Commentary: Remembering 1988, when the Dodgers and Lakers both won titles

Bill Dwyre
·7 min read
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 15: Kirk Gibson #23 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates as he trots around.
Kirk Gibson celebrates as he trots around the bases after hitting a pinch-hit, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to lift the Dodgers to victory over the Oakland Athletics in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. (Getty Images)

Remember 1988? Remember when people walked around without masks, sports arenas were stuffed with spectators whose social distancing was about three inches, and the Lakers and Dodgers both won world titles?

That was the first time a city had an NBA and World Series champion in the same year. And after Sunday night’s Dodgers thriller that put them back into the World Series — and since LeBron James and the Lakers already have taken care of their part — here we go again. Maybe.

Ah, 1988. Thirty-two years. Time flies, but memories hang around.

In 1988, the Lakers should have won and did. It was the team of Magic Johnson in his prime and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still dominating in the twilight of a career that made him, to this day, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. It was the team that had Pat Riley, hair slicked back and movie star persona in a city that loved that, pulling the strings from the coaching chair. These were the Showtime Lakers, and Riley only added to that image.

When the Lakers won the title the season before, Riley did the outrageous by guaranteeing, at a public celebration rally, that his team would win again the next year.

Win the Lakers did, battling through a seven-game NBA Finals and even trailing the Bad Boy Pistons of Detroit three games to two before eking out a one-point win in Game 6 and getting 36 points from James Worthy in Game 7.

Johnson and the Pistons’ Isiah Thomas, longtime friends, kissed each other on the cheek before the opening jump ball every game. It became one of the lasting images of the series, along with Abdul-Jabbar’s unstoppable skyhook and Worthy’s slick baseline moves. It was a season when Kareem made his 18th All-Star team, Magic was all-NBA first team and Michael Cooper was all-NBA defensive first team.

It was the last time an NBA title was decided at the Forum, or as those from that generation remember it, the Fabulous Forum.

Coach Pat Riley and Magic Johnson embrace during the locker-room celebration capturing the 1988 NBA title.
Coach Pat Riley and Magic Johnson embrace during the locker-room celebration capturing the 1988 NBA title. (Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE/Getty Images)

It was simply that kind of year. Suddenly, Los Angeles was even going to be good in hockey. On Aug. 9, after the Lakers had taken care of business, the Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton. Los Angeles was to have two championships that year and also, for the future, The Great One.

Now, it was up to the Dodgers, who beat the Oakland Athletics in five games in the World Series, despite being a team with little more than a pitching star, a manager who built his team in his own street-fighter, rah-rah, never-say-die image, an aging and injured power hitter, and a collection of supporting-cast players who never were going to be in Cooperstown.

Orel Hershiser, the star, was labeled “Bulldog” by his manager, Tommy Lasorda. Hershiser, tall and lanky, didn’t look like a bulldog. He just pitched like one. That season, he set a major league record by not allowing a run in 59 consecutive innings. He won 23 games and had a 2.26 earned-run average. If he did that today, they wouldn’t just give him a big contract, they’d give him the team.

Dodgers starting pitcher Orel Hershiser leaps into the arms of catcher Rick Dempsey to celebrate title.
Dodgers starting pitcher Orel Hershiser leaps into the arms of catcher Rick Dempsey as first baseman Franklin Stubbs joins them to celebrate their 1988 World Series win over the Oakland Athletics. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

Then, in the World Series, he won two games, including the decisive Game 5, going the distance in both. He was named the series' most valuable player.

But that series is best remembered for somebody else.

In Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, with the Dodgers trailing, 4-3, a runner on first base and down to their last out, Lasorda sent in his injured power hitter, Kirk Gibson, to pinch hit. Gibson mostly limped from the dugout to the batter’s box. The likelihood that Gibson would not play was a big topic of discussion leading into the series, and when he tried to warm up in the batting cages under the stadium, he listened to the broadcast. As the ninth inning carried on, legendary broadcaster Vin Scully told the audience that Gibson would not play. Gibson later acknowledged he heard that and his stubborn side took over, telling Lasorda he was ready.

The rest is baseball legend. Gibson somehow leaned into a pitch from Oakland’s ace reliever, Dennis Eckersley, and smacked a game-winning home run. The images of him limping around the bases and pumping his first in celebration will long be part of baseball lore.

That series is also remembered for how much the Dodgers did with so little.

The 2020 Dodgers have a three-time Cy Young award winner in Clayton Kershaw, a legendary closer in Kenley Jansen, an ace in Walker Buehler and a batting lineup that, while it may not be the Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig Murderers’ Row of the 1920s, is a threat in every spot. Kiké Hernandez, not even an everyday player, got them tied with the Atlanta Braves on Sunday night with his homer, and then it was just a matter of waiting until somebody finished the job. Cody Bellinger did, but it just as easily could have been Max Muncy or Mookie Betts or Justin Turner.

Or young catcher Will Smith. Yes, the Dodgers even have a catcher who can hit, unheard of in baseball these days. If you are an opposing pitcher, this isn’t a baseball lineup, it’s a nightmare.

The 1988 Dodgers were quite the opposite. Times columnist Scott Ostler summarized the team’s offense when he wrote: “They manufactured runs like Stradivarius manufactures violins — slowly and carefully.”

They started that series with Mike Davis batting cleanup. He had hit .196 and had 17 RBIs all season. Their best power hitter, with Gibson out, was journeyman Mickey Hatcher. Besides Davis and Hatcher, their lineup usually featured the likes of Franklin Stubbs, John Shelby and Danny Heep. All were decent big leaguers, but none brought much fear to the hearts of pitchers.

In the deciding Game 5 of the series in Oakland, Hatcher got the Dodgers started with a two-run homer, and Hershiser did the rest.

The catcher was Mike Scioscia, a better hitter than most catchers today. Scioscia managed the Angels to the 2002 World Series title, in another year the Lakers won in the NBA. But the Angels didn’t really qualify as an L.A. title to most sports fans. They were the team down the freeway in Anaheim. And still are to most Los Angeles fans.

Network broadcaster Bob Costas had infuriated the 1988 Dodgers and the Los Angeles faithful by calling the Dodgers, in a pregame commentary, “the weakest team ever to reach a World Series.” Lasorda heard that and used it in classic fashion to rouse the troops. Hatcher recalled years later that the Costas statement really did fire up the Dodgers, even though most of them had to acknowledge Costas probably was right.

Ostler had been a bit more diplomatic, and clever. He wrote that “the meat of the Dodgers batting order was vegetarian.”

So, there it was: 1988. The Lakers and Dodgers had won and The Great One had come. Green Bay, Wis., called itself Titletown, but the real championship address in those days was several thousand miles to the west.

Dwyre reported from Los Angeles.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.