LOS ANGELES – A television came to life in a hotel ballroom and the lights dimmed. On just another night in L.A., there was Kirk Gibson again, against Dennis Eckersley again, and just because the last really good baseball moment for a signature franchise is going on three decades old doesn’t mean it still doesn’t play in L.A. It does. Every time.
This room held maybe 300 people. The old clip – you’ve seen it a hundred times, more maybe – gets around to that back-door slider and what happened to it, in fuzzy colors, and then hardly anyone was watching the television anymore. Most, instead, were eying two men sitting a few feet from each other in that room, going on three decades later, those two men being Kirk Gibson and Dennis Eckersley.
Gibson stared ahead, stoic, unblinking. Eckersley smiled in spite of himself. And then Gibson admitted it was damned uncomfortable watching that replay while people whooped and Vin Scully fawned and his friend Eck squirmed.
The occasion Thursday night was Joe Torre’s Safe at Home Foundation dinner, which furthered Joe and Ali Torre’s quest to protect as many abused and neglected and frightened children as they can. A young man from Venice High School in a sparkling silver bow tie had given a speech about Margaret’s Place, of which there are 15 in New York and Los Angeles, that comfort children every day.
Margaret’s Place, he’d said, “Makes me feel like a leader and reminds me I’m not alone.”
When the lights came up again, Torre stood on a small stage behind a row of director’s chairs. A name at a time, he reintroduced the night of Oct. 15, 1988 – first Oakland A’s manager Tony La Russa, then Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, then Eckersley and then Gibson. Billy Crystal, Torre’s old friend, sat in the final chair. Torre stood beside him. Eckersley and Gibson shook hands, their left hands on each other’s shoulders.
Eckersley is 61, still has the hair he parts at the top and lets fall to his collar, still has the mustache that seems to honor 1988, still has that likeable countenance that makes him the light of a room. Gibson will be 59 in May. He was diagnosed about a year ago with Parkinson’s disease and yet seems not to have given in. Maybe he speaks a little slower and smiles a little tighter, and maybe that’s our fear projected onto him. He remains a hard, strong, slightly scary man.
What followed was an hour of storytelling emceed by Crystal, an hour that was hilarious and compelling even when everyone knew how it ended.
Edited for brevity and because Crystal impersonated Tommy Lasorda passing gas, the highlights:
“It was pretty quick. There’s really no explanation. That’s an ugly swing, against Dennis, who was dominant and a great competitor. I’ve watched it a few times — Did you watch it a few times, Dennis? — In all honesty, Mike Davis stole second base, I was just trying to get a little blooper over the shortstop’s head and it went the other way. But it was a good result.”
“Tony, at any point, do you think, I walk the guy? … Does that go through your mind?”
“That’s the easy way to ask it. Of course it goes through your mind, it’s what you decide to do …”
Don’t insult me. Why you insulting me for? I’m just a Jew in the middle of Passover. I ate a roll and now I’m gonna have a sore neck tomorrow …
“So here’s what I thought. I thought, Gibby, he’s hittin’ on one leg. … My thought was, lookit, he’s hurting, I wanted to bring the outfield in because I didn’t think he could hit the ball out of the infield. So I was just trying to protect [against] the bloop. … So I was worried he was going to hit a ground ball through a hole or hit a blooper. So [pitching coach Dave] Duncan says, ‘You know, Steve Sax is on deck. And Eck’ll walk through him like he’s water.’ I said, ‘Hey, who’s the manager? We’re gonna pitch to him.’ ”
“So Duncan asked the same question I did.”
“Dunc didn’t ask it. He said, ‘Walk Gibson.’ I said, ‘I’m making the decisions here.’ And as we walked off the field, he says, ‘Dumb ass.’ "
“Let me tell you something. Before that game and we went over the hitters and we passed by Gibby. First of all we didn’t think he was gonna play, and when we did we said, ‘Just gas him; he’s got no chance. Just throw him fastballs. He’s got no chance.’
“I was a little frightened of him when he was right over the years. One time in particular, and I don’t know if you remember when you were with Detroit, I happened to accidently drill him in the hand once.”
