Dodgers '88: A SEASON TO REMEMBER : GAME 1: Dodgers 5, Athletics 4

Times Staff Writer

If Kirk Gibson really is the embodiment of these incredibly resilient Dodgers, then this had to be the ultimate example of the unbridled spirit and resolve of this team.

There were the Dodgers, one out away from a 4-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics in the opening game of the World Series Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, when Gibson came lurching out of the dugout with a bat and the Dodgers' hopes in his hands.

With Mike Davis on base after a two-out walk, Gibson, who did not start because of a sprained ligament in his right knee and lingering soreness from a strained left hamstring, gingerly stepped to the plate to face A's ace Dennis Eckersley, who led the major leagues in saves this season.

Burrowing his feet into the batter's box, Gibson somehow managed to work Eckersley to a full count, with Davis taking second on a stolen base.

Then, with a quick turn of his hips and a snap of his wrists, Gibson, using virtually one hand, sent Eckersley's pitch over the right-field wall to complete an exhilarating 5-4 comeback victory by the Dodgers before a crowd of 55,983 that simply would not stop cheering, even after the players had left the field.

"It was a great moment," Gibson said. "I felt fortunate to be in there and be a part of it. It was a classic, good for the fans to see and people around in all the nations."

In the wake of his global embarrassment, Eckersley could only shake his head and recall what had gone wrong when his 3-and-2 slider slid directly onto Gibson's bat.

"It was a terrible pitch," Eckersley said. "I've got to live with it."

As dramatic and unexpected as Gibson's home run was, the consummate moment of what probably will be remembered as a World Series classic was the sight of Gibson lugging that battered body around the bases for his home run trot.

Dragging his right leg, with the injured knee, and favoring his left leg, with the strained hamstring, the gimpy Gibson seemed to take forever to round the bases. It had to be painful for the A's, who held the lead for 6 innings, to watch. But for the Dodgers, it was an excruciating wait to begin a home-plate celebration.

"I tell you what," Gibson said, "I think if somebody told me that if you hit a home run, you better make it around the bases, I could make it. But I have to watch the way I walk and run. I really couldn't do it too well before tonight."

When Gibson finally touched down, he was swarmed by euphoric Dodger players and Manager Tom Lasorda, who administered a bear hug.

The least the Dodgers could have done, it seemed, was carry Gibson off the field. Actually, they should have done it out of necessity. This man was hurting. He had received an injection of cortisone into the connective tissues above a ligament in his right knee an hour before game time and did not figure to play.

But as was proven again Saturday night, it is unwise to count out Gibson or the Dodgers.

Still, after the first two outs of the ninth inning, a Dodger loss appeared inevitable.

The offense managed a 2-run home run by Mickey Hatcher in the first inning and another run in the sixth off Oakland starter Dave Stewart. And the A's appeared to have all the runs they would need from Jose Canseco's grand slam off Dodger starter Tim Belcher in a disastrous second inning.

Also, the Dodgers had to face Eckersley, who had saved all 4 A's victories in the American League championship series and had 45 saves during the regular season.

But . . .

The Dodgers turned Hollywood with a script that was heavy on melodrama and probably would leave any audience in disbelief.

While his teammates were on the field in the top of the ninth inning, Gibson quietly slipped back into the trainer's room, had an ice bag strapped onto his right knee and put on his spikes. Once the ice had sufficiently numbed the knee, Gibson told hitting coach Ben Hines that he wanted to take some swings in a batting cage near the clubhouse.

Batboy Mitch Poole put balls onto a tee, and Gibson pounded a few into the net.

He was ready.

"I could hear Vin Scully saying, 'Well, Gibson's not in there.' I said, 'Bull, I'll be in there.' . . . I was aware of what the order was. I said to Tommy, if you want to hit Mike (Davis) for Alfredo (Griffin), I'll be next in line," Gibson said.

"As a precaution and ruse, Lasorda sent Dave Anderson to the on-deck circle while Davis hit. Davis, who was 5 for 30 as a pinch-hitter this season, battled Eckersley to a full count before drawing a walk.

Anderson looked back to the dugout as Davis headed to first base. Gibson had emerged from the shadows of the corridor and grabbed a bat. Anderson headed back to the dugout, and the Dodger players stood agape.

Hatcher said, "I'm standing in the dugout and (Tracy) Woodson said, 'Watch what happens if Davis gets walked.' I said, 'Why, does Dave Anderson own Eckersley or something? Am I missing something?' He said, 'No, Gibby's going to bat.' I said, 'Gibson, where's he coming from? Is he in someone's else's uniform?' "

No, it was No. 23, the guy with the spiked hair and unmistakable Walter Brennan-type limp.

At that point, the Dodger dugout was buzzing and the stadium erupting in an ovation. That was a lull compared to the roar that followed Gibson's home run, his third of the postseason, but first with the handicap of two bad legs.

"That was the most dramatic home run I have ever seen," second baseman Steve Sax said. " The man was hobbling around here all day, looking like a one-legged steer, and he hits it out. He's so strong that he hit that with one hand."

Even Gibson seemed amazed that he could play--and produce--in his current condition.

"I tried to do a little jog in my living room today, and it hurt like . . . ," Gibson said. "It was obvious I couldn't play. I took some swings in my living room, and oh, my Lord."

But Gibson did not have nearly 56,000 screaming fans in his living room to take his mind off his pain and immobility.

