Kirk Gibson is sitting in the visitors' dugout two hours before game time. The Arizona Diamondbacks manager is watching his players stretch and take batting practice before they meet the Dodgers in an early-season divisional match-up.
It's disconcerting to see Gibson in Dodger Stadium wearing road gray and red. He will forever be a hero in Los Angeles because of one indelible moment in one impossible season. In 1988, Gibson carried an undermanned Dodgers team to the NL pennant, past the heavily favored Mets, and into the World Series against the even more heavily favored Oakland A's.