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The Strike Zone

'That was a cool feeling': An oral history of Kirk Gibson's iconic 1988 home run

Kirk Gibson, Dodgers Kirk Gibson's walk-off homer to beat the A's in Game 1 was his only appearance in the 1988 World Series. (John Iacono/SI)

Oct.15, 1988. Game 1 of the World Series, and a familiar script has the A's leading the Dodgers 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium. Oakland slugger Jose Canseco had hit a grand slam in the second inning. Ace Dave Stewart pitched eight solid innings, then handed the game over to closer Dennis Eckersley, who had saved 45 games during the regular season and allowed just five home runs in 72 2/3/innings.

But with one swing of the bat, Kirk Gibson flipped the script. With two outs and a runner on first, the Dodgers outfielder limped to the plate to pinch hit for reliever Alejandro Pena. Gibson was a virtual cripple: He had a pulled left hamstring and a swollen right knee, and was thought to be unavailable to play.

The rest, of course, is history. Gibson hit a two-run home run into the right field seats to give the Dodgers a 5-4 win. The World Series has seen 15 walk-off home runs -- think Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk, Joe Carter, Kirby Puckett and David Freese -- but for Hollywood-wouldn't-even-dream-of-this drama, none of them compare to Gibson's. That afternoon, he had had injections in both legs. He was in such pain that he didn't take part in pregame ceremonies or batting practice. He told his wife, JoAnn, to go home because he wasn't going to play. During the game, he iced his legs in the clubhouse and watched the game on TV.

Eckersley, who had walked just 11 men all season, was coming off an MVP performance in Oakland's sweep of the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. He got two quick outs, then issued a base on balls to pinch hitter Mike Davis. Gibson, the next hitter, started his at-bat with three feeble swings, but as the count went to 3 and 2, Davis stole second, meaning Gibson only needed a base hit to send Davis home with the tying run. He did a little better than that.

On the 25th anniversary of Gibson's heroics, SI.com caught up with key players in the game and some others who helped set up the moment, including the legendary scout who prepped the Dodgers on Eckersley (and his propensity for throwing backdoor sliders ) and the clubhouse attendant who helped Gibson get ready for his history-making at-bat.

Interviews by Mel Antonen; text by Antonen and Ted Keith.

KIRK GIBSON, Dodgers: I was hurting pretty bad. I had a torn hamstring tendon in my left leg and a strained medial collateral ligament in my right leg. I hurt my hamstring in Game 5 [of the NLCS] against the Mets and got a shot right after that game from Dr. [Frank] Jobe. I didn’t play in Game 6, but I did play in Game 7. Then I went to break up a double play and I slid funky because of my other leg, and that’s when I stretched my medial collateral.

That morning [of World Series Game 1] I walked across my living room and said, "Yes, I think I can play on this." I had that football mentally that I was tough and can deal with anything. Then I jogged across the living room and it hurt. I said, "Oh boy, this isn’t good."

I got into the clubhouse early, and they injected me in both legs. I didn’t think I’d get to the point where I could play the whole game, so I was just thinking of making any kind of contribution.

During the game, I was hanging in the clubhouse wearing my Dodgers shorts and a T-shirt. I was just sitting there watching the game on TV, icing. Ice on, taking it off. Ice on, taking it off. Ice on, taking it off. I had two bags of ice, one on each leg.

The other thing is that my wife [JoAnn] wasn’t there because I told her in the third inning to go home. My son, Kirk Robert -- he was 2 at the time -- was a rambunctious kid running around. She was in the family room, but she came and knocked on the clubhouse door about the third inning. I answered it and told her I didn’t think I was going to play so she might as well go home and watch it on TV.

We got to the eighth inning and I started to think about the pitcher’s spot coming up. I just kept playing mind games with myself, that if I had to hit today, that I’d be OK because the fans would cheer me and I wouldn’t hurt after that.

The next thing you know, I remember on TV, they were panning the dugout before going to a commercial and [NBC announcer] Vin Scully says, "There is no Kirk Gibson. It doesn’t look like he will be playing tonight."

I got up and said, "My ass." I got dressed and told Mitch Poole to set the batting tee up.

MITCH POOLE, Dodgers batboy and assistant clubhouse manager: I was 24 back then. On this particular night, I was folding towels, picking up laundry from batting practice and washing it.

