It has never happened before in the World Series.
That’s what you wanted to know, isn’t it? Now, don’t you feel better? That’s why you, and everybody else, who watched Kirk Gibson’s home run on Saturday night felt so perplexed with amazement.
Nobody--let’s word this exactly right--had ever before hit a ninth-inning home run to turn defeat into victory in the World Series. Let alone with two out. Let alone with two strikes. Let alone with injuries to both legs so bad he could barely limp around the bases.
It was a new moment for baseball.
In 85 Series, you’d figure everything has transpired. Don Larsen’s perfect game and the Black Sox’s imperfect fix. Bill Wambsganss’ unassisted triple play and the 10th-inning, final-game fly Fred Snodgrass dropped to blow the 1912 Series. The Oakland Athletics’ 10-run inning to wipe out an 8-0 lead. Reggie Jackson’s 5 home runs.
From Mickey Owens’ passed ball to Bill Buckner’s boot; from Mazeroski’s homer to Don Denkinger’s blown call; from the Babe’s called shot to Fisk’s foul-pole polka; from the Big Six’s three shutouts to the pebble that finally gave the Big Train a Series win, baseball has consistently suspended disbelief in October.
But only one person knows how Gibson feels: Cookie Lavagetto. His 2-run double with 2 out in the ninth inning of Game 4 in ’47 ended Yankee Bill Bevens’ bid to pitch the first Series no-hitter and gave Brooklyn a 3-2 win.
Which Dodger was better? Kirk or Cookie? Both had 2-out, 2-run hits to turn a loss into a win. They’re the only pair who’ve ever done that in the last inning. Is a homer by a star better than a double by a journeyman? Is breaking up a no-hitter better than dragging yourself out of an ice bucket, shot up with xylocaine and cortisone, to beat a pitcher with 49 saves?
Take your pick.
Lavagetto’s hit tied his Series, but the Dodgers lost in seven games. Maybe that gives Gibson a potential edge.
Nobody’s saying Gibson’s homer is on the short list of Greatest Series Moments. It was only the first game. But it was definitely as unique as it was wonderful. Other famous game-winning, last-inning homers in the Series have all come with the score tied. Sorry, Casey Stengel (inside-the-park in ’23), Tommy Henrich ('49), Dusty Rhodes ('54), Eddie Mathews ('57), Bill Mazeroski ('60), Mickey Mantle ('64) and Carlton Fisk ('75), that’s not quite the same.
Those in Dodger Stadium on Saturday night know the difference. Some mortal Dodger, in the grip of hero worship, wrote “Roy Hobbs” above Gibson’s locker. However, even “The Natural,” dedicated to the proposition that mythic excess is art, would not have dared to pull a stunt like Gibson, who is baseball’s halt and lame Unnatural. Only real life can end this way and get an Oscar.
Gibson’s homer did not short-circuit a light tower and burn Chavez Ravine to ash. It just scorched Dennis Eckersley, Tony La Russa and an Oakland team that would like to get its foot out of its mouth and Gibson’s boot off its neck.
Even now, a day and a game later, what Gibson did bestrides this World Series, just as his two game-winning homers within 13 hours against the Mets defined the National League playoffs.
“I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like that again for as long as I live,” said Dodger Dave Anderson.
“Excited? I was going to run around the bases with him,” said Mickey Hatcher, king of the L.A. Stuntmen. “I figured they’d have to get a wheelchair out there for him. My first reaction was to go out and kiss him. But the guy doesn’t shave.”
It’s impossible not to acknowledge the Hollywood script quality of the whole evening. Gibson was a mystery man all night, back in the clubhouse getting shots and ice. He hadn’t even been able to bear taking practice swings in his living room in the morning, with the pain in his bum right knee far surpassing his healing left hamstring.
“I didn’t even think the guy could walk,” said Brian Holton. “I’d forgotten all about Kirk,” added Hatcher. “I didn’t even see him all night,” said Steve Sax.
But Gibson was still hoping. When broadcaster Vin Scully said on TV that Gibson was gone for the night, Gibson growled, “Bull,” and broke out of his ice wrap like The Thing coming to life.
Gibson, reduced to “visualizing” his swing for three days, started hitting off a tee and, as the ninth inning began, had the bat boy fetch Tommy Lasorda. “I told him, ‘If you get (Mike) Davis to hit for (Alfredo) Griffin, I can hit for the pitcher.’ He took off for the dugout. I guess it was what he wanted to hear.”
With Davis, a home-run threat and former Athletic, at bat, Lasorda deked Oakland nicely by sending the weak Anderson out on deck. Eckersley pitched too carefully and walked Davis, assuming the Dodgers had no power left. “You can’t walk the tying run,” said Eckersley. " . . . That’s why I lost.”
As Gibson did a jig of pain after each lunging swing, and even tried a half-speed jog to first on one foul dribbler, the A’s continued to pour fastballs at the outside corner. “He didn’t look too good on his swings,” said Hassey, the catcher, yet he kept ticking off fouls.
But the Dodgers adapted by running. On the first steal attempt, Gibson finally had a decent swing, poking a foul to left. Oh, so that’s their game, thought the A’s. Can’t allow a hit-and-run double to the opposite field.
So, they changed plans. On the first slider, Davis stole second and the count ran full. Suddenly, La Russa had to face a decision with historic overtones. In the 1985 playoffs, in this ballpark, Lasorda pitched to Jack Clark in just such a spot, top of the ninth, with first base open. Next pitch, home run. Season over. However, in 1947, the Yankees intentionally walked Pete Reiser, whom they feared, to get to Lavagetto. The Reiser run beat them.
With hindsight, the A’s may remember the ’84 World Series when Goose Gossage talked Dick Williams into letting him pitch to Gibson with Detroit ahead, 5-4, in the eighth. “Ten bucks says they pitch to me,” yelled Gibson to Sparky Anderson. “Ten bucks says they don’t,” yelled back the Tigers’ manager.
They did. Gibson went into the upper deck for three runs, a Series MVP trophy and the icing on a world title.
Now, it is easy to say you should let Eckersley pitch to the right-handed Steve Sax. But, at the moment, Hassey thought “we can freeze Gibson” with a backdoor slider--a pitch that looks like a low outside fastball for a semi-intentional walk, then snaps back to nick the corner and end the game, unhit.
“I tried to make a nasty pitch,” said Eckersley. Instead, it proved to be “the only pitch he could hit out.”