“Accidentally. And he went to first base, this was several years earlier, and he went to first base and I, like a gentleman, turned to him and I was going to say I’m sorry. And he said, ‘You say one more word I will kick your ass.’ And I’m like, OK.
“This was not the same guy and I was not frightened whatsoever. And normally I’m Johnny Fear to begin with, always on my toes. So when I did walk Michael Davis, which was horrendous to walk Michael Davis, next thing you know, I was surprised. I knew [Dave] Anderson was on deck who was a lamb, he was an absolute out …"
“He’s here, you wanna say hi to him? Hi lamb.”
[He wasn’t there.]
“So I was the most surprised man in the ballpark, like an idiot. Meanwhile here he comes. Here comes Kirk Gibson. And I mean to tell you it took a half an hour. And maybe it didn’t, but it sure seemed like it. Because I’m so anxious. I don’t want to get into it, you know like pitch to pitch, but we gassed you one after another and he looked feeble. Didn’t he? Remember? I must’ve thrown you five or six fastballs in a row, right?”
“Did you foul off anything?”
“He fouled them all off.”
“He had me oh-two. Then I started fouling pitches off. I hit a little dribbler down the first-base line.”
“Oh, if that would’ve been fair! Awww. I picked it up! It was foul! It would’ve changed my whole life! It was foul!”
“You poor little lamb.”
“Orel, ask him about the confidence he had. He later told me after the game that he didn’t want me to embarrass myself after my first swing.”
“What’s going on on the bench. You’re in the dugout?”
“I was up the tunnel with him when he got mad that he was announced as a non-pinch-hitter from Vinny and Joe Garagiola. And then he got the ice bags and then he said let’s go to the cage there, the little cage we have where you put the soft toss or the tee, and I watched him take his swings and he couldn’t even pick the balls up. He was just looking for a stance that he could swing and actually stay standing. …
"He’s like, ‘I’m going to figure out a way to swing the bat and not fall down.’ ”
“I was at a party like that last night.”
“Nick Nolte, anyway…
“Kirk were you dressed from the beginning of the game? Were you in uniform?”
“I was not. I was in the training room. I got an injection in each leg…”
“It was good. I don’t know what it was called. Still here. … Vinny was talking about how I wasn’t going to play. Actually my wife, my 2-year-old was acting up, and I talked to her and she said, ‘Kirk, Robert’s not behaving very well.’ I said, ‘Go home, I’m not going to play tonight.’ So she went home. She watched it on TV as well. So I wasn’t really planning on it, but after you do that ice, put the ice on there, you get up, ‘Yeah, you know,’ I walk across the training room, it wasn’t too bad. When Vinny just said it I just stood up and said, ‘Set the tee up.’ Put the bare minimum on and started hitting balls off the tee. I told the bat boy, go tell Tommy. I wanna tell Tommy. I wanted him to hit Davis eighth and I said I’d hit ninth. And Mitch Poole goes down there and says, 'Tommy.' And Tommy’s saying, ‘Damn it all Mitch, I gotta game to win here! Would you leave me alone!'
"So airing out the bat boy. Then [Mitch] says, ‘Well, Gibby wants to talk to you.’ … I went and sat on the bench, you saw it there. I told myself that when I went out there I’d have a good reaction from the crowd. It didn’t matter, I knew that you [Eckersley] weren’t going to send a get-well card. I just said, ‘I’ll feel good, the pain won’t even be in the back of my mind.’ I was looking for the opportunity to compete against Dennis, Tony and the Oakland A’s. … He walks Davis and there we go.
“There’s another aspect to this. There was a scouting report that many dispute from our scout Mel Didier … that Dennis Eckersley, if you’re a left-handed hitter in a pressure situation, he will throw you a three-two backdoor slider. Many dispute that. I actually have it. I don’t know. Did we get it, Joe?”
“I’ve seen it.”
“You could see it on that clip there, I stepped out. I waited for Dennis to start into the stretch and I put my hand up to call time out.”
