“And look who’s coming up.” --Vin Scully on NBC, as Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers approached home plate in the bottom of the ninth inning, Game 1 of the 1988 World Series
Without a word, the Tennessee Thumper tells the story for Kirk Gibson. Some memories can only be retrieved from the recesses of the mind. This is a moment Kirk Gibson can forever grip in his hands.
So, whenever he chose to relive an autumn’s tale on a cold winter’s night in Michigan, Gibson reached for the Thumper--the 34 1/2-inch, 33-ounce Worth bat carved of white ash and dipped in black paint, the barrel stamped with block letters that spelled out his name.
“It tells the whole story,” Gibson said. “It’s got a lot of tar on it, and where I hit my cleats, the indentations are very deep. The paint’s off where I fouled the balls off. And you can see where I hit the home run. I chipped a piece of black paint off it, because the contact was so tough.
“It tells everything.”
It tells all, and it tells the truth where even myth makers would fear to tread. Not that Kirk Gibson would ever have trouble believing what he did, that Saturday night in Los Angeles, the 15th of October, when he hit the home run that passed into legend from the moment he swung the Thumper and launched Dennis Eckersley’s delivery into the right-field pavilion of Dodger Stadium.
He could barely limp around the bases that night, but in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of the World Series, Gibson had no problem leaping into history.
“Hell, yes, I believe it, because I believed it could happen even before it happened,” Gibson said here the other day, four months removed from his one Series at-bat, the one that gave the Dodgers a 5-4 victory in Game 1.
“So I’ll believe it, and I’ll own up to it, just as I’d own up if I had struck out.
“I’ve always said I’m accountable for my actions. I live up to it when I strike out in those situations and you’re damn right I live up to it when I did what I did.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Gibson can explain it, any better than those thousands who witnessed it firsthand at Dodger Stadium, or those millions who watched on television.
“It just evolved,” he said. “Somebody or something was calling me, saying, ‘This is what you like. Get ready.’ So I did.”
Afterward, some likened it to Roy Hobbs and “The Natural.” Not Gibson.
“Like I said, that was fiction, mine was fact . . . for your information,” he said.
“All year long, they looked to him to light the fire and all year long he answered their demands until he was physically unable to start tonight on two bad legs.”
--Vin Scully, ninth inning, Game 1, 1988 World Series Before leaving his rented house in Santa Monica the afternoon of the Series opener, Gibson had some advice for his wife, JoAnn. Plan on leaving after the seventh inning, he said. He wasn’t going to play, so she might as well beat the traffic.
Gibson had strained his left hamstring in the closing days of the regular season, and in the ninth inning of the fifth game of the National League playoffs against the New York Mets, he not only had aggravated that injury trying to steal a base but had suffered a new one as well. His right knee had collided with the second base bag, leaving him with an acute bruise.
He played in Game 6 of the playoffs and went hitless, but with the knee worsening, he was limited to a pinch-hit appearance in Game 7.
On a day off before the Series began, Gibson received two injections in the knee, but it was obvious that he would not be able to play. He had tickets waiting for his mother and father and an aunt from Phoenix and some other friends, but they would have to be content to watch his teammates.
“I was kind of disappointed I wasn’t going to play for them,” he said.
It was around 1 p.m., more than four hours before the start of the World Series game, when Gibson arrived at the ballpark and immediately headed into the training room for treatment. Electrical stimulation with ice. Electrical stimulation without ice. Trainers Bill Buhler and Charlie Strasser repeated the procedure again and again, almost to the end of the game.
When Tom Lasorda sat down in his office to fill out his lineup card, Gibson’s knee dictated his decision. Mickey Hatcher would bat third and play left field. Gibson would watch the game on a TV from a table in the training room. He did not even come out to the field for pregame introductions.
Several times after the game began, however, Lasorda walked the tunnel leading from the dugout to the clubhouse to check on his regular left fielder.
