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Impossible Dreamer

Gibson, unlikely Series hero in 1988, faces another daunting challenge as Tiger coach

June 10, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — The image is burned into World Series lore, way up there with Carlton Fisk's home run, Don Larsen's perfect game and Willie Mays' wondrous catch.

It is Kirk Gibson, limping to the plate on two bum legs, carrying a bat he called "Thumper," then yanking Dennis Eckersley's full-count slider into Dodger Stadium's right-field pavilion, pumping his fists as he hobbles around the bases to complete the Dodgers' stunning victory over the Oakland A's in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

"We all wish we could be young again, to have a chance of something like that happening again," Gibson said recently in Comerica Park, more than 14 years after striking the unforgettable, almost unfathomable blow that catapulted the Dodgers to their last World Series championship.

"But at this point in my life, all that's left is to try to motivate, to try to teach the next generation what it takes to create that kind of moment. That's what we're after, to excite, to rewrite history and celebrate a championship."

No, Gibson, 46, is not loopy from all those pain killers and cortisone injections, the hallmarks of a 17-year career in which he often played hurt. It was with a clear head that he spoke these words, even though he was sitting in the clubhouse of the Detroit Tigers, baseball's worst team.

When Gibson, in his first year as Detroit Manager Alan Trammell's bench coach, looks at his young and inexperienced Tigers, a team that takes a major league-worst 16-44 record into a three-game series against the Dodgers today in Comerica Park, he can't help but hark back to Oct. 15, 1988, when, in the words of broadcaster Vin Scully, "the impossible" happened.

Gibson had a sprained ligament in his right knee, a strained left hamstring, and had taken a cortisone injection in his right knee an hour before Game 1 of that World Series. Nobody, not even Gibson, thought he would play.

Gibson advised his wife, JoAnn, to leave after the seventh inning. He wasn't going to play, so why risk getting caught in traffic? Gibson was in the training room during pregame introductions.

But in the ninth inning, with the Dodgers trailing, 4-3, Gibson got dressed, hit 10 balls off a tee and had a batboy tell manager Tom Lasorda he was available.

Mike Davis drew a two-out walk, and out of the dugout came the gritty Gibson, whose determination was such a motivating force in his first year with the Dodgers that he was voted National League most valuable player, despite 1988 season numbers that were less than eye-popping: .290 batting average, 25 home runs, 76 runs batted in.

The thunderous roar of the Dodger Stadium crowd pushed adrenaline ahead of pain in Gibson's mind, and after working the count full, he stepped out of the box. He recalled a scouting report from Mel Didier, who'd said Eckersley favored the backdoor slider on full counts.

Here came the slider, and there it went, deep to right field, deep into the night, driving a dagger deep into the hearts of the A's, who never recovered from a 5-4 Game 1 loss. The underdog Dodgers won the series in five games, even though Gibson had only the one at-bat.

"The whole lesson of that is to keep fighting and fighting and fighting, and don't predetermine your outcome, because that's proof crazy things can happen," Gibson said. " ... We're not very good, but we do compete. As bad as our record is, that's the most encouraging thing I see.

"When we were playing Seattle [in May], I went through all nine positions, and we were overmatched at every one. But we competed our [rear ends] off. That's the first step. In May there were maybe three games where we didn't compete. That's gonna happen, but that's the part that is just unacceptable to me."

Few had as much passion for the game as Gibson, who could not stomach losing; who, in his own words, "treated every game like a war," and who played every night with a football player's mentality.

"He was a hard-nosed player who ran out every ground ball," said Dodger first-base coach John Shelby, a teammate on the 1988 Dodgers. "Every time he had a chance to break up a double play, we'd wait and see how far he would knock the shortstop or second baseman into the outfield."

This is what Trammell, who teamed with Gibson to help the Tigers win the 1984 World Series, was looking for when he assembled his staff.

"We need toughness around here; we're trying to find guys who are men, who will fight and grind," said Trammell, who lured Gibson out of the Tigers' television booth. "We're not there yet, but we're trying to plant some seeds."

Gibson, however, is more iron fist than green thumb.

"He's a motivator, to put it lightly," Tiger catcher Brandon Inge said. "Not a day goes by where he doesn't have 20 cups of coffee. He's really energetic about the game, and he's trying to give us the same feel he had when he played.

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