Late in the game, Kirk was on the table in the trainer’s room when he asked me to get his uniform, which was hanging in his locker. Then I met him at the top of the tunnel at the half-cage, something we use for batting practice. I started setting up balls on the tee. He showed me where he wanted me to put the ball for the back-door slider. And then, after putting the balls on the tee, I started soft-tossing balls for him to hit, to that location of the back-door slider.

I was sitting on the ball bucket and all of a sudden, he stops, looks down at me and says, "This could be the script." Those were his exact words. I’ll never forget them.

Then he tells me, "Go tell Tommy that I can hit." I was in my jeans and T-shirt, so I couldn’t go into the dugout. But I yelled at Tommy from one end of the dugout to the other. He said, "What do you want?" And, I said, "Tommy, get over here. Gibby says he can hit." Tommy ran right up the ramp.

DAVE STEWART, A’s pitcher: Tony [La Russa, the Oakland manager] took me out after eight innings. It never crossed my mind that I was out of the game. It shocked me. I had quite a few complete games that year and pitched a lot of one-run games. I thought I had earned the right to finish it. He told me before the last out that Eck needed work, and that I was done.

GIBSON: When I said, "My ass," I got up, took the ice off and put my uniform on. I put on the bare essentials for a uniform. I was lightly dressed. And I walked from there, with the cold knees, to the batting tee and into the game. From the time I got up to the time I was at the plate was probably less than 10 minutes. I probably took 10, 15 swings on the tee, and they weren’t pretty.

I told Mitch to go down and get Tommy. I remember Tommy grumbling at Mitch and saying how he couldn’t be bothered, that he was managing a baseball game. Tommy came running up there -- I should say waddling up there -- and I said, "Hit [Mike] Davis eighth, and I’ll hit for the pitcher if you want me to."

He said, "Hell yeah, I want you to." He told me to stay up there. He didn’t want me to be on the bench because he didn’t want Oakland to look over and see me.

As Gibson prepared, Eckersley was pitching the ninth inning. He got Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia to pop out to shortstop and then struck out third baseman Jeff Hamilton. All that stood between the A's and a Game 1 win was Mike Davis, who had hit .265 with 22 home runs for Oakland in 1987, but just .196 with two home runs for L.A in ‘88.

MIKE DAVIS, Dodgers outfielder: I knew all those guys from Oakland because I had played with them the year before. I wasn’t expecting a walk because Eck didn’t walk many batters. And to say that I was in the middle of my worst year would [be] an understatement. Eck was probably thinking of the guy that he played with in Oakland. But this was different. I was having a bad year.

DENNIS ECKERSLEY, A's pitcher: I was giving him too much credit. What I did wrong more than anything was that I walked him. I had respect for his power. On that last pitch, I was outside, way outside. It was brutal. I was remembering his home runs.

Dodger Stadium erupted when Gibson stepped from the dugout. He applied pine tar to his bat, took a few practice swings and stepped into the batter’s box on the left side of the plate.

TONY LA RUSSA, Oakland manager: The No. 1 question I get about the game is, "Was it surprising to see Kirk Gibson get that at-bat?" And the answer is no. He’s a true competitor.

ECKERSLEY: It took Gibson forever to get up to the plate. FOREVER. It was grueling waiting for him to get to the plate. We assumed he wasn’t going to play. So I was surprised. I had a long time to think about Gibson coming into the game. You could have written a book in the time that it took him to get ready.

GIBSON: I know Dennis said that, but I didn’t think I took that long. I got up, put my helmet on and walked straight up there.

Once at the plate, Gibson swung at the first two pitches and fouled them both back. He swung at the third as well and dribbled the ball up the first base line but it trickled foul as he limped up the base path. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Eckersley missed outside as Davis stole second.

GIBSON: My mindset was, Let’s go. I was just trying to get to the top of the order when I stepped to the plate. That’s all I was thinking about. I was hitting in the No. 9 slot and I was trying to get to our leadoff batter, Steve Sax, who was on deck. I was in survival mode, hitting against the best there is and not hitting in ideal conditions.

STEVE SAX, Dodgers second baseman: I was thinking about what I needed to do to win the game. It turns out I didn’t have to worry about it. When Kirk trickled that ball down the line, I was thinking, "Someone should shoot this animal and take him out of his misery."