“I went back about four times and said, ‘How you doing, big boy?’ ” Lasorda said. “The answer was the same every time. ‘No change. No change. No change. No change.’ ”
“And with two out, you talk about a roll of the dice, this is it.” --Vin Scully The Dodgers had barely gone out in order in the bottom of the eighth inning when Gibson swung his aching legs down from a training table and headed toward the clubhouse. At about that time, the TV cameras panned the Dodger dugout and broadcaster Scully noted that Gibson was incapable of helping.
Gibson turned and raged at the TV screen. “I was prepared anyway when Vin Scully said that, but I did respond. I would have been on my way whether he said that or not.”
Gibson instructed a batboy, Mitch Poole, to get the batting tee ready.
“I got dressed in about two minutes,” he said. “I just put on my jock and pants and one pair of socks. I wasn’t even fully dressed.
“I took about 10 swings on the tee, then I told the batboy to get Tommy.”
Lasorda didn’t appreciate the intrusion when Poole approached him in the dugout.
“I said, ‘Hey, get the hell away from me,’ but then he told me Gibby wanted to see me. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I ran up that tunnel.”
Gibson was still hitting off the tee when Lasorda reached him.
“I told Tommy, ‘You probably want to bat Davis for Griffin, and I’ll hit next,’ ” Gibson said. “He just took off. It was music to his ears.”
About that time, Dave Anderson wandered back into the clubhouse and saw Gibson swinging at the tee.
“I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Anderson said. “I kind of blew it off. I figured it was no big deal.”
“With the left knee bothering him, he can’t push off. He can’t push off and he can’t land . ... Gibson is shaking his left leg and making it quiver, like a horse trying to get rid of a troublesome fly.” --Vin Scully
There were two out and Mike Davis was already at the plate, pinch-hitting for Alfredo Griffin, when Gibson entered the Dodger dugout and sat at the far end, next to catcher Mike Scioscia. He had wanted to go out to the on-deck circle, according to Lasorda, but the manager sent Anderson out there instead and instructed Gibson to stay all but out of sight.
"(Ron) Hassey (the Oakland catcher) sees Anderson on deck, Anderson hadn’t played in a couple of months,” Lasorda said. “Hassey’s not going to give Davis anything he can drive out of the ballpark. Did you notice all of Eckersley’s pitches were away?”
Meanwhile, Gibson watched, Tennessee Thumper in hand.
“I just sat, and prayed that Davis would get on,” Gibson said.
Mickey Hatcher, for one, was oblivious to the fact that Gibson was on the bench for the first time all night.
“Woody (Tracy Woodson) came over to me and said, ‘If Davis gets on, watch the reaction of the fans--they’ll go crazy,’ ” Hatcher said. “I’m looking at Andy and thinking, ‘Does he own Eckersley or what?’
“Two innings before, I’d seen Gibson on the table getting iced. I never saw him sitting on the bench.”
Davis, a .196 hitter during the regular season, worked Eckersley for a base on balls, as critical an appearance as he would have in postseason play until he homered in Game 5, but one destined to be forgotten.
“Nobody looks to make history with a walk,” Davis said.
As soon as Davis flipped away his bat, Gibson was on his feet, heading to the plate. If anyone said anything to him, he didn’t hear it.
“I just said, ‘Go get ‘em, big boy,’ ” Lasorda said.
And Dodger Stadium thundered.
“I just put a little tar on, a little resin, and I was gone,” Gibson said. “I was already loose. I was ready.”
“Sax is waiting on deck, but the game right now is at the plate.” --Vin Scully The roar of the crowd as he walked to the plate, Gibson said, acted as a balm to his wounds.
“My leg didn’t hurt when I came out of the dugout,” Gibson said. “I expected a very warm reaction from the fans, which happened. I knew the adrenaline would take over.
“But then I swung at the first pitch. I had forgotten about my hamstring, but I felt it on the first couple of swings. If you look at the pictures, if you showed people that, you would never envision that anyone would hit the ball out of the ballpark. The Big Dodger in the Sky blessed us that night.”
In Eckersley, Gibson was facing the premier relief pitcher in baseball in 1988, a man who had rung up 45 saves.
“He’s well respected as one of the fiercest competitors there is in this game,” Gibson said. “And so am I. That’s what made it that much more of a special moment.
