Thursday, September 13, 2012

1988 World Series: The Impossible Has Happened

The Teams
National League: Los Angeles (94-67) - Ninth World Series (won in 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981)
American League: Oakland Athletics (104-58) - Fourth World Series (won in 1972, 1973, 1974) 

What Happened
The blast was tremendous, a no-doubter. The second-inning grand slam Jose Canseco hit in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series flew high toward center field, landing on – and denting – the very television camera used to record the blast. In 1988, Canseco was the best player on baseball’s best team, and in most instances, in most World Series, a blast like that would have set the tone for the widely anticipated Oakland sweep.

But this wasn’t most seasons; indeed, this wasn’t like most World Series. Oakland may have had the best team – their 104 wins were the most in the American League in nearly 20 years – and they certainly led all of baseball in intimidation factor, with muscle-bound (and steroid-enhanced) sluggers Canseco and Mark McGwire in the middle of the lineup and the nearly unhittable Dennis Eckersley in the bullpen.

But they didn’t have Orel Hershiser or Kirk Gibson. And in 1988, those two players were enough to lead an otherwise unremarkable Dodger team to the National League pennant. Hershiser, of course, was out-of-this-world good, breaking Don Drysdale’s record of consecutive scoreless innings, and doing so in the heat of the pennant race when giving up even a single run could have meant elimination for his team. Gibson’s effect on the Dodgers was a little more difficult to quantify. His numbers looked merely OK, not great, yet he was easily voted National League MVP. Sometimes leadership can’t be quantified by numbers. Gibson’s 1988 season is a perfect example of that.

Yet when the World Series started, the Dodgers thought they’d be without their MVP. As Canseco’s grand slam flew over the fence, Gibson was in the clubhouse in street clothes, trying to do something as simple as stand on his two injured legs. He was officially on the World Series roster, but he was essential useless. On television, announcer Jack Buck even said as much, saying that Gibson wasn’t even in uniform for Game 1.

Gibson heard that, and something came over him. Blocking out the pain, he started swinging the bat. The Dodgers cut their deficit to 4-3, but couldn’t tie the game, and entered the ninth still trailing. Gibson took a few swings and told manager Tommy Lasorda he was ready to go. After Mike Davis drew a two-out walk off Eckersley, Lasorda made the call. 

Gibson limped up to the plate. The crowd roared, then started hoping, begging, praying. Would their hero come through once more? After six pitches - including a foul down the first base line that was hit so weakly that Dodger fans had to feel sick - Gibson struck. He swung awkwardly - back foot off the ground, one hand off the bat at contact - but it flew, deep to right, over and out. Gibson rounded first base and pumped his fist. Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers, said "In a season that has been most improbable, the impossible has happened." Lasorda joined the rest of the Dodgers in greeting Gibson at home plate. And Los Angeles celebrated deep into the night.

At that point, the series was over. The Dodgers had won a most improbable game - beating the game's best reliever, at that - and they had Hershiser ready to pitch as many as three games. And the A's weren't beating Hershiser. He shut them out in Game 2, giving up only three hits - all of them to left fielder Dave Parker. He beat them again in Game 5, finishing the series with another complete game win. And the best team in baseball had been beaten by two men.

Hershiser won the MVP, and deservedly so. Few pitchers have ever been better than Hershiser was in the fall of 1988. But the emotional MVP was Gibson. He had only one at bat in the 1988 World Series, but that one at bat will live on in baseball lore.
(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

Oakland 4023 2
Los Angeles561 45

The List
I'm ranking all the World Series, from worst to best. Here are the ones I've done so far:

27. 1988 - Los Angeles (N) def. Oakland (A) 4-1
28. 1946 - St. Louis (N) def. Boston (A) 4-3
29. 1925 - Pittsburgh (N) def. Washington (A) 4-3
Numbers 30-39
Numbers 40-49
Numbers 50-59
Numbers 60-69
Numbers 70-79
Numbers 80-89
Numbers 90-99
Numbers 100-107

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