DAVIS: When I got to first, Eck threw over a couple of times, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t get picked off. If that had happened, you would have had to bury me at second base. I had been watching Eck’s move and I thought there was good chance I could steal. I pinched the stripe on my uniform pants to signal our third-base coach [Joe Amalfitano]. He pinched the stripe on his pants and that meant the steal was on. I stole because Eck was really focused so much on going home.

LA RUSSA: When Davis steals second, the No. 1 thought was to fear the worst. I thought, "Oh man, [Gibson] can tie the game with a base hit." We had seen them so many times when we were watching on tape when he was with Detroit. Gibson has terrific power and I knew if he squares one up, he can hit a line drive into the gap, and every once in a while, he hits a home run.

GIBSON: I name my two-strike approach my emergency stroke. I said to myself, "This is a full emergency, and let’s go." You’ve got to will yourself and that’s what I did. I kept willing myself to hit the ball.

At some point in the at-bat, I started thinking about what Mel Didier told me, that every time Eckersley gets to 3-2, he throws a back-door slider. Here I get to 3-2 and Dennis goes into the stretch position. I call time out and step out. I said to myself, "Pardner, sure as I am standing here breathing, you are going to see 3-2 backdoor slider." Those are Mel Didier’s exact words to me.

MEL DIDIER, Dodgers advance scout: It was broken down more than that. I said that if Eck faces a left-handed batter only on a 3-2 pitch with the tying or winning run on second and/or third, I’ll bet that you are going to get a backdoor slider. I had seen Eck do this, not all the time, but in big games with great hitters in crucial situations. I’d seen the A’s play 25 or 30 times, and at the end of the season I followed them closely.

We had a group of scouts prepare a booklet for the Dodgers on all the A’s players. We broke down all of their pitchers and hitters. On Eckersley’s page, I had underlined that he threw a backdoor slider to lefties in that situation.

On Friday, the workout day before the start of the series, Tommy Lasorda had us meet with the players. We gave each player a booklet and went over each one of the A’s players. I had the pitchers and was the last one to talk. When I got to Eckersley, I turned and pointed to the left-handed batters -- there were four or five of them sitting together – and I said, “Remember if there is a 3-2 count with Eckersley, he’s going to throw a backdoor slider.”

Dennis Eckersley, A's Dennis Eckersley wound up in the Hall of Fame but is forever linked with Gibson's home run. (Heinz Kluetmeier/SI)

ECKERSLEY: We went over every hitter for every game, but with Gibson, we didn’t take very long with him. We said he’s probably not going to play, but if he comes up throw him nothing but fastballs. So when he came up, I threw him nothing but fastballs. The first couple of swings [were] feeble. He hit the nubber down the first-base line. Me, [first baseman Mark] McGwire and him were all standing in the same place. If the ball had been fair, I could have picked it up and tagged him. That could have been the last out, and this event would have never been talked about.

LA RUSSA: Dunc [pitching coach Dave Duncan] was standing beside me in the dugout, and when we got two strikes [on Gibson], our catcher, Ron Hassey, looked into me and Dunc in the dugout, saying, "How do we finish him?" Dunc gave him the sign for away and up.

RON HASSEY, A’s catcher: We had a feeling that [Gibson] might pinch-hit. It wasn’t like a big surprise. He was on the roster, so they aren’t going to put somebody on the roster that couldn’t play. It’s a great story to say that Tommy Lasorda fooled everybody and here comes Gibson in to pinch-hit. But we were prepared.

To tell you the truth, you hear rumors that every time Dennis Eckersley got to 3-2, he threw a slider. That’s not true. He didn’t walk anybody and he never got to 3-2 all that often. Again it makes a good story that the Dodgers knew what was coming, but it wasn’t the truth.

The plan in that situation was to stay away with every pitch. If we were going to go inside, it was pretty much to knock him off the plate. But with the command that Eckersley has, you can easily stay down and away the whole at-bat. He has command of any of his pitches. Making the hitter go after that pitch, I thought that was the best way to go. We stayed down and away pretty much with his fastballs and sliders.

We get to a 3-2 count on Gibson and we go with a slider down and away. Eck got it up a little bit. I tell you, it wasn’t that bad of a pitch.

ECKERSLEY: I threw him a backdoor breaking ball, which is probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. If he gets a base hit, it’s still dumb, but because he hit a home run, it was really dumb. It was probably the only pitch he could get to. Normally, you’d think that he’d pull off, but he was so flat-footed, that was perfect for him. But I couldn’t imagine him hitting a ball that far.

