By the time a baseball season reaches October, the sport has, gradually over seven months, developed an entire set of mythological characters who, for that one season, have a talismanic quality.
To a large degree, the playoffs and World Series are an acting out of the oldest of battle scenes as a central hero or two, an Achilles or a Hercules, come out from each camp for combat. Who will remain a charismatic figure? Who will become human?
That all heroes are flawed is an idea that, in battle or sport, seems to flee from our minds as though some primitive response required that one figure step forward and let his courage and poise inspire the entire group. So what if this year's legend can become next year's goat? At least in baseball, The Season is a symbolic unit players not only respect, but to which they ascribe an unnamed power.
That's what's behind the cliche's: "It's his year . . . The hot hand . . . Team of destiny."
At times, it can all start feeling very ancient, territorial and psychological. Of course Orel Hershiser bows his head for a moment in triumph and sings hymns in his trance between innings. Of course he kneels when he reaches base. He is in touch with his heritage: the man who, for a time, is favored by the gods.
The Los Angeles-Oakland 1988 World Series began with four men--two on each team--who stood so far above all others that what befell them carried disproportionate weight.
The Athletics had Jose Canseco, the first player to have 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in the same season. He epitomized the A's: intimidation through size with grace. One Dodgers scout, in a pre-Series meeting, actually said his goal was "to bring Canseco down off Mount Olympus and compare him to somebody in the National League."
Oakland also had Dennis Eckersley, a baseball phoenix reborn as a relief pitcher. Left on the ashcan by the Cubs, he'd not only saved or won 49 games, but also saved every game in the American League playoffs. Nothing in baseball is harder than getting the last out. It's been such a mental block for pitchers for a century that it is accepted dugout law that the invisible wall exists. The man who can smash it--time and again--somehow has appropriated the right to claim victory.
Though the Dodgers were the inferior team in talent, they had the ultimate suit of armor: Hershiser. Good pitching may or may not stop good hitting, but players believe that it does. So, the best pitcher in a Series is the ace of trumps. Hershiser entered the playoffs with the longest streak of shutout innings in baseball history. Thus, he was the ace of all aces. Then, against the Mets, he raised the mythic ante even higher by starting three games, saving another and sneaking into the bullpen to warm up in yet another game. When he should have been exhausted, he shut out the Mets in a winner-take-all game for the pennant.
Concerning Hershiser, the battered word "awesome" was in every mouth. And awe is reserved for heroes.
Los Angeles also had as symbolic a warrior as the game has seen in years: Kirk Gibson, a footballish fellow who seems to maim himself so his deeds will become doubly charged with leadership value. Playing in pain against the Mets, Captain Kirk, going where no man had gone before, hit two game-winning home runs within 13 hours--one at 1 a.m., then one at 1 p.m.
The Athletics' great mistake in the World Series was their assumption that their own magic, their aura of collective power, was insuperably great. Canseco talked openly about dominating a quick five-game Series. Don Baylor, a mythic leader in other years but a slightly embittered man as his glory days wane, impugned the courage of the Dodgers' key relief pitcher. He might as well have said: "We have the shield of Eckersley to protect us. You only have this timid person named Jay Howell. I know him--a mere mortal."
In Game 1, Eckersley faced Gibson.
A Gibson who could barely stand.
Down to his last strike, Gibson hit a home run that, in some still photos, seemed to have been struck with one hand. No player, not in the entire 20th century, had hit a sudden-death homer to turn a World Series defeat into victory. Gibson became a redoubled myth. Until such time as Eckersley could undo the damage, he had been exposed as vulnerable. And Eckersley never got another chance.
As an added twist, Gibson's blast upstaged a homer by Canseco. And not just a homer, but a grand slam. Wouldn't such an act affect the pecking order in a band of a lions or tigers? Might it not bear upon some atavistic part of a man?
In Game 2, Hershiser demonstrated how--if your deity dues are all paid up--you can slay a dragon, cut a Gordian Knot or clean the Augean Stables. He not only pitched a shutout--his eighth unscored-upon outing in 10 starts--but had as many hits that game as the whole A's team. That he fielded and ran bases stylishly moved him to an even higher level of grudging respect. Not just a pitcher, but an athlete.