“And I said, how Mel Didier would say it with a Southern drawl, he’d said, ‘Pardner, sure as I’m standin’ here breathin’ Eckersley is gonna throw you that three-two backdoor slider.’ That’s why I stepped out. I said it, I stepped in, you threw it, I took an ugly swing and it went out. Not trying to figure it out any more than that.
“Let’s get into the dugout …”
“The thing that was going on when he decided he could hit, I came down from the tunnel where he was having his conversation with Tommy after watching him take his swings and sat next to [Mike Scioscia.] And I said, ‘Anderson, you know he’s not gonna hit.’ Sosh goes, ‘Whatta ya mean he’s not gonna hit?’ I said, ‘Gibby’s gonna hit.’ He says, ‘Gibby can’t walk!’ 'Well, Gibby’s gonna hit.' ”
“I’ll give you a little inside baseball to the pitch. And if you pull the tape you’ll see this. When he got to two strikes, [catcher Ron] Hassey looked into Duncan. And Dunc would work the plan with the pitchers and the catchers. He did not call pitches, but he was always there if you were stuck. … Dunc was always there. So he does this to Hassey.”
[Raises both hands, then lifts them further.]
“If you watch the World Series tape, Vinny sees that and his comment is, ‘For some reason, Duncan is moving the third baseman to the line.’ But what he was doing was, saying, finish him out over the plate, hard up.”
“Gas his ass!”
“So what Duncan was telling Hassey is, ‘The way we’re going to beat him here is with a high fastball.’ I don’t doubt that Mel saw it because he would use that backdoor slider. So what happened, he kept throwing that fastball and he kept fouling it off. At three-two, [Hassey] didn’t look in at Dunc, he just put down slider and the report was there and Gibby was smart enough to remember it and hit it. But had he followed Duncan’s … He might have hit a line drive, he might have gotten a base hit, but I don’t think we could have struck him out. The rest of the story – Paul Harvey – is that we were supposed to finish him out over the plate and up. … No words."
“I’ll tell you what, I have lived with this for about 27 years, and I want to get this out. I truly feel honored, and that sounds crazy, to be a part of all this. I really do. Me and Kirk have gotten to know each other much more over the last few years. I’ve always had this respect for Kirk. And the kind of player that he was. And for something like that to happen to me, and the moment in baseball, it was incredible! What a moment. It really was. And I can step away from that and appreciate it because I love the game. I mean, I hated that moment for me. But I’ll tell you what, when that happened, I took it in. I didn’t walk off the mound with my head in my hands. I couldn’t believe that moment.”
“The expression on people’s faces, they were absolutely ecstatic.”
“You are a lamb then. But in the best way.”
“So what is it like, you’re at home that night.”
JoAnn, Gibson’s wife, who was sitting in the audience:
“What time did you get home?”
“I got home in time to put the TV on and see the ninth inning.”
“You all alone in the house?”
“No, I was with my 2-year-old.”
“A 2-year-old. So you were all alone in the house. … Now the 2-year-old is sleeping?”
“No. We watched it together.”
“That’s an amazing thing, to think you’re all alone in that house in Santa Monica and – boom! – he hits the home run. What do you do?”
“So we just danced around the living room.”
“This happens to you. What do you do? Mini bar?”
“You just gotta suck it up. You just gotta suck it up. But you know my life had changed so much at that point anyway, because I had gotten sober a couple years before that accident happened. I felt so grateful at that time anyway to be where I was. You know what I mean? So all things happen for a reason and I could handle it.”
Gibson to Eckersley:
“It was kinda weird tonight, watching that, watching you watch that. I gotta admit, I didn’t feel right sitting there watching you watch that.”
“I was watching you watch him.”
“It takes a special person. And Tony and I have done business together, so I know it kills him to do it but it’s the right thing to do for Joe and his charity.”
“Once [Davis] got to second, whatever. Now I’m thinking he’s thinking base hit and he’s gonna shorten up. I don’t know what he’s thinking. I was thinking he was gonna pull off the breaking ball, 'cause we weren’t supposed to throw him a breaking ball. God knows I shoulda gassed his ass.”