“You had two guys who literally wanted to be there in that situation. Neither one of us was scared of the situation. He did everything he knew how and the best he could with what he had at that time, and I did the same. So it was a classic conflict.”
It looked more like a classic mismatch when Eckersley, throwing only fastballs, got two quick strikes on Gibson, whose off-balance late swings produced two foul balls to the left side. On a third fastball, Gibson dribbled a ball that barely went foul down the first base line.
Davis, however, noted Eckersley’s big windup and kick and craved the chance to steal second. He got the green light, and with the count 2-and-2, he took off. The pitch was outside, Davis took second without a throw, and Gibson decided he now had the upper hand.
“When Mike stole, that made it a lot easier for me,” Gibson said. “I felt very confident that I could hit a single to left field. I knew I couldn’t handle his fastball unless I stayed back and hit it the other way.”
Just before Eckersley delivered his next pitch, Gibson called time and stepped out of the batter’s box. In that instant, he said, he recalled the scouting report the team had received from scout Mel Didier.
“He stood up in the room, and he said, ‘Pardner, as sure as I’m standing here breathing today, if you get to 3-and-2 he’ll throw a back-door slider to you.’ I said those exact words to myself, stepped back in, and that’s what he threw me, a back-door slider.
“It wasn’t that bad a pitch, but I had programmed myself, and I went out and got it.”
In the Dodger dugout, Hatcher said, he was confident Gibson could bloop a hit to score Davis with the tying run. Davis, on second base, was thinking the same thing.
Gibson, meanwhile, was thinking of how he had visualized this very moment.
“I didn’t give in,” he said. “I just said, ‘You owe it to you. This is your type of situation. This is the situation you say you want to be in, so here it is.’
“Who else should have been in that situation? Probably nobody else would rather have been up there than I, regardless of physical limitations. I’ve always contended they mean nothing at a given point of time.”
Was he saying he believed mind could overcome matter?
“It did,” he said.
“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
--Vin Scully Gibson knew on impact that he had hit a home run.
“It’s hard to even relive the trip around the bases,” he said.
Davis, running from second, said he was certain only that the ball was over outfielder Jose Canseco’s head. “But when I reached third, I became a spectator, too,” he said.
Hatcher said he jumped about 18 feet out of the dugout. Lasorda would have, too, had gravity permitted. The manager said he got chills when Gibson triumphantly double-pumped with his right fist as he approached second base.
Gibson said: “The first thing I remember was as I was coming to home plate, those guys were getting ready to mob me and I didn’t want them to because I could barely stand up.”
On the radio, Dodger broadcaster Don Drysdale noted how Gibson’s teammates reached out to touch him at the plate with care, as if he were a Rembrandt.
Gibson then ducked into the clubhouse to conduct the ritual that had become a necessity, the one in which he roars “What a . . . team.” Then he returned to the field for a TV interview, and to a sight unprecedented, according to Lasorda, in all his years with the Dodgers: The crowd had refused to leave.
“I’ve heard noise before, but that was a very special moment,” Gibson said. “I feel blessed that the Big Man blessed me and let me be the guy who experienced that. It’s not like everything has been like that in my career.
“There have been times I’ve taken a lot of abuse, but I got through that. That’s what made it all worth it. You’ve got to suffer a little bit to prosper.”
If he had been needed, Gibson said, he could have hit again. Had there been a Game 7, he would have played. As it was, the Tennessee Thumper never got another swing.
A month after the season, Anderson ran into Eckersley at the taping of a TV game show. “But I didn’t ask him about the home run,” Anderson said. “I was afraid to ask him.”
Gibson has not spoken with Eckersley since.
“If we ever confront each other again, we will both be just as determined,” Gibson said. “He may come out on top.
“I respect him. I always have. I always will.”
The Tennessee Thumper, he has tucked away, but Gibson does not rule out the possibility that the day will come when he gets another chance like the one he had that October night. For now, though, Gibson can only visualize it.
“I hope it does happen again,” he said. “But all you can do is hope.”