October 19, 2010
Kirk Gibson's Homer
It should not have come as surprise, I guess, that September day in 1993 in Yankee Stadium when Jim Abbott pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians. Certainly, covering a man with one hand pitching a no-hitter wasn’t any more out of the ordinary than covering a man with no legs hitting a game-winning home run off a Hall of Fame pitcher, changing the entire course of a World Series.
Technically, on that October night in 1988, Kirk Gibson had two legs, not none. It was just that neither of them worked, which is something of handicap when it comes to playing baseball.
In a lifetime of going from a childhood spectator to a sportswriter with enough Peter Pan in him that he never really grew up, I have witnessed far more spectacular World Series moments than any man deserved to see.
Whether it be Bill Mazeroski’s home run that won the 1960 Series, the 50thanniversary of which was just emotionally celebrated in a championship-starved Pittsburgh, or Willie Mays’ impossible catch and throw on Vic Wertz’s drive to the deepest part of the deepest center field in baseball, they have marched by along with time.
By 1988, having witnessed the Miracle Mets and the magic defense of Brooks Robinson, having seen Don Larsen throw a perfect game in the World Series and Carlton Fisk hit his midnight home run, I thought I had been desensitized to becoming emotionally involved in something so simple as a baseball game.
But this turned out to be an incredible evening, the kind of night where no matter what you wrote it wasn’t good enough, could not capture what you and a nation had just seen.
Kirk Gibson, you know, had led something of a charmed life as an athlete. He was a high school star in Pontiac, Michigan, who went to Michigan State to play football, withstanding the bumps and bruises that go with that sport to become an All-American wide receiver.
He wound up under Jim Leyland’s wing in the Detroit Tigers minor-league system, being taught how to be a big leaguer by someone who had, at that time, never experienced it himself. Gibson got to the big leagues in 1984 and helped the Tigers to the World Series that year.
Sparky Anderson, who always had been a manager unafraid to heap praise upon his players, compared the young Gibson to the legendary Mickey Mantle, something for which he would apologize later, believing it had deterred his advancement by putting too much pressure on him.
But that was Anderson, who called Don Gullett a sure Hall of Famer before the young Cincinnati left-hander could vote and who once quelled talk of the Yankees’ Thurman Munson being Johnny Bench’s equal by saying you should not embarrass anyone by comparing them to Johnny Bench.
Gibson had gone the free agency route in 1987 but received no offers, later to be awarded to the Dodgers when collusion among the owners was proven.
It was a strange mix, the blue-collar Gibson in Hollywood, playing for the laid-back Dodgers. Early on, in spring training, Gibson asserted his will on the club, taking offense to a prank pulled by reliever Jesse Orosco, a move that turned him into the team leader.
The 1988 season was a weird one with Gibson being named a controversial MVP with just a .290 batting average, 25 home runs, and 76 RBIs, although it seemed like half of them won games.
He was heroic in the National League Championship Series that season, making an incredible catch to rob Mookie Wilson of a double in Game Three, then hit a solo home run in the top of the 12ththat won the fourth game for the Dodgers.
Game Five was more of the same, with a two-out, three-run homer in the fifth.
For all of that, however, there was a price to pay. Gibson had sprained his right knee and pulled his left hamstring. Toss in a bout of the stomach flu that first day of the World Series and he was a complete mess as he arrived at the stadium, his legs aching so badly he needed to be transported from the parking lot by a golf cart.
He spent the pregame in the training room, having cortisone and Xylocaine pumped into his aching legs. When they had the player introductions, he was still in the training room, unable to come out and tip his cap to the home crowd.
"Well, the man who's been there for the Dodgers all season, Kirk Gibson, is not in the dugout and will not be here for them tonight," broadcaster Vin Scully told the world.
Legend has it that Gibson, watching in the training room, sat up straight and yelled at the TV, “Bull, I’ll be there.”
But he couldn’t watch from the dugout, so he went back into the cage and tried to hit. One swing, two swings. The pain was tough. At times he had to lean on his bat to support himself, but by the time the final inning came around Gibson sent word to manager Tommy Lasorda that, if needed, he could pinch-hit.
Mike Davis was sent up as a pinch-hitter with two out and drove the unflappable Dennis Eckersley crazy, stepping in and out of the box, throwing his rhythm off and drawing a rare walk from the right-hander. Eckersley had walked only nine batters unintentionally in 60 appearances that season, 45 of them ending in saves.
Now Gibson came out of the dugout. At first he was unnoticed, then the Dodgers fans took note and a few cheers became a roar and then an avalanche of sound. This couldn’t be, yet there it was.
Was it Gibby or Gimpy who limped to the plate? The count went to 0-2 and it was obvious that Gibson could not put anything behind his swing because he could not drive off his legs.
There were two balls and then a foul ball, then another ball; while this was going on, Davis stole second base.
Eckersley threw again, this time a breaking ball. Gibson was leaning far forward; he met the ball with only one hand, or so it seemed, an uppercut of a swing and the ball began its flight toward right field.
Your mind told you it could only be a routine fly ball but your eyes were telling you something else. It is almost like a scene out of The Natural, only the ball doesn’t reach the light standard.
It does, however, go far enough and Gibson takes an excruciating journey around the bases, a fist raised in the air, fans now jumping up and down upon each other, hugging each other, screaming.
Gibson reaches home plate with the winning run. You, the veteran you are, sit there, your mind as numb as Gibson’s legs. A thousand story leads run through your mind in a couple of seconds and each is rejected as unworthy of the moment.
Eventually, some semblance of sanity is restored; there is a press conference and then Gibson returns to the Dodgers locker room. Above his locker his name tag has been covered over by one that simply reads:
This, though, is not fiction.
It is as great a moment as there ever has been in baseball.