"The fans really pumped me up," Gibson said. "I didn't even think about the pain. I was just trying to visualize hitting like I had, since I hadn't faced live pitching since Game 7 (of the playoffs) on Wednesday."

Eckersley said that because of Gibson's injuries, he tried to feed him fastballs. He did that for the first six pitches. Then he threw Gibson a breaking ball that missed the plate, making it a full count. Then he threw the fateful slider and wished he could slide under a door.

"Let's get on with Game 2," Eckersley said. "I want to put this behind me."

This, however, is a game the Dodgers do not want to put behind them.

After Hatcher's unexpected first-inning home run--he had only one this season--the Dodgers made it through Belcher's unraveling in the second inning.

Canseco, who had 3 home runs in 4 playoff games, sent a pitch by Belcher over the center-field fence for a grand slam and a 4-2 Oakland lead. Had the ball not hit a television camera mounted behind the fence, it might have continued on to Pasadena.

But the Dodgers, again, refused to fold.

They received excellent relief pitching from Tim Leary (3 innings, 3 hits), Brian Holton (2 innings, 0 hits) and Alejandro Pena (2 innings, 1 hit). After the fourth inning, in fact, the A's did not advance a runner past second base.

It was a sharp contrast to the shaky stint of Belcher, who may have thought some cruel trick had been played on him in the first two innings. He had problems with wildness, which was one of the reasons the A's gave up on him and traded him to the Dodgers last season.

"I was trying to throw 900 miles an hour," Belcher said. "When you do that, bad things happen. I should have stepped back off the mound, taken a deep breath and relaxed."

When was the last time Belcher had such serious control problems?

"In Tacoma," he said, referring to the A's Triple-A affiliate.

Belcher's wildness, which resulted in his hitting Canseco on the arm in the first inning, was remembered by Stewart in the bottom of the first. Sax, the leadoff batter, was hit in the left shoulder in apparent retaliation for Canseco being hit. Home-plate umpire Doug Harvey walked to the mound and warned Stewart and both benches that any further throwing at hitters would result in ejections.

The Dodgers' two-run rally in the bottom of the first may have been a warning to the A's not to take the Dodgers lightly, if they had that notion at all.

After taking first, Sax went to second on Stewart's balk. Then Hatcher unleashed his unexpected home run over the 370-foot sign in left field as a stunned Stewart whipped around to watch the ball clear the wall.

Hatcher, it seems, hits home runs only in high-profile games. His other home run this season was on Sept. 23 in San Francisco. That night, Orel Hershiser's scoreless-inning streak was in jeopardy during a tie before Hatcher hit a three-run home run off Atlee Hammaker.

Hatcher's home run trot--sprint, actually--made Gibson's seem to be in slow motion by comparison.

"I ran fast because, with my luck, I thought it would hit the top of the fence and bounce back, and I wanted to at least get a double," Hatcher said.

So, as they had in all four National League championship series victories over the New York Mets, the Dodgers scored first.

The lead didn't last long. Belcher's wildness intensified in a nightmarish second inning that culminated with Canseco's grand slam.

Glenn Hubbard opened the inning with a single to left. After Walt Weiss struck out, Belcher committed his greatest pitching crime of the game. He walked Stewart, who hadn't had an at-bat since 1986. He also walked Carney Lansford, throwing a pitch behind the A's leadoff hitter.

With the bases loaded, Belcher went to a full count on Dave Henderson before striking him out. But that was only the inning's second out, and Canseco erased the Dodger lead with one swing.

"I just couldn't believe that a ball could go out of the park that fast," Lasorda said of Canseco's slam. "He hit a line drive and it was gone."

So, too, was Belcher.

After winning 2 games in the playoffs and forging ahead of John Tudor and Leary as the Dodgers' second most reliable starter, Belcher gave up 4 runs, 3 hits and 4 walks in 2 innings. He threw 71 pitches, 33 of them balls.

The A's tried to build on their two-run lead with rallies in the third and fourth innings, both of which were unsuccessful. After allowing consecutive singles to open the third, Leary retired the next three A's to escape the inning.

In the fourth, the A's did themselves in. Henderson led off with a ground- rule double to right. Canseco then grounded deep in the hole between short and third base. Griffin fielded it off-balance and probably would not have had a chance to throw out Henderson at third base or get Canseco at first.

But Henderson made a base-running blunder by stopping halfway between second and third. He then broke back toward second, allowing Griffin time to throw him out.

Oakland hopes were revived when Leary threw away Dave Parker's chopper near the first-base line. Canseco advanced to third on the play, but Harvey called Parker out and Canseco back to first because Parker ran inside the baseline.

Even after all that, the A's still mounted a rally. Canseco stole second base, prompting Leary to intentionally walk Mark McGwire to face Terry Steinbach, whom Leary struck out to end the inning.

The A's, it turned out, could have used those runs. The Dodgers strung together three singles to score a run in the sixth, narrowing the A's lead to 4-3.

Mike Marshall, whom Stewart easily handled in his first two at-bats, began the rally with a one-out single to right. John Shelby, who had been in a slump, moved Marshall to second with a single to center. Mike Scioscia then lofted a single to left, scoring Marshall. The rally stalled, however, when Jeff Hamilton grounded into a double play.

But the Dodgers, it turned out, would strike again in the ninth, when Gibson would send the A's reeling into Game 2 tonight. The Dodgers will send Hershiser, their 23-game winner, against the A's Storm Davis.

Almost before Gibson's home run touched down, the A's were already talking about forgetting this one and looking ahead to Game 2.

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