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Greatest moments in Dodger history, No. 19: Winning the 1988 World Series

Rick Dempsey lifts Orel Hershiser after winning the 1988 World Series as Franklin Stubbs rushes in.
Rick Dempsey lifts Orel Hershiser after winning the 1988 World Series as Franklin Stubbs rushes in.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Los Angeles Times)

Hi, and welcome to another edition of Dodgers Dugout. My name is Houston Mitchell, and the greatest moments countdown continues

I’m assuming everyone knows how this works by now, so I’m going to drop the explanatory introduction to these. If you need a reminder, click on any of the past greatest moments below.

This brings us to what was a big surprise to me. Not that it finished in the top 25, but that it finished so low. Just goes to show how many great moments the Dodgers have had that this finishes in 19th.

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No. 19: Dodgers win the 1988 World Series (22 first-place votes, 4,831 points)

Dodgers win the 1988 World Series
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Watch the Dodgers win the 1988 World Series.

The Dodgers had two terrible seasons in 1986 and 1987, finishing 73-89 both seasons. So, not much was expected in 1988. Marginal improvement, sure, but very few were predicting glory.

GM Fred Claire signed Kirk Gibson to a three-year deal on Jan. 29, so you knew the team would be better. But Gibson decided better wasn’t good enough. It’s not that often that a free agent signing actually turns a team around, but this one did. And it started in spring training. Gibson was all business and focused entirely on doing what it takes to win. Most of the other Dodgers had a different attitude. In an excerpt from “Extra Innings: Fred Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team” (the world’s longest book title), Tim Madigan writes:

“When Gibson reported to his first spring training with the Dodgers, he found a different atmosphere: “Everyone was screwing around and it was real loud and they were all yelling at Tommy [Lasorda].”

“One day, clowns literally jumped out of equipment trunks that had been placed in the middle of the locker room. The jollity carried over onto the field. During a fielding drill, Dodgers star Pedro Guerrero picked up a ball and hurled it into the outfield.

“Everybody started laughing, and I thought, ‘What’s funny about that?’” Gibson recalled. “Quite frankly I was a little nervous about our lack of focus. That went on every day.”

“Gibson, on the other hand, planned to play every preseason game like it was the seventh game of the World Series. The Dodgers’ spring training opener was against the Japanese national team. During warmups, Gibson ran outfield sprints with an intensity that caused his hat to fly off. Teammates and spectators immediately began to laugh.

“Kirk couldn’t understand the reaction until he reached up to his forehead and eye-black, that thick, greasy material use by athletes to deflect potentially blinding rays of the sun, came off in his hand.”

“A teammate had secretly spread the goo inside Gibson’s cap and now it was smeared across his face. Gibson snapped and left the field, making for the clubhouse. Lasorda asked Gibson to return, but he refused.

Newly acquired relief pitcher Jay Howell was in the Dodger clubhouse when Gibson came storming in and remembered him throwing his stuff in his locker and stripping off his uniform. “I thought, ‘This ain’t right,’” Howell recalled more than 30 years later. “I could see the eye-black and Gibson raising holy hell and yelling, ‘No wonder you guys finished last.’ I mean it went on and on and I was like, ‘Whoa, what do we have here?’”

The memory also remained vivid for Gibson: “I told Tommy, ‘Go get the bastard who did the eye-black.’ I said, ‘We’ve got clowns jumping out of the trunks. We do drills, and we’re throwing it into right field and everybody is laughing. There is nothing funny about that.’ That was just me being me. I’m taking no prisoners. I’m full go. Nobody knew that and nobody realized that. Tommy said, ‘They’re trying to make you feel welcome.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to feel welcome. I want to win. I’m not looking for friends; I’m looking for people who get after it.’ They wouldn’t go get the guy, so I left.”

Gibson met Lasorda and Claire early the next morning. The manager pleaded with his new star player to calm down, asking that when reporters questioned him, Gibson should attribute his absence the previous day to an unexpected family matter. The player refused: “I said, ‘This is what’s going to happen. Before the meeting, whoever did it needs to come up and I’ll talk to them. And secondly, when we have our meeting, I’ll speak. Either this happens or I’m out of here. Maybe I came to the wrong place.’ I didn’t care what happened. All I knew was that I was going to say what I had to say, and if they didn’t like me, they could get rid of me. Either I had made a terrible mistake or they were willing to change.”

