Anyone who has played or watched baseball has probably lived out the dream of coming to the plate in the bottom of the 9th with the game on the line in a back yard somewhere in America. Most, if not everyone reading this post, has never had the chance to have the final at bat of a World Series game with the crowd cheering and everything to lose. As kids we craved it, and the visualization of the moment wasn’t enough, we had to act it out. Over and over and over again. Up at the park, or a green belt somewhere telling your buddie to throw you another one, and another one, and another one, until you finally got ahold of the one that could make over the fence. I mean, how cool would it be to hit a home run to win the game as everyone in the stadium (or city park) screamed your name.
I grew up in the East Bay of California. I was raised to be an Oakland Athletics fan and was fortunate enough to enjoy season tickets during the days of Dave Stewart, Mark Mcguire, and Dennis Eckersley. It was a great time to be Bay Area Sports fan because the Athletics who are the only team to wear all white cleats seemed to always bring home a win. At least that’s what the 10-year-old me thought.
Then this happened. I was devastated. Yes, I am talking about the moment which Dodger fans choose to relive and Athletics fans choose to say was rigged, a trick, magic, or cheating. That moment, the one which brought home a win from Game 1 of the 1988 World Series was something I can never forget. Go ahead watch the video if you must.
So if it is still painful 28 years later then why in the heck am I talking about it. Good question. Well, as a baseball fan, and a lover of cinema I am a huge fan of the movie “The Natural,” which starred Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. “The Natural,” was a movie from a different time and had nothing to do with Kirk Gibson or the Los Angeles Dodgers, or the Oakland Athletics. Or did it?
The Natural is a long movie and I won’t spend time recounting the entirety of the film because it’s a movie many of you have seen and for those of you who have never seen it – the important clip is attached to this post. So Roy Hobbs, a fictional character, and one of the greatest to ever play the game steps up to the plate in the bottom of the 9th. Hobbs is nursing a gunshot wound and as the viewer it’s not clear what is going to happen despite the extreme desire you feel for him to hit one out of the park.
Hobbs is at the plate and gets hold of one that lands just foul down the right field line. As he walks back to home plate is the devastated to see his bat, his hand made bat named Wonderboy, split into two pieces. Hobbs clearly needs a new bat and asks the bat boy to “pick him a winner.” The bat boy returns with a bat that Hobbs helped him make. Hobbs battles the pitcher but in the end crushes one into the lights while the music brings him around the bases. In the 9th, with the pennant on the line, an older, injured Hobbs smacks one out of the park, giving viewers the warm fuzzies as the screen faded into black. If you are confused, stick with me for a little bit longer.
The video at the top, which is unfortunately a historical document, lays out the 88 Series relatively well. Dennis Eckersley comes in to close out the game and gets two quick outs before walking Mike Davis. So there you go, two outs, bottom of the 9th, every kid’s dream, and it was happening to Kirk Gibson. Kirk wasn’t totally healthy and this was a pinch hit appearance for him with game 1 on the line. Gibson worked the count to full and Mike Davis ended up stealing second. Now, I am pretty sure Gibson interfered with the catcher on the steal but I will let you make that call as you watch the tape.
So here we are again. That familiar situation. Bottom of the 9th. Full count. Two outs and everything on the line. Gibson would later say he knew what pitch was coming but, hey, we all did. The back foot slider was one of Eckersley’s best pitches – especially when there were two strikes. So Eck did what Eck does and threw the back foot slider, one heck of a pitch, but Gibby was ready, and he smashed in into right field. Jack Buck, or Vin Scully, it doesn’t matter – the ball still went over the fence which ended Game 1. Then as Kirk Gibson rounded the bases, a wounded man, doing that ridiculously memorable fist pump, I cried.
The bench coach for the Dodgers immediately saw the connection to the movie “The Natural,” so he went ahead of Gibson into the Locker-room to adjust the name plate over his locker. When Gibson finally made it off the field he would arrive at his locker to find the name “Roy Hobbs” where his name used to be. Yes folks, Kirk Gibson pulled a Roy Hobbs, and I was there, glued to my couch, able to watch every terrible second of it.
As amazing as the ending to the movie “The Natural,” was it is even more amazing to know that the book which the movie was based on ended in a totally different way [thanks Mom]. In the written version of the story Roy Hobbs strikes out and basically fades away. In the book Roy steps up as a pinch hitter and ends the game only to allow the other team to walk away with the pennant. In the book version maybe Eckersley throws that back door slider a little harder and Gibson is too hurt, or maybe he on-the-take and swings and misses. In the book version I imagine the Oakland Athletics go on to win that game, and likely sweep the series.