The pitch was not down and away. It was in the middle. I could have shaken Hassey off, but I didn’t. I thought it was the right pitch

GIBSON: I didn’t make any adjustments on that 3-2 pitch. I read a Jack Nicklaus book years ago and I think the part that stuck with me was when Jack said that when steps up to the tee box, he just visualizes the ball going into the hole before his first drive. So you just have to visualize the pitch, visualize the hit.

After Mike Davis stole second, I wanted to hit the ball over the shortstop’s head. I just visualized it, and when you do that, it slows you down. It put me in a good mind-set. If you look at the swing, I’m not sure how it went out. The swing was ugly, but productive.

ECKERSLEY: The last thing on my mind was a home run. He’d seen so many fastballs, I thought he’d pull off and roll it over. But he didn’t.

I’m not second-guessing Ron. Somebody said that the Dodgers knew I threw a backdoor slider on 3-2. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I didn’t get to 3-2 that often, but if that’s what the guy told [Gibson], if that’s what he had on his mind, good for him.

The backdoor slider, what it does, is you don’t want it to break much. Therefore, the batter thinks it is going to break, but it doesn’t. It’s a pitch where batters think it is going to come more to them, and then stays outside, on the back door. They either swing over the top, swing through or get out front and hit a ground ball.

This was a terrible [backdoor] slider.

GIBSON: I stepped back in. He threw the pitch and the ball went out.

Gibson’s home run landed several rows up the bleachers in right field. In the parking lot, a car that was leaving the ballpark famously stopped, illuminating its brake lights just as the ball landed in a sea of disbelieving Dodgers fans. Down on the field, Gibson was slowly and gingerly going around the bases, pumping his fists as he rounded second.

GIBSON: When I was running around the bases, I could feel no pain at all. I was jubilant. A lot of things I endured throughout my career -- [former Tigers manager] Sparky Anderson anointed me the next Mickey Mantle, and I didn’t come close to that. There were some times in my career when I didn’t handle situations well because I wasn’t mature enough to do that. People would say stuff to my parents and my dad would get upset. I’d say, "Hey look, let them have their say. We will have our day. I am going to grow up. I’m going to do it the right way, and we will have vindication and validation of a good career."

Obviously, I was happy to do it for my team. I could feel the fans and their emotion, but for people who were doubters, that was a cool feeling. You have to fight through a lot and fight the notion to respond to them.

ECKERSLEY: I was in shock, total shock. Everything went into slow motion. It was incredible. Once it sunk in, I turned around to walk off. The whole place was going nuts. I had the total opposite emotion. What a feeling.

I was looking for eye contact. Not from the fans -- players, in the dugout. It was like I was saying, "Someone, please look at me." Nobody did. Every one sort of darts, everybody is trying to deal with it. Nobody is in "Poor Dennis mode," at that point. It was the most incredibly lonely feeling. There are 50,000 people screaming and nobody feels as bad as you. It was terrible. Walking up the runway, no one said anything. It was dead silence.

STEWART: When Gibson hit it, I was in the trainer’s room, icing my arm. I was disappointed in Tony’s decision to take me out of the game. From a selfish point of view, I was ticked off. I didn’t want to listen to it. I didn’t want to see it. Unfortunately, I had to listen to it on the radio in the clubhouse because there was no television inside the clubhouse. I could hear the roar of the crowd.

POOLE: While he was going up to the plate, I was visualizing a home run going to right field, and I thought that would be awesome. And when he hit the ball, the hair on my arm stood up. I saw history, and the ball took the same flight as in my vision.

DIDIER: My wife and I were sitting behind the Dodgers’ dugout when Kirk hit the home run. The crowd was going crazy, and the first thing I thought about was the booklets. So I sprinted up the stairs and then into the dressing room. I told the players to put away the booklets so the media doesn’t see them. I said, "Hide them because we might have five or six games left."

TOMMY LASORDA, Dodgers manager: To this day, I still don’t believe this guy could come out and hit the game-winning home run like he did. He didn’t come out for pregame introductions. He didn’t take a swing in batting practice. He was out of uniform for the whole game. When I saw his first two swings, I thought, "This isn’t going well."

