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1988: It Was Vintage Year for Losers

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Hello 1989, I thought you’d never get here.

1988? I thought you’d never leave.

In a way, it was the Year of the Loser. In order, they were:

1. Ben Johnson--Oh, rare, Ben Johnson. How can anyone lose more devastatingly than at the very hour of achieving his life’s ambition? When it all falls to ashes just after all one’s dreams are realized, when the world is at his feet, when what you have worked for, strived for, dreamed of all your life has just come true--and someone comes in and tells you it’s all been a mistake. Ben had just won the Olympic gold medal, set the world record and identified himself as the greatest sprinter of all time when suddenly a man in a white lab coat turns it to nightmare. When they stripped Jim Thorpe of his medals, he became an object of pity. Ben Johnson became an object of scorn. He lost more than a medal. He lost respect. Ben makes loser-of-the-year unanimously.

2. Dave Stieb--Would you classify as a loser a pitcher who lost a no-hitter with two-out in the bottom on the ninth to a bad-hop single through the infield? OK, how about a pitcher who lost two no-hitters in a row that way? That, my friends, is major-league losing. Just a twist here and you’re looking at the second guy in major-league history to pitch back-to-back no- hitters. You are looking at Johnny Vander Meer II. You are looking at a guy who will become the answer to a trivia question through 2000 A.D. Alas! The ball hopped.

3. Pat Dye--How do you become a loser-of-the-year when you have the ball on your opponents’ 13-yard line, 3 points behind, with 4 seconds left to play? Right! You kick a field goal. A losers’ play. You go for the tie. You strike your colors, fold your hand, cry uncle. It’s what Auburn coach Pat Dye did in last year’s Sugar Bowl against Syracuse. Whatever happened to “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing?” Whatever became of Fight, fight, fight? Stonewall Jackson would never understand. Neither would George Gipp. Woody Hayes would hit somebody.

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4. Davey Johnson--How would you like to be in Game 7 of the playoff series for the National League pennant and have a pitcher on your staff who is known as “Dr.K,” who has struck out more than 1,000 batters, won 18 games in the season and is only 23 years old. He is on the bench with 3 days rest. The opposition is starting its best pitcher who has had only 3 days rest and has already pitched 3 times in the series. Nevertheless, Manager Davey Johnson doesn’t start Dwight Gooden in the most important game of the season. The Mets manager starts Ron Darling with predictable results. He doesn’t save Gooden anyway. Dwight gets in the game with the score 6-0 and the pennant gone. In the other dugout, Manager Tom Lasorda plays the ace--Orel Hershiser. Davey Johnson makes loser-of-the-year by acclamation, the pinup boy for every second-guesser east of the Tehachapis.

5. Dennis Eckersley--How would you like to be the best relief pitcher in the American League with a league-leading 45 saves, an ERA of 2.35, a record of having only walked 11 batsmen all year and a record of having finished 53 of the 60 games you appeared--and in the ninth inning of the first World Series game, you are breezing along with a 4-3 lead and have just retired the first two batters to face you, one by strikeout, the other by weak grounder. You need an out to, maybe, just clinch the whole World Series when up comes this batter who has hit just .196 all year with no great reputation for power (he has hit 2 home runs and has 17 runs-batted-in). He strikes out a lot (once every 4 1/2 times at-bat).

This is not Babe Ruth but you, you, unaccountably, begin to pitch to him as if he were. The next thing you know, you have just walked Mike Davis and put the tying run on first base. But, never mind. Get a load of the guy who’s coming up to pinch-hit. He looks like a guy leaving a train wreck. He can hardly walk. He winces just lifting the bat. He’s only going to tap the ball into play some place and hope for a big break. This is the only at-bat he’ll get in the whole Series and he doesn’t look as if he can handle even this. You get two quick strikes on this refugee from the disabled list and this looks like a mismatch. The chances are good he couldn’t get around on a medium-good fastball if you sent it up there with stamps on it. So, for some reasons best known to the gremlins of baseball, you decide to try what you call a “backdoor slider” on him. Now, the slider is the pitch the late Fresco Thompson used to say was going to put * lot of .270 hitters in the Hall of Fame. It was, he said, the pitch that let Maris break Babe Ruth’s home-run record.

It has been variously described as the “nickel curve,” the “downtown pitch,” and, when it doesn’t work, as “the slop slider.” This one you let go of is all three. At the bat, Kirk Gibson can’t believe his good luck. His eyes get big, his groin doesn’t hurt any more. He dreams of pitches like this. As Joe Garagiola would say, “you couldn’t order a better one from room service.” Gibson swings. Not hard, just about like a guy lofting a 9-iron to a trapped green. It is out of the lot the minute it leaves the bat. It is one of the historic home runs of baseball history. It wins, to all intents and purposes, the World Series. It is a pitch Dennis Eckersley probably wanted to run after and retrieve the minute he let go of it. To call time. Pray for an earthquake. Anything to get that ball back in his glove before it goes into the right-field seats.

That pitch is one of the great losers of 1988. It is a game-loser and a Series-loser. They don’t get any worse than that.

John McEnroe-Who?

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