Relief pitcher Jesse Orosco confessed to the prank.

“I told Orosco, ‘You know what, I’m the best teammate you’ve ever had but you screw with me one more time, you won’t pitch another inning in your life. Sorry man.’”

Then Gibson addressed the team: “I just stood up and I said, ‘You guys are a bunch of losers. You’ve lost the last how many years? It’s not hard to see why. You come in here and it’s a big comedy show. Winning is what’s fun to me.’”

Gibson saw jaws dropping as he looked around the room at his teammates.

“I can tell by the look on your faces that you don’t know quite how to take me,” he said. “But I will sacrifice for all of you in here.”

Then he challenged his new teammates to a fight, all of them at once if need be.

“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “What I’m worried about is you guys understanding how I am as your teammate. I may not be the toughest guy, but I’m crazy enough to believe I’m the toughest guy. We are going to be tough. We are going to get after their asses. Anybody who wants to get it on, let’s go.”

There were no takers.

“That was magnificent,” Howell recalled. “That was just theater. It was grand theater. I mean, I had visions of Clint Eastwood.”

Claire later wrote, “After one game in the spring, Kirk Gibson had assumed control of the Dodger clubhouse.”

————

And with that, Dodger attitudes changed. Gibson went on to win the MVP award. Orel Hershiser, always as focused on winning as Gibson, pitched 59 straight scoreless innings and won the Cy Young Award. The Dodgers upset the New York Mets in the NLCS and manhandled the mighty Oakland A’s in the World Series.

There are hundreds of stories to tell about the 1988 season. Every player on the roster had standout moments. Books have been written about this team. And there are two moments from this season still to come on our countdown.

Up next: The first of two consecutive appearances by this Dodger outfielder.

Previous greatest moments

No. 20: Winning the 1959 World Series

No. 21: Sandy Amorós’ catch in 1955 World Series

No. 22: Cody Bellinger’s catch in 2020 NLDS

No. 23: Justin Turner’s walkoff homer in 2017 NLCS

No. 24: Sandy Koufax strikes out 15 in 1963 World Series Game 1

No. 25: Mike Scioscia’s 1988 NLCS homer

Your first Dodgers memory

Since I still have a lot of these, “Your first Dodgers memory” returns this season. If you haven’t already, I’d still love for you to send me your first Dodgers memory, and it might run in an upcoming Dodgers Dugout. Include your name and where you live. And don’t send only a sentence. Tell why that memory sticks out in your mind. You can email me your memory at houston.mitchell@latimes.com. Thanks.

Jeff Turkell of Los Angeles: In 1970, I was 9-years-old, and my mother’s boss gave her the company’s tickets to a Dodger game — my first game. My parents never watched sports, my father was a Holocaust survivor who knew nothing about baseball, and I didn’t even play in Little League. So of course we had the best seats in the house: Field Box 1, six rows behind the plate. There we were as a Dodger crushed a fly ball. My father and I leapt to our feet and screamed. My mother just sat there and said, quietly:

“Too high.”

Too high?

As it turned out, the center fielder agreed with Mom. But how did she know? I’d never heard that her best friend growing up was the daughter of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s sports editor, and that she’d gone to many a game and sat in the press box ... and had climbed over the fence at League Park and seen many more day games on her own. She’d left the rest of her family behind when we’d moved from Cleveland to L.A. a few years earlier, and maybe her love of baseball stayed back in Ohio. But I leaned that evening in 1970 that I had a parent who could talk baseball with me.

Joe Aparicio: May 28, 1966 my very first game at Dodger stadium. Sandy Koufax vs the Mets. It was a Saturday night game and I still remember the awe when we entered the parking lot and I gazed upon that magnificent lighted edifice for the first time. I was 11-years-old and I can still smell the cigar smoke and how half the crowd brought transistor radios. Maury Wills stole a base, Wes Parker hit one out and Sandy struck out 10. I was in heaven!

Gary Price: My first memory is running home from school in 1955 to call my dad to see how the Dodgers did in Game 7 of the World Series, knowing Johnny Podres was pitching and crying for joy as my dad told me how we won 2-0 and got our first World Series win. I have read every box score of the Dodgets for 70 years and will continue to as long as I live. I truly bleed Dodger blue.

And finally

Recapping the 1988 season. Watch it here.

Until next time...

Have a comment or something you’d like to see in a future Dodgers newsletter? Email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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