Then he hits the ball out of the park. I didn’t watch the ball. I watched Canseco, the right fielder. I saw him go back, back, back, back and then I knew it was out of here. Two outs and a game-winning home run? When do you ever see something like that?

DAVE HENDERSON, Athletics outfielder: It happens all the time in baseball, game-winning home-runs. We weren’t devastated. The fans might have been, but the players don’t get devastated over things like that. We came into the clubhouse, took five minutes to go over our mistakes and then we had a cold beer.

The media got it all wrong. Kirk Gibson didn’t beat us in that World Series. [Dodgers pitcher] Orel Hershiser beat us. He pitched two complete games and he didn’t just win, he dominated. We couldn’t hit him.

STEWART: It was as solemn a clubhouse as I can remember. We couldn’t believe that it had happened. I remember walking by Eck’s locker after the game and him saying that he couldn’t stop the bleeding. I said, "We’ve got another day tomorrow. This is just one of those games." And then I kept walking.

LA RUSSA: I won’t look at the video any more. It hurts a lot and that’s why I won’t watch it. If somebody else had hit it, it would have been a lot tougher to take. But it was two great competitors and Gibson won the battle.

ECKERSLEY: After the game, there were a zillion questions from the media. Those were the days when they didn’t have the podium. They were all in that skinny-ass clubhouse. The clubhouse is so old and skinny. There was no room. Players had to get out of the way because the reporters had to get in there. Same [expletive] questions, over and over and over. For me, I needed to do it, to accept it.

Looking back, it was the best thing I ever did. I answered questions. It was my worst moment, but it was my best moment in a lot of ways. Standing up to it. Accepting what comes with defeat, taking responsibility. That was a proud moment for me.

GIBSON: After the game, Bob Costas wanted me to do an interview on TV. But first, I went into the clubhouse and celebrated. We used to have a saying that we would repeat after every win. I’d come into the clubhouse and say, "What a [expletive] team. Oh yeah, how sweet it is it, the fruits of victory." Those guys were all waiting for me to come in and do that. So I did that. Then I came back out and talked to Bob.

When I went home I did what I always did. My kids [Kirk Robert and daughter, Colleen, then 12] were always up late because it was one of the better times that I had to spend time with my kids. It was festive for sure, but we just played around like we normally did.

We did what most people do: We sat around and reminisced about the night. I always looked forward to coming home after a game and playing with the kids. They are still night owls because we always did that.

DIDIER: A couple of years later, I was watching the replay with Kirk. There was a time when he steps out of the box and smiles. He said to me, "Mel, that’s when I can hear that old Southern drawl, saying, 'Pardner ….'" Kirk was so nice. He deserves all the credit. I didn’t hit the ball. Kirk did. And he hit it at the right time.

GIBSON: There were a lot of car lights in the parking lot during the last inning. That’s something I didn’t realize that until I watched it on the replay. A lot of fans were leaving the game early. Fans in Los Angeles are known for that anyway. They want to beat the traffic.

You could tell they were listening on the radio. My image of that is that they were all pulling away, listening to the game on the radio, listening to the call, which would have been Don Drysdale’s call. And, basically when he says, "This ball is gone," and then all of a sudden, they all at the same time, put their foot on the brake. Like what are they going to do? Stop and come back in? It’s pretty cool. The brake lights went on. They are probably saying, "Oh [expletive], I probably should have stayed."

The home run immediately entered baseball lore. Gibson did not play again in the series but the inspired Dodgers rolled over the A’s in five games. Oakland would return to the World Series each of the next two years, sweeping the Giants in 1989 and then being swept by the Reds in 1990.

Gibson stayed in L.A. for two more years but played just 160 games combined because of injuries. He played five more seasons, finishing out his career where it had begun, with the Tigers. He is now the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Eckersley had reinvented himself as a closer in 1988, beginning a late-career renaissance that included the MVP and Cy Young awards in 1992, and which eventually got him elected to the Hall of Fame. He is now a baseball analyst.

The two men are forever linked in baseball history. Gibson sold the bat, helmet and jersey to fund an educational foundation in honor of his parents. The only thing that remains a mystery is the location of the ball itself.

GIBSON: One day I got a big 8-by-10 manila envelope with a picture of a lady with a skirt that was pulled half way up her thigh. It was all black-and-blue. [Her note] said, "This is where your ball landed." I have no idea who that woman was. I opened that picture in 1989. I think I signed it and sent it back.

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