"It was a truly heroic victory for the champions of the Western Division."
This is an article from the Oct. 17, 1988 issue
Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda was asked at the start of the National League Championship Series last week in Los Angeles if he thought his team had any chance against the apparently all-powerful New York Mets. Lasorda gave his interrogator an avuncular pat on the shoulder and said, "Son, if I didn't think my chances were good, I'd want God to hit me with a bolt of lightning right now." Considering the improbable events that would succeed this rash pronouncement, it's a miracle Lasorda was not zapped on the spot. Lightning may not have struck, but all manner of misfortune—suspended pitchers, injured sluggers—would before the week was over. And yet, as the two teams left New York on Monday to resume their tense confrontation back in L.A., Lasorda's Dodgers were leading Davey Johnson's Mets three games to two.
"I don't know how we win and neither do you," slugger Kirk Gibson told reporters after L.A. whipped the Mets 7-4 on Monday. "But the fact is, we do." The Dodgers won that fifth game largely on the strength of Gibson's mighty three-run homer in the fifth inning and some gutsy relief pitching from Ricky Horton and Brian Holton. Those two held the fort after a three-run shot by Lenny Dykstra off Tim Belcher cut L.A.'s lead to 6-3 half an inning later. But lightning hit Gibson in the ninth when he felt his hamstring pop as he stole second base, the same hamstring—the left one—that had him limping down the stretch in the regular season. Indeed, Gibson limped aboard the plane carrying the Dodgers west for the final games of this exciting and sometimes maddening series. But that's the way it had gone for Lasorda's team all week.
The Dodgers had evened the series in a 5-4 12-inning nail-biter that concluded early Monday morning, just 11 hours and 15 minutes before Game 5 was to begin. It was a truly heroic victory for the champions of the Western Division, who entered the game without ace reliever Jay Howell, suspended Sunday afternoon for three days—later reduced to two—by National League president Bart Giamatti for applying pine tar to his glove during Saturday's tumultuous Game 3. Howell had enjoyed a splendid season in the bullpen (21 saves), but these playoffs added up to just one rotten thing after another for him. And his punishment, for what he and almost everyone else considered a marginal violation of a rule outlawing foreign substances on a pitcher's person, left his team literally shorthanded.
Lasorda's only hope Sunday night was that starter John Tudor could last long enough to give his relievers relief. But Tudor gave up back-to-back homers to Darryl Strawberry and Kevin Mc-Reynolds in the fourth and a double by McReynolds and a triple by Gary Carter in the sixth. Tudor had to go, and Lasorda was obliged to call forth six more pitchers from his depleted corps before this four-hour-29-minute conflict would be resolved.
Even under the best of circumstances, the Dodgers' chances looked grim entering the ninth inning. They were trailing 4-2, facing the awful prospect of a 3-1 New York advantage in the series and working against Doc Gooden, who had allowed just one hit and no runs since permitting two Dodgers to score in the first. The Doctor's dilemma had been his control and his inability to hold base runners close enough to prevent them from stealing at will.
The Mets' ferocious fans were on their feet, sensing victory as Gooden took the mound, but he walked John Shelby leading off and then Mike Scioscia stilled the clamoring hordes with a line-drive homer into the Mets' bullpen. That tied the game and sent it reeling into the next day. It was well past midnight when Gibson, batting only .063 for the series and feeling miserable about it, blasted a tremendous 12th-inning homer off the bottom of the scoreboard in deep right centerfield. Up to that point, Gibson had not gotten a ball out of the infield and had struck out twice. But his time came against reliever Roger McDowell. "These are the moments you dream about," he said later. "We were on the edge of extinction."
It wasn't long before they were back on that edge. Tim Leary, a starter called on by a desperate Lasorda to finish the game, gave up successive singles leading off the home half of the 12th. Gregg Jefferies flied out to Gibson in left, then Lasorda brought in lefty Jesse Orosco to pitch to his former teammates—specifically lefthanded hitters Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry. This was now a classic Mets last-gasp-win situation, and the crowd recognized it and rose once again in anticipation. Hernandez walked to load the bases, but Strawberry, who could have tied the game with a fly ball, hit a pop-up. Now it was McReynolds's turn. To face the righty hitter, Lasorda brought in, of all people, Orel Hershiser, Saturday's starter.
Hershiser had been in the clubhouse in the ninth when Scioscia tied the game. But he'd come whooping into the dugout after that dramatic wallop and volunteered to go to the pen as Lasorda's last resort. He said he was thinking of Howell as he confronted McReynolds and of what the Dodger bullpen ace might do in these circumstances. So he reared back and fired a 95-mph fastball, which McReynolds fouled back into the seats. "This was sandlot ball," Hershiser said later. "There was no thinking involved. Kevin knew I wasn't going to diddle around with him."
Two pitches later, McReynolds hit a blooper to shallow center that was painfully reminiscent of the hit by Carter that beat the Dodgers in Game 1. "It was dèjà vu," said Hershiser. Well, not exactly. This time centerfielder Shelby was cheating in a few steps, and he was able to snag McReynolds's soft fly to end the seemingly endless game. When Hershiser reached the exuberant Dodger clubhouse, he was summoned to the phone. It was Howell calling from the team's hotel. "I love you," the banished reliever said to the converted starter. These were heartfelt words from a man understandably down in the dumps.
Howell's postseason began to unravel the day before, during the eighth inning of soggy Game 3, when he relieved the omnipresent Hershiser. Los Angeles had gone ahead 4-3 in its half of the inning, and it was up to Howell to protect that precarious lead. He failed, but not for the usual reasons.
