Kirk Gibson took the swing but Mel Didier did the homework.
Hobbled by injuries to his right hamstring and left knee, Gibson was held out of Tommy Lasorda's lineup when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's began Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. The '88 NL MVP was on the field, however, when the contest ended. A former All-American wide receiver at Michigan State, Gibson unexpectedly emerged from the Dodgers' dugout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to author one of the most iconic moments in the Major League Baseball history. With the Dodgers trailing the powerhouse Oakland A's, 4-3, and down to their last out, Gibson was called on to pinch-hit for teammate Alejandro Pena.
"All year long, they looked to him to light the fire and all year long, he answered the demand until he was physically unable to start tonight," Vin Scully told NBC viewers as Gibson strode to the plate with Oakland reliever Dennis Eckersley on the mound and Dodgers outfielder Mike Davis at first base.
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The MVP of the A's ALCS triumph over the Boston Red Sox, Eckersley opened the encounter with two fastballs. Gibson fouled them both off to ball behind 0-2. He dribbled the third pitch foul up the first-base line and labored after the ball in case it rolled back fair. It did not. Gibson trudged back to the batter's box. Eckersley then delivered a wide fastball. Davis, who reached with a walk, broke for second base on the next pitch but Gibson fouled it off. Next came another wide heater. And then another. On the third outside ball of the at-bat, Davis did swipe second base.
Facing a full count, Gibson stepped out of the batter's box. He then recalled the instructions of one of the Dodgers' advanced scouts. Didier had told him what to expect in the exactly the situation he was facing: A 3-2 count against the most dominant reliever in the American League.
"He stood up in the room," Gibson told Gordon Edes of the Los Angeles Times in March 1989. "And he said, 'Pardner, as sure as I'm standing here breathing today, if you get to 3-and-2 he'll throw a back-door slider to you.' I said those exact words to myself, stepped back in, and that's what he threw me, a back-door slider.'"
As the scouting report predicted, Eck threw a slider. Gibson stepped out over the plated and offered an awkward, all-arms swing. He connected, driving the ball deep to right field. It dropped over the wall for a limp-off home run. As Gibson hobbled around the bases before a delirious Dodger Stadium crowd, the 31-year-old pumped his right fist in triumph. Buoyed by their Game 1 rally, the Dodgers would go on to topple the A's in five games.
"I never thought about pumping my fists," Gibson recalled for Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles in 2013. "I don't know why I did it. It was an act of emotion."
Twenty-five years later, Eckersley regrets that slider but seems to think that Gibson's moment comes down to destiny rather than his decision.
"I'm out there throwing a bunch of fastballs, and then finally changing my mind and throwing him a backdoor slider," Eckersley later told Steve Gilbert of MLB.com as the 25th anniversary of the clout approached. "There are regrets there, my biggest regret. Because the last thing on my mind was a home run. Truly. And it's pretty easy. Shouldn't have thrown him that pitch. But the more amazing part was how far he hit it. Flat-footed. Strong guy, you know? And ultimately that was supposed to happen. It was in the stars."