VERO BEACH, Fla. — Question: Why were the 1988 Dodgers like a Sherlock Holmes movie or a vintage Charlie Chan or Agatha Christie whodunit?
Answer: Because the unlikeliest characters in the whole cast kept knocking off the poor victims.
The butler did it. It got so it was like going to a bad Warner Bros. mystery flick. Keep your eye on the secretary. Even Colombo would have been baffled.
Take the matter of the postseason games, the playoffs and World Series. Everybody knows about The Home Run, the Gibson-on-the-rocks against the Oakland A's in the World Series, and Kirk's 12th-inning job against the New York Mets in playoff game No. 4.
But if Mike Scioscia hadn't hit a home run in the ninth inning of that game, there might have been no Dodger World Series.
You heard me. Talk about the butler burying the knife in His Lordship's heart.
Not even Scotland Yard would have figured on Mike Scioscia. Mike Scioscia was hitting his fourth home run of the year. (Gibson was hitting his 28th when he unloaded in the Series.) Mike Scioscia was hitting his 37th lifetime homer. (Gibson was to be hitting his 182nd).
Scioscia might not have even been the butler.
When he came to bat in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the playoffs, the Dodgers were trailing, 4-2. Dwight Gooden was on the mound. That's Dwight Gooden as in Cy Young winner, former rookie of the year, Dr. K. He owned the Dodgers. He was 3-0 against them for the year, 8-1 lifetime. The Dodgers' earned-run average against him was 1.22.
He had just walked John Shelby to start the ninth inning. So he wasn't going to fool around with Mike Scioscia. I mean, we weren't talking Kirk Gibson here. So he started him off with his best fastball.
It ended up somewhere out in Queens. That was only the ninth home run Dwight Gooden had given up all year. It effectively put the Dodgers in the World Series.
Had Scioscia popped that ball up--or hit into a double play, it is more than possible, it is highly likely that the Dodgers would have been out of the Series picture, down 3-1 and fading.
But Scioscia didn't pop it up. He popped it out. The most improbable home run of the season shocked Shea Stadium, to say nothing of Dwight Gooden, who reacted as if he had just been bitten by his own dog.
But it didn't shock the Dodgers, who had become accustomed to this kind of come-through performance from catcher Scioscia.
If it had been a mystery, of course, the inspector would have said, "Don't anybody leave this room till we get to the bottom of this." But Mike Scioscia's fingerprints were on the murder weapon for a lot of Dodger victims over the years. Scioscia makes even the word \o7 dependable \f7 inadequate. He is as close to indispensable as any non-pitcher on the Los Angeles roster.
No team wins the pennant without a solid, rock-steady performer behind the plate. First basemen, right fielders, even pitchers can be as temperamental as opera stars, unpredictable, egocentric. Catchers cannot. Catchers have to be like parish priests, country doctors. They're meant to keep the sanity, to soothe, counsel--and, incidentally, throw out baserunners.
They spend their lives on their knees. They catch a ball going 90 m.p.h., or curving or knuckling, 150 to 200 times a game. They sometimes have to calm down hysterical pitchers. They may have to position infielders. They have to be part psychiatrist, part parent.
There is a man swinging a 33-ounce bludgeon only inches from their heads. They make their livings throwing out 9.3-second sprinters running on rubber tracks. They have 3.3 seconds to throw a ball 125 feet on a line to a target ankle-high on the first-base side of second.
It's probably the most difficult job in baseball. No wonder they're not expected to hit home runs.
They pay Mike Scioscia $1.1 million to call the pitches, dig bouncing curves out of the dirt, throw out Vince Coleman one out of three times, signal the pitcher when he sees a batter who can't possibly handle the outside curve. They don't expect him to homer off Dwight Gooden. He has other ways of putting the Dodgers in what Tommy Lasorda likes to refer to as the fall classic.
The Dodgers didn't really club their way to the World Series championship, they kind of swarmed there like an angry hive of disturbed bees.
And Scioscia wasn't the only hornet. They had Mickey Hatcher, who had hit only one home run all season, hitting two in the Series, and Mike Davis who had hit only two homers all season and driven in only 17 runs, hitting a homer and driving in two runs in the five-game Series alone.
But a strong case could be made that none of these heroics would have been possible if Mike Scioscia had taken, swung and missed, or popped up that Gooden fastball on the night of Oct. 9.
"I was the most shocked person in the park when it went out," he said the other day as he sat recalling the incident at Dodgertown.
That may be so. But spectators recall Doc Gooden standing there as if he had just seen his own ghost.
"I was just trying to hit the ball hard somewhere, move John (Shelby) along," said Scioscia.
As Gibson was to do later, he hit the ball almost standing on one leg. An inflamed Achilles tendon forced him to cut the heel out of his left shoe and wear a high-cut because it was the only way to keep the footwear from sliding off.
"Even after I hit it, I wasn't thinking home run. I was just hoping it would hit off the wall because that was almost the only way I could be sure to get to first base."
No one ever mixed Mike Scioscia up with Carl Lewis, even with heels in his shoes.
As it happens, speed wasn't critical. Scioscia hit it where he could walk around the bases.
As it also happened, Gibson's 12th-inning homer won that game. But not even Inspector Clouseau would accept that solution. As the Met fans streaming out of the park that night observed, "Scioscia killed us. Can you beat that?"
It was the perfect crime. Nobody would believe it. They weren't even looking.