October 12, 2007
Of all the reasons to be intimidated by former Dodger Kirk Gibson -- two World Series rings, a National League MVP award, the altitude record piloting a Cessna 206, a nomination this year to the college football Hall of Fame -- I hadn't thought of the most obvious one: He's a scary dude. At 6-foot-3 with a shaved head, Gibson looks like a man who laughs rarely and pummels often. Several people warned me that he doesn't take kindly to journalists and to approach him carefully. Especially because I was asking for his help with something really, really stupid.
For this year's playoffs, Major League Baseball created a website -- actober.com -- where baseball fans can post short videos about their favorite playoff moments. Ellen Pompeo from "Grey's Anatomy" made one in which she fantasizes about being Curt Shilling's doctor when the Red Sox pitcher famously bled through his sock; James Caan donned a Yankee uniform to reminisce incoherently about, I'm guessing, baseball before it was ruined by radio, leather gloves and lady fans.
I immediately decided to reenact Gibson's 1988 World Series triumph for my video. Even though I was a Yankees fan, even though I was at an age when failing with girls was more important than baseball, I knew Gibson's home run was the best baseball moment I would ever witness.
Too hurt to play, Gibson nonetheless emerged from the trainer's room in the ninth inning of Game 1. There were two outs, a man on, and the Dodgers were trailing the Oakland A's 4 to 3. Gibson somehow hobbled to the plate on his two bum legs to pinch-hit and, with a 3-2 count, smacked the winning homer off of the game's best closer, Dennis Eckersley. It was as if Gibson had summoned up the superhuman strength that allows people to lift a car off a child, only for something important.
I carefully weighed whether my interpretation of this moment should be free of Gibson's influence, or whether I should allow him into my process. At which point I realized I'd been living in Los Angeles for too long already.
I went to Dodger Stadium the morning before a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks; Gibson is now their bench coach. I waited patiently for Gibson to finish up a conversation about a woman that was a little coarse and fratboyish, even for a dugout in Los Angeles. So, before we even started, I was already a little let down by my hero.
As far as reenacting that famous hit, Gibson said he couldn't do it himself, even though he's seen the clip of it thousands of times -- in fact, he had caught it on the Jumbotron at the game the day before. Still, he gave me some pointers. He warned me against my original choice to show a lot of pain, which he clearly thought was unmanly. I was to bang on the inside of both of my feet with the bat, even though I thought that was a bad idea for anyone with destroyed knees. One step after the big hit, he instructed me, you know it's going out of the park, "So put your hand up and your head down." I was also to pump my fist twice rounding second and ignore the pain until home plate: "Everybody looks like they're going to mob you, and you're kind of like, 'Easy' -- because you know that's not going to be good."
This all seemed doable, especially when he confided: "I took a real ugly swing and the ball went out." I'm totally capable of taking a real ugly swing.
It may have been the defining moment of Gibson's career, but for him, it was just one moment. He said that hit represented determination and overcoming adversity, but in describing it, he talked about it almost like any fan would -- as an interpretation of the video. Which may be how we all remember our own moments -- more from the retelling and reactions of others than the actual experience. It was if that moment was as much mine as his.
I went out to a ball field in Century City and found a softball player named Danielle, who agreed to pitch for my reenactment. I told her not to freak out when I swung wildly and then limped around the bases like a madman.
Feeling stupid but kind of happy that Major League Baseball gave me an excuse to feel 8 years old again and pretend to be a famous baseball player, I hit both of my feet with the bat and over-grimaced. Maybe Danielle is just a great batting practice pitcher, but I crushed the ball in a way I never have, sending it so far back that in a real game it clearly would have been easily caught by the center fielder. My fist pumps were real. And what Gibson was like in person didn't matter at all.
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