The pitch was right where it had to be. Two more inches outside and it’s Ball 4. Six inches inside and Kirk Gibson fouls it off again. Pops it up.
Instead, it was a pitch that made the Hall of Fame.
It was no surprise to the batter. Gibson knew it was coming all the way. He wasn’t really muscled up to hit it out of the park, just out of the infield.
The circumstances were these: The World Series, it so happened, was on the line. Not everyone knew it at the time because it was only Game 1, but it was the ninth inning, and the Dodgers trailed, 4-3, with two out.
No one knew history was in the making as Kirk Gibson limped up to the plate. No one knew a home run for the ages was about to be hit. Else, why did Mike Davis, who walked with two out, steal second base? I mean, would you steal second with Babe Ruth coming up? What if you get thrown out? There goes the World Series. There goes baseball history.
Gibson came out of the Dodger dugout like a guy who had just got hit by a truck. He didn’t walk, he hobbled.
History is not made, it just happens. You have to wonder, what if Charlie Root had walked Babe Ruth the day he called his shot in the World Series in 1932? And what if Dennis Eckersley had bounced a 3-2 curve to Gibson in the World Series in 1988?
No one knows if Babe Ruth knew what was coming that day in Chicago so long ago.
But Kirk Gibson knew exactly what was coming in Game 1 in 1988. Because in the pre-Series scouting session with the club, scout Mel Didier laid it on the line.
“Sure as I’m standing here breathing, if it’s the ninth inning and the count is 3-2, you’re going to see a back-door slider from Dennis Eckersley,” he warned. “Make book on it. Don’t look for anything else.”
A back-door slider is a cross between a fastball and a curveball. It looks like a fastball till it swerves like a breaking ball. It’s a home run pitch. It’s a batting practice pitch-- if you know it’s coming. Otherwise, it’s called Strike 3.
That’s what it would have been in Gibson’s case. The back-door nomenclature comes from the fact that the pitch is delivered to the outside of the plate to a left-handed batter. It looks all the way like Ball 4. Only Gibson knew that at the last fraction, the ball would dip over the plate and down into the strike zone. He put that pitch into the right-field seats--and, no doubt, into Cooperstown.
Only a few home runs make the Hall of Fame. Ruth’s called shot in ’32. Bobby Thomson’s three-run “little miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” in the ninth in 1951. Henry Aaron’s 715th.
And Kirk Gibson’s in Dodger Stadium in 1988.
Because that home run effectively won the World Series. It’s not impossible to think that the Oakland Athletics suddenly began to look like a lot of guys trapped in a haunted house after that one swing.
Before that, they had given all the appearances of being an almost overconfident bunch. They had just slammed down the dangerous Boston Red Sox in four straight. The Dodgers weren’t even supposed to be in the World Series.
Jose Canseco had done what he’s supposed to do in the World Series--hit a grand slam. The A’s had the best relief pitcher in the universe on the mound. They had a guy at bat who looked as if he’d just left his wheelchair.
And, all of a sudden, the ball is in the right-field seats. The game is over. Oakland is hearing voices.
Gibson’s home run is one for the ages. But it wouldn’t have been had Oakland come back to sweep the Series. It would have been just an interesting incident. Now, it becomes one of the great dramatic turning points of baseball history.
It was a home run the minute it left the bat. The only suspense was how far up in the bleachers it would land.
Gibson recalls that he wasn’t able to put the real Gibson 360-degree home run swing on it. He didn’t have to. If he had been able to, the ball might not have come down yet. As it was, it was no foul-line shot. It was a rainmaker.
Gibson never got another at-bat in the Series. He didn’t need one. Gibson batted 1.000 for the ’88 World Series. In fact, he batted a million. It’s probably what that hit was worth to the Dodgers.
Kirk Gibson has now hit seven home runs in postseason play. If Reggie Jackson is Mr. October, Kirk Gibson is at least hey-what-about-me?
He hit two home runs in one game in the 1984 World Series. The second one put that Series away.
“There were men on second and third, first base was open and the expectation was that (San Diego Padres relief pitcher) Goose Gossage would walk me,” he recalls.
“I remember (Manager) Sparky Anderson was holding up four fingers to me, indicating they were going to walk me. I shook my head. I knew Gossage would try to strike me out. I held up 10 fingers and shook them at Sparky, meaning I bet 10 dollars Gossage would pitch to me. Sparky said, ‘You got a bet!’
"(San Diego Manager) Dick Williams came out to the mound. I could almost hear Gossage mouthing to him, ‘Hey! I’ve always had pretty good luck pitching to this guy. Let me get him out. I can strike him out.’
“The first pitch was a ball. The second was what I knew it would be. A Gossage fastball up and in.”
Kirk Gibson hit it into the second deck. That World Series was over, too.
The moral of the story is, never throw Kirk Gibson a strike with a game, or a Series on the line. Particularly if he’s expecting it.
On the other hand, these are the little mistakes that make baseball what it is, endlessly fascinating to rehash, relive. The game that brought the hot stove league to sports.
To err is not only human, it’s baseball. Pitchers get E-1 if they throw wildly or to a wrong base. They should get one for throwing accurately to the plate with Gibson and a Series on the line. But of such foibles is the game made great.
What if Charlie Root had hit Babe Ruth in the fat of the back instead of the fat of the bat? Suppose Ralph Branca had thrown Bobby Thomson a changeup? What if Dennis Eckersley had thrown a back-door Ball 4 that never broke over the plate, instead of a slider that did?
If he had, the 500,000 or so people who say they saw Gibson’s home run from the seats would admit they missed the game altogether. Instead of being a home run for Cooperstown, it would have been, if Oakland had gone on to win the Series, just another run batted in.
Gibson has the ball. He ought at least write, “Thanks, Mel!” on it for Didier. And for all baseball.
Kirk Gibson: Dodger outfielder plans to test his sore knee. Ross Newhan’s story, Page 8.