“I have just one quick question I want to ask. The moment when you hit the home run, each one of you, the four of you, what’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think about that?”
“It was my first game as a World Series manager. So, you’re all excited, and I meet Tommy at home plate and he says, ‘You know, if we don’t win it I hope you do.’
“As soon as he hit it, my first impression was total anguish. It hurt. It literally, physically and mentally, it hurts you. And then when you have time to put it in perspective, like Eck said, you’re in the World Series, I’m a fan since I was a kid, I knew that was a magical moment.”
“Complete opposite for me, of course. Just pure elation and enjoying it. And then thinking, ‘The ball’s mine tomorrow.’ You get serious real quick.”
“For me it was exhilaration. We beat the Red Sox in four and I saved all four and that was the team I used to play for so it was like I stuck it to them. I was exhilarated. Got the MVP of the playoffs, runnin’ high, I was feelin’ it man. I was the man. Then, to have that happen, whooo. That was like a stunner. That, to me, was an incredible moment. Even on the other end.”
“Well, for me, the coolest thing about competing, and as I take out all the things we all did – good and bad – was the teammates we had. I was really into my teammates. I loved to celebrate with them. And I believed in affirming the good things that we did. I had a little saying that I used to say every time we won a game. I can’t really say it because it’s a little dirty. But, it’s, ‘What a [hmmm-mmm] team!’ ”
HOMER HISTORY ON YAHOO SPORTS
- The night a hobbled Kirk Gibson broke my heart (by Mike Oz)
- Cal Ripken Jr. wowed us yet again on Iron Man night (by Lauren Shehadi)
- When Albert Pujols silenced Minute Maid Park (by Jeff Passan)
- Bill Mazeroski's great walk-off World Series winner (by Kevin Iole)
- The Big Papi grand slam that still haunts Detroit (by Al Toby)
- That time Joe Blanton hit a home run in the World Series (by Sam Cooper)
- When Jim Leyritz halted hopes of a Braves dynasty (by Jay Busbee)
- Bryce Harper and the home run almost no one saw (by Chris Cwik)
- Shane Robinson and the home run on one predicted (by Tim Brown)
- The shot heard 'round the world (by Larry King)
- The night Reggie Jackson became Mr. October (by Scott Pianowski)
- Tony Fernandez's extra-innings postseason blast (by Joey Gulino)
- Dave Kingman takes one out of Wrigley Field (by Andy Behrens)
- Joe Carter's blast wins the 1993 World Series (by Greg Wyshynski)
- Todd Helton ignites a historic Rockies run (by Mark Townsend)
- David Eckstein once again does the improbable (by Max Thompson)
- Bob Brenly makes up for four errors with a blast (by Rob Schneider)
- Alex Gordon ties Game 1 of the 2015 World Series (by Nick Bromberg)
- Ryne Sandberg takes Bruce Sutter deep twice (by Kyle Ringo)
- Hank Aaron passes Babe Ruth with No. 715 (by Steve McAllister)
- When Frank Thomas showed his Home Run Derby muscle (by Andreas Hale)
- Steve Finley's grand slam that did not suck (by Marcus Vanderberg)
- Brian Johnson's unlikely blast in a pennant race (by Jeff Eisenberg)
- Wily Mo Pena's blast makes an O's fan hit rock bottom (by Thomas Sadoski)
- Chris Chambliss sends the Yankees to the Series (by Gary Mondello)
- Josh Hamilton's classic Home Run Derby performance (by Anthony Sulla-Heffinger)
- Paul Konerko slams door on Houston in World Series (by Ryan McKinnell)
- How the home run I never saw changed my perspective (by Maj. Stephen M. Champlin)
- Reconciling McGwire, Sosa and the summer of '98 (by Kevin Kaduk)
- The joy, anger of Mark McGwire passing Roger Maris (by Jay Hart)
- Jose Bautista, the bat flip and my race to see it (by James Denton)
- David Freese rewards a self-loathing Cardinals fan (by Kelly Dwyer)