Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Art of Fiction is Dead...

October 15, Dodger Stadium- Consider Ernest Thayer's poem Casey at the Bat. Imagine at the end of the tale where “the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow”, the protagonist had made contact with the ball instead and sent it flying out of the park, winning the game much to the delight of the bedraggled fans of the Mudville Nine. Would we still be reading the story well over one hundred years after its creation?

I seriously doubt it. It probably would have been tossed into the trash along with the copies of the San Francisco Daily Examiner where it was first published in 1888. Great hope springing eternal only to be smashed to pieces in the end by bitter disappointment is the typical lot of the baseball fan, and if the story had a happy ending, no one would have taken it seriously.

That's why if what took place on that night of October 15, 1988 in Chavez Ravine had been a work of fiction, it would have been dismissed as drivel, a predictable tale of feel good nonsense, the stuff of dime store novels or second rate children's literature.

But the story is true, that much I can testify having seen it unfold before my eyes that Saturday night nearly thirty two years ago.

The Oakland A's were far and away the best team in baseball that year. They won 104 games, and steamrolled through the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. They were a complete team, featuring good defense, the big bats of Dave Henderson, Don Baylor, Mark McGwire and Jose Conseco, excellent starting pitchers Dave Stewart, and Bob Welsh, an untouchable 45 save closer, Dennis Eckersley, and were led by one of the best minds in baseball, Tony LaRussa.

The Dodgers by contrast were overachievers that year. A team built around pitching and speed, they scored 160 fewer runs then the A's in 1988. The highlight of their season was the overall performance of Cy Young Award winning starter Orel Hershiser (23-8, 2.26 ERA) who at one point in the season, pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings. Their one offensive threat was Kirk Gibson whose impressive batting stats were enhanced by the fact that most of his hits seemed to come in the clutch. His performance that year earned him the National League MVP award.

Unfortunately, the aging Gibson was hurt. In seventh and deciding game of the National League Championship Series, where Hershiser shut out the Mets, Gibson who was already suffering from a pulled hamstring, sprained ligaments in his knee. His status was doubtful for the World Series. He wasn't even introduced to the home town crowd before Game One of the Series, Most folks felt they should just give the trophy to the A's.

It didn't seem any better after Jose Conseco hit a grand slam off LA starter Tim Belcher in the second inning of Game One. The Dodgers did manage to score three runs off Dave Stewart and their pitching kept the powerful A's at bay into the ninth.

But the Dodgers could only look forward to facing the most dominant closer of the year in the bottom of the ninth. In addition to his 45 saves, Dennis Eckersley had a phenomenal 70/11 strikeout to walk ration in 72 innings pitched. Meanwhile, Kirk Gibson sat in the Dodger clubhouse watching the game on TV. He listened as play by play man Vin Scully said: “Kirk Gibson, spearhead of the Dodger offense, will not see any action tonight for sure.” As if on cue, Gibson got up and started hitting baseballs off a tee. He told the batboy to go and tell his manager, Tommy Lasorda that he'd be ready in case he needed him.

Out on the field, Eckersley did what he always did that year, got batters out. There would be no point in bringing Gibson into the game unless there was a chance to win it, he'd only be good for one at bat and in his condition, he might not even survive that. Gibson sent the message to Lasorda that he would only come up to bat if somebody got on base, and now with two outs, that looked very unlikely. The Dodgers' last hopes rested with outfielder Mike Davis who Lasrorda put in to pinch hit for shortstop Alfredo Griffin. At bat, Davis started playing mind games with Eckersley; after every pitch he'd step out of the batter's box and take a few practice swings. Given the pitcher's impeccable control, this seemed pointless, but it began to pay off. Davis' antics threw the reliever's timing off and Eckersley got behind in the count. Before you knew it, Davis was on first base, the beneficiary of only the 12th Eckersley walk of the season. The crowd began to rumble. Lasorda pulled Dave Anderson from the on deck circle without someone to replace him. There was an awkward moment with no one ready to bat for the Dodgers. “You've gotta have a batter Tommy” said the home plate umpire. There was no batter visible because Kurt Gibson was in the tunnel limping from the clubhouse to the dugout. When he finally emerged and hobbled to home plate, the home town crowd went wild.

Despite the heroics, Gibson looked terrible. He quickly fell behind the count 0-2; Eck knew Gibson's condition and figured he'd just blow fastballs by the ailing slugger who'd never be able to catch up to them. He was right.

Now 0-2 is a pitcher's count and Eck thought he'd waste a pitch, placing the ball just outside the strike zone hoping that Gibson might chase a pitch that he couldn't possibly hit in his condition. Gibson did bite, he hit a squibber down the first base line. He hobbled toward first as fast as his ailing legs could carry him. Fortunately the ball eventually rolled foul. With new life, Gibson took the next pitch which was exactly in the same place. The ump called ball one. After that, Gibson managed to work the count to 3-2. Like Mike Davis before him, Gibson called time and stepped out of the batter's box. When he took his place back in the box,, He put all his weight on the front leg, the opposite of what every batter is taught. He was looking for the backdoor slider which cuts into the plate from the outside on a left handed hitter. Eck's 3-2 pitch was just what Gibson expected, a slider in at the knees.

It was the perfect pitch, for Gibson. He had no legs but plenty of upper body left which he put to good use. His swing was all hips and arms, actually one arm as his trailing left hand let go of the bat midway through the swing. It was the ugliest swing imaginable but it got the job done. The ball cleared the right field fence and on TV, Vin Scully let the crowd reaction do the talking as Gibson gingerly circled the bases while pumping his fists. When Gibson finally touched home after what seemed an eternity, the first words out of the Hall of Fame Broadcaster's mouth were: “In a year that has been so improbable the impossible has happened.”

It would be Kurt Gibson's last at bat that World Series. What makes our story even more improbable is that without him, the Dodgers went on to beat the A's four games to one.

Writing a generation earlier about the same team but in a different city and an entirely different outcome for them, the baseball writer Red Smith wrote this:

The art of fiction is dead, reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressively fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

In other words, you just can't make this stuff up. But our story doesn't have an entirely happy ending. You see, I was rooting for the A's.

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