Memorable 1988 Fall Classic was talk of Safe At Home fundrasier
By Alden Gonzalez
LOS ANGELES -- One of the overlooked elements of the epic eight-pitch showdown between Dennis Eckersley and Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series was how close it came to ending in a harmless groundout. Behind in the count, 0-2, a frail, hobbled Gibson hit a slow bouncer down the first-base line that rolled foul just before Eckersley and his first baseman, Mark McGwire, could get a glove on it.
Gibson brought that up on Thursday night, with Eckersley seated next to him onstage.
"Oh," Eckersley bellowed, raising his palms up in front of his face, "that could've been fair. I picked it up. It was foul. It could've changed my whole life."
Orel Hershiser, the celebrated Dodgers pitcher who won the 1988 World Series Most Valuable Player Award, reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to Eckersley, prompting the hundred or so guests in attendance to erupt in laughter.
Eckersley, Gibson, Hershiser, Tony La Russa and Billy Crystal, the impromptu emcee, were assembled at the Hotel Bel-Air for a roundtable discussion centered on Gibson's historic walk-off home run against Eckersley. It marked the first time Gibson and Eckersley had gathered to talk about it in a formal setting.
They did it for MLB chief baseball officer and Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, who hosted the event alongside his wife, Ali, to raise funds for his Safe At Home Foundation, which provides support for children exposed to violence in their household.
La Russa called the event "historic."
"This says a lot about Joe, more than anything else, doesn't it?" Eckersley said. "Because this isn't something I've ever done. And it's not like I was champing at the bit to do something like this."
Gibson began the World Series with two badly injured legs and was never expected to play. He told his wife to go home, and the A's hardly even brought him up in their pregame pitchers' meeting. But then he took two injections and began to give it a try.
Hershiser, who went on to win Game 2 and the Game 5 clincher, remembered seeing Gibson in the cage, struggling to set baseballs on a tee and trying vigorously to find a batting stance that would allow him to swing without falling. As the ninth inning was winding down, Hershiser sat next to his catcher, Mike Scioscia, and informed him that Dave Anderson was not going to be the one to pinch-hit.
"What do you mean, he's not going to hit?" Scioscia said.
"Gibby's going to hit," Hershiser said, to which Scioscia responded: "Gibby can't walk."
Down a run, with a sold-out Dodger Stadium ready to erupt, Gibson fouled off three consecutive fastballs from Eckersley, took a ball, fouled off another fastball, then took back-to-back fastballs off the outside corner, running the count full and allowing Mike Davis to steal second base.
Gibson, at that point simply hoping for a blooper over the shortstop's head, told the story of what happened next.
Gibson waited until Eckersley got into the stretch, then called for time and stepped out of the batter's box. As he walked away, Gibson remembered what legendary scout Mel Didier told Dodgers left-handed hitters prior to the game, and he repeated it to himself, in Didier's Southern drawl.
Pahtna, sure as I'm standing here breathin', Eckersley's gonna throw you that 3-2, backdoor slider.
"That's why I stepped out," Gibson said on Thursday. "I said it, I stood in, he threw it, I took an ugly swing. And it went out."
Eckersley stood in the cramped visiting clubhouse that night and answered every question from the passel of media members that flowed in. La Russa believes it spoke to Eckersley's character. Eckersley identified that moment as the one that still resonates most with him, because the home run and the immediate aftershock remain such a blur.
Eckersley won the World Series the following year, when his 1989 A's beat the Giants team he grew up rooting for, and eventually got inducted into the Hall of Fame, as did La Russa.
That helped them heal, as did one other thing.
"The fact it was Gibby who hit it," La Russa said, "and not some yahoo that we all disrespected -- it makes it easier to accept."
This gathering was supposed to happen last year, but that was around the time Gibson was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Now 58, Gibson serves as a part-time analyst for FOX Sports Detroit and runs his own foundation. Gibson had Don Drysdale's call of his home run on a cassette tape and used to pop it in during times when he felt down.
Gibson gives motivational speeches now, and preaches the importance of positive thinking.
"I enjoyed my moment, no doubt about it," Gibson said. "I don't know why it was me. I don't know why it was me against Dennis. I encourage others -- do something, make it special, because baseball's a tough game. Life is tough."
Thursday's event raised nearly $300,000 for the Safe At Home Foundation, which has impacted more than 50,000 children in the Los Angeles and New York areas by sprouting several safe rooms at various schools, called Margaret's Place.
The roundtable discussion was preceded by a video montage of Gibson's home run -- first with Vin Scully's call, then with Jack Buck's, and then with images of "The Natural" spliced in. Eckersley sat up front, whispering to La Russa and maintaining a smile, which somehow wasn't difficult.
"I truly feel honored -- and that sounds crazy -- to be a part of all this," Eckersley said. "I really do. Me and Kirk have gotten to know each other much more over the years. I've always had this respect for Kirk, the kind of player that he was. And for something like that to happen to me, in that moment in baseball, was incredible. What a moment. It really was. I can step away from that and appreciate it, because I love the game."