The donors had been thanked. The dinner had been served. The program was about to start, but not before the assembled ladies and gentlemen were asked to watch a 12-minute video.
The man with the free-flowing hair and the salt-and-pepper mustache turned to face the screen, his elbow propped atop the back of his chair. No one in the ballroom sat closer to the screen than he did.
The screen was maybe two feet from his face, the images of his most celebrated professional failure displayed and repeated. Vin Scully called the play, and Kirk Gibson hit a home run. Jack Buck called the play, and Gibson hit a home run. Bob Costas described the play, and Gibson hit a home run.
Dennis Eckersley took it all in with an easy smile. As he looked at the video, Gibson looked at Eckersley.
“I didn’t feel right sitting there, watching you watch that,” Gibson told him a few minutes later.
For the first time in the 28 years since that home run, Gibson and Eckersley sat in front of a room, next to each other, and talked about it. Tony La Russa and Orel Hershiser joined the panel, and Billy Crystal emceed, all for the benefit of Joe Torre’s Safe at Home Foundation. The event, on Thursday at the Hotel Bel-Air, raised $300,000 to maintain and expand a support network for abused and neglected children.
Gibson’s home run has been elevated to the realm of the mythical, and not just because the Dodgers have not returned to the World Series since then.
The images have been seared into the minds of a generation of fans, almost as if pages in a Gibson flip book: hobbling to bat; wincing with each foul ball; stepping out of the box to recall Dodgers scout Mel Didier saying Eckersley would throw a backdoor slider if the count were full; reaching for that slider; yanking it deep over the rightfield fence; pumping his arms as he rounded first base.
The words have been seared into our minds, as well: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened,” Scully said.
The details remain vivid in the minds of the participants. It was Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, in which Gibson and the Dodgers slew the Bash Brothers and the rest of the Oakland Athletics en route to the unlikeliest of parades.
For the bottom of the ninth inning, the A’s handed a 4-3 lead to the trusted Eckersley. Mike Scioscia popped up. Jeff Hamilton struck out.
Mike Davis pinch-hit. He hit 22 home runs for Oakland in 1987, two for the Dodgers in 1988.
“It was horrendous to walk Michael Davis,” Eckersley said.
Or not, considering that the Dodgers had Dave Anderson on deck to pinch-hit.
“He was a lamb,” Eckersley said. “He was an absolute out.”
Gibson had sent his wife home in the early innings, the better to care for their rambunctious toddler. Not going to play tonight, honey.
Both of his knees were hurting. So was a hamstring. He had gotten a couple of painkilling injections and ice for his legs. As soon as he heard Scully say on television that he could not hit, he shuffled to a batting tee to try.
“Gibby’s going to hit,” Hershiser said he told Scioscia.
“Gibby can’t walk,” Scioscia said.
Anderson retreated to the dugout, and a thunderous roar greeted Gibson as he stepped gingerly to bat. La Russa, the Oakland manager, signaled for his outfielders to creep forward, worried more that a guy hitting on one leg would bloop a single over the infield than drive a ball over the fence. Eckersley geared up to throw fastballs, believing that the compromised Gibson could not catch up to them.
A couple of strikes, a couple of balls, a couple of foul balls, one a dribbler up the first base line that rolled foul before Eckersley could get to it.
“It would have changed my whole life,” Eckersley said, laughing.
The seventh pitch, the seventh fastball, and Davis stole second. That was ball three.
Full count. Backdoor slider, not a fastball. Home run.
“Ugly swing,” Gibson said. “I was just trying to get a little blooper over the shortstop’s head.”
“God knows I should have gassed his ass,” Eckersley said.
As the A’s staggered off of the field, pitching coach Dave Duncan had one word for La Russa. Duncan had suggested that the A’s walk Gibson and pitch to Steve Sax, but La Russa had wanted Gibson.
“Dumbass,” Duncan told La Russa.
In a Santa Monica home, Gibson’s wife danced with the couple’s 2-year-old son. A city danced, too, pumping its arms backward, just the way Gibson had.
Gibson pointed to Eckersley. Didn’t mean to show you up.
Gibson: “There’s a lot said about today’s ballplayers and how they celebrate. The arm pump was not really like me. It just happened.”
Eckersley: “Hooray for you. Too bad for me. It was the ninth inning. You can do whatever you want.”
La Russa: “If it would have been some disrespectful yahoo, it would have really hurt.”
Eckersley, 61, said he long has since made his peace with the home run, and not just because he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He even could appreciate the moment as it happened, he said, for he had found sobriety a couple of years earlier. He was grateful to be present, not despondent about the outcome.
On a quiet patio outside the ballroom, Eckersley said he would be forever connected to Gibson, and not at all upset about that. As the years pass, he joked, fewer people call him by his given name.
“It’s like my last name: ‘Hey, Gibson!’” Eckersley said. “Every time someone sees me: ‘Hey, Gibson!’”
If the two men can relive that home run again for a good cause, Eckersley said, he would be glad to help.
“I respect the hell out of Kirk,” he said.
Gibson, 58, fights to keep his Parkinson’s disease at bay. He works as a part-time analyst on Detroit Tigers broadcasts and with his foundation. He was supposed to be here last year, but that was when he was diagnosed with the illness.
“I had a little detour on the road,” he said. “I had to shake my boy Parky.”
On his right wrist, he wore an assortment of bracelets, including a gray one reading “Be Brave” and a yellow one reading “Think Loud.”
Parkinson’s disease can trigger speech and facial disorders. The “Think Loud” slogan refers to speech therapy designed to counter softening voices. Gibson also had to retrain his face to smile.
“We’ve taken how many pictures?” he said on the red carpet. “It’s good practice.”
He looked good. He sounded strong enough. As the panel discussion ended, he and Eckersley clasped hands and held them aloft.
“We’ve struck up a little friendship,” Gibson said on the patio. “We’ll take our time, as much as we have left, and enjoy it.” FREEP.Com
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