While Howell fell behind 3 and 0 to leadoff batter McReynolds, Mets coach Bill Robinson was fixing him with a suspicious stare. Robinson thought he had seen something unusual about Howell's mannerisms on the mound in L.A.—something about the way he tugged at the strings of his glove as if it were a good luck charm. Robinson suggested to Johnson that he, too, keep an eye on Howell. Sure enough, Howell went to his glove again, and Johnson went straight to plate umpire Joe West and suggested he take a look.
Umpire crew chief Harry Wendelstedt trotted in from his post in leftfield and the two umps fingered the glove. Although nothing rubbed off on their hands, they told the two managers they detected something sticky there. Howell, they said, was in violation of baseball rule 8.02 (b), which prohibits the use of a foreign substance by a pitcher and calls for immediate ejection of the offending party. Howell got the heave-ho. Wendelstedt carried the unsanitary glove over to Giamatti in his front-row box, and the law-and-order president and future commissioner announced the next day that Howell would be temporarily lost to the Dodgers.
Game 3 was also a lost cause for L.A. The Mets scored five times off Howell and his three successors and won going away, 8-4. But the talk afterward was mostly about weather and pine tar rather than the game itself. Howell freely admitted dabbing the heel of his glove with the sticky stuff. But it was the Lord and the miserable conditions He had wrought that made him do it, Howell protested. It had rained Friday night, forcing a one-day postponement of this game. It was still raining on Saturday, but not hard enough, in the prejudiced opinion of league officials and ABC television, to merit a second postponement, which would hopelessly confuse an already muddled travel and broadcast schedule. So this one was played with the temperature at 43°, an arctic wind lashing Shea Stadium and a steady drizzle falling from the first out to the last.
Even Hernandez, a 10-time Gold Glover who is ordinarily flawless in all phases of the game, could not function under these conditions. He gave the Dodgers their first run by throwing away Mike Scioscia's drag bunt in the second. And he cost the Mets a run in the sixth when he went into a Chaplinesque romp in the swamp between second base and third, first slipping and sliding in place, then stumbling crazily forward and finally falling on his face in the mud. He was tagged out a foot from third base as he crawled there, like a supplicant at a revival meeting, on hands and knees. Gibson also took a header chasing Mookie Wilson's line drive in the fifth, but somehow he reached up while on his way to a belly flop and made a sensational catch.
It was just such inclement conditions that led Howell to the tar can, he said. "I use pine tar to get a better grip on the ball in cold weather. I don't use it to change the flight of the ball. Let's face it, it's illegal, but I don't feel I've done anything wrong. This is not on the same level as scuffing the ball."
Lasorda, quite naturally, bemoaned Giamatti's initial three-day sentence as "unjust." And Hernandez agreed. "Howell should not be suspended from the playoffs," he said before the judgment was announced. "Pine tar may give an edge, but it's not cheating. We're not choirboys here. These two teams have come too far. We should be able to play with our best."
This series was awash in controversy before it even began. Strawberry started it all off by telling Los Angeles Times baseball writer Ross Newhan that when his Mets contract expires after the 1990 season, he would like nothing better than to return home to Southern California and play with the Dodgers.
But Strawberry's loyalty was never seriously in question, and when Game 1 was on the line, he was playing for the right side. The Dodgers were leading 2-0 in the ninth, and Hershiser, Captain Zip, was on the mound. He had gone 67 consecutive innings without allowing a run, and he seemed in command. But the Mets had won 19 games in their last time at bat this year, and Hershiser or no, they were primed for another bang-up finish. The 21-year-old Jefferies—Master October?—led off the inning with his third hit of the game. He was running when Hernandez hit a screaming grounder to first, thus avoiding a double play. When Strawberry belted a line double to right center, scoring Jefferies, Lasorda lifted his ace for Howell. He walked McReynolds to put the go-ahead run on base, but fanned Howard Johnson for the second out and had two strikes on Carter when he hit a dinker into centerfield. Shelby, playing deep, raced in tardily, dived and got a glove on the ball. But it trickled away and, when he finally retrieved it, McReynolds was steaming for the plate. This base-path daring caused Shelby to double-pump before making a throw that reached Scioscia an instant after McReynolds bowled him over to score what would prove to be the winning run.
The Dodgers and their fans were stunned. Their invincible pitcher had been undone and their star reliever had suffered the first setback of these, for him, forgettable playoffs. To make matters worse, the Mets seemed to be gloating over it in print the next day. David Cone, who had won 20 games and would be the Mets starter in Game 2, was also moonlighting as a guest columnist for the New York Daily News, passing on his observations to a ghostwriter, News staffer Bob Klapisch. The comments about Game 1 that appeared under Cone's byline—particularly those likening Howell to a high school pitcher—struck Dodger supporters as cheap shots of the worst kind. Unfortunately for Cone, copies of his tactless epic reached the Dodger clubhouse, and that night, Cone was forced to eat his words during a 6-3 win for L.A. Cone survived only two innings, giving up five runs, and promptly announced his retirement from the newspaper business.
That was small consolation to the hapless Howell. After he got bounced out of Saturday's debacle, he mustered a brave smile and said, "Well, I suppose I got David Cone off the hook, anyway."
And then Giamatti let Howell off the hook—at least part of the way—by subtracting a day from his suspension. And so the Dodgers entered the final games at what for them, barring another bolt from the blue, passes for full strength.