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'Heartbreak'

Baseball: The Dodgers and A's meet in interleague play this week, nearly a decade after Kirk Gibson's home run which still invokes dramatic memories.

June 08, 1997|ROB GLOSTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Each time the scene flashes across a TV screen, Tony La Russa looks away. Tommy Lasorda's eyes fill with tears of joy. Kirk Gibson remembers nine long innings in a lonely clubhouse.

Nearly a decade has passed since Gibson hobbled out of the dugout to hit one of baseball's most dramatic homers, a two-run shot with two outs and a full count in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

The pinch-hit homer off Dennis Eckersley, who was nearly unhittable all season, helped propel the injury-riddled Los Angeles Dodgers to an improbable Series victory over the mighty Oakland Athletics.

And as the A's play host to the Dodgers on Thursday and Friday during the first days of interleague play--the first time the teams have met since 1988--vivid memories of that moment will return.

"Heartbreak. It's almost the worst of memories," says La Russa, then the A's' manager and now with the St. Louis Cardinals. "Every time I see that, I look away. I can't watch it."

Mike Scioscia, who led off that ninth inning for Los Angeles and is now the team's bench coach, called it "the greatest World Series at-bat you're ever going to see."

As Gibson limped around the bases, pumping his right arm in delight, Lasorda leapt from the dugout in celebration.

"I've seen a lot of home runs of great significance, but I've never seen one with the drama attached to it that that one had--and the effect that it had," says Lasorda, who retired as Dodgers manager last July. "What it did was not only win the game for us, but it also won the Series because they were never able to recover from that home run."

La Russa agrees.

"I think we felt we were invincible," he says. "It wasn't so much that the Dodgers beat us, but they beat us when they were all beaten up."

The A's came into the series as huge favorites. They had won a club-record 104 games, including 14 straight at one point to run away with the AL West title. They had the best pitching in baseball, and a lineup anchored by the "Bash Brothers"--Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

While Oakland swept Boston in the playoffs, the Dodgers barely survived a seven-game series against the New York Mets. And Los Angeles came out of that series with serious injuries, including a strained right knee and a pulled left hamstring that limited Gibson to one at-bat in the Series.

But what an at-bat.

The A's had taken a 4-0 lead in the second on Canseco's first career grand slam, a blast that nearly hit a cameraman in center field. The Dodgers fought back to 4-3, but Eckersley--who led the majors with 45 saves and had four more in the sweep of the Red Sox--came in to pitch the ninth.

Eckersley got two quick outs but pinch-hitter Mike Davis walked. Gibson, who had spent the entire game undressed in the clubhouse and seething at his injuries, sent word to Lasorda he could pinch-hit.

He had spent the evening with his legs packed in ice, imagining himself winning the game.

"I created this whole moment in my mind," Gibson says. "I go up there, I step on the field, the crowd goes nuts. I have already visualized hitting a home run to win the game. I did that for nine innings."

Eckersley got two quick strikes, but Gibson worked the count to 2-2. Davis stole second as Gibson took an inside breaking ball to run the count full.

Gibson, who had gotten a shot of cortisone and a painkiller in his knee, stepped out of the box and remembered the advice of scout Mel Didier: Eckersley liked to throw backdoor sliders on a full count.

"I said to myself, 'As sure as you're standing here, you're going to see a backdoor slider,"' Gibson says. "I took an ugly swing, and the Dodger in the sky blessed me."

Eckersley disputes the story about the scouting report and says Gibson barely hit the pitch--a curveball.

"He got fooled and he flipped it out," Eckersley says. "The moment was awful."

Gibson's homer landed softly in the seats over the 360-foot sign in right.

"I was stunned, we were stunned," says Gibson, now a successful businessman in suburban Detroit. "It was a storybook ending, but it's exactly how our year was."

Eckersley, still a dominating closer for the Cardinals, says it took him a long time to get over the homer.

"That was about 320 saves ago," he says. "If I had stopped playing then, it would have been a lot tougher."

But the 42-year-old Eckersley, whose long hair still flows out of his baseball cap, says he can't escape that moment.

"I see it all the time. You can't block it. That's all you see. And fans always yell to me: 'Get a haircut' . . . or 'Kirk Gibson."'

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