares at first. Davis dove back to the bag just in time. Now the count was 1-2.

On the fifth pitch, Davis took off for second—but it didn’t matter. Gibson fouled off yet another one. On the next pitch, Eckersley again tried to make Gibson chase one outside the zone, but Gibson had enough discipline to hold off. Now it was 2-2.

Davis stayed active on the bases, and on the next pitch went again—and took second. The A’s didn’t even contest the steal, with Hassey eating the ball behind the plate.

Oh, and more importantly for our tale, Eckersley’s pitch was again outside. Now it was a full count: three balls, two strikes, with two out in the bottom of the ninth of the World Series with the slugger at the plate representing the winning run. This is the sort of thing kids dream off while playing around in their backyards.

Gibson set in to get ready for the next pitch while Eckersley got the signal from his catcher. Then Gibson suddenly called for time and stepped back. Was he clearing his head—or did he just remember one of the most famous scouting reports in history?

A Dodgers chief scout had told the team before the Series that if Eckersley faced a full count on a lefty batter, they should know what to expect: a backdoor slider. Gibson had gotten the count full, and now he knew what to look for.

Head cleared, he stumbled back to the plate. Eckersley delivered and it was the pitch Gibson wanted. His aim was true and the ball went over the fence for a stunning two-run homer.

This play was so great it inspired not just one, but two famous calls. Jack Buck told the American audience, “I don’t believe what I just saw” as he looked on at the made-for-Hollywood home run. On the radio broadcast, legendary Vin Scully paused for a while before simply stating, “In the year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” The Dodgers had won.

And that stunner would spark a Series-wide stunner. The A’s would win it in five games over the heavily favored Dodgers. Gibson wouldn’t bat again, but he was the man everyone remembered from that Series.

Later, Bob Costas would contend that the scouting report to Gibson wasn’t just dead-on, it was also made out of whole cloth. Costas said that Eckersley never had a full count on a lefty batter all year.

Costas’ comment itself is fairly well known—but totally wrong. Eckersley had 10 different full counts on lefty hitters in 1988. And by the looks of it, he had a pitch he liked to use then. Though he allowed a single and a walk in those plate appearances, he also fanned five guys, and none of the other three batters hit it out of the infield.

Eck really did have a lot of luck with that pitch in that situation on the year, but he sure didn’t in Game One of the World Series—25 years ago today.

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Gordon Danning
10 years ago

You’ve got a typo in the 4th-to-last paragraph; obviously, you mean that the Dodgers won the series.

And, I’m not sure it is fair to describe Tim Belcher as a journeyman pitcher—at that point in his career, he was an up and coming young pitcher, who, the next year, would lead the league in complete games and shutouts (with 8—no one has had more than 6 since, and that was only once).

10 years ago

Another fairly famous call was Costas noting that Elvis had left the building, prompting sings in the stands the next game reading: Costas – Elvis is alive.

10 years ago

I also loved Scully’s call as Gibson limped to the plate: “Talk about a roll of the dice—this is it.” That, and “I don’t believe what I just saw” are a permanent part of the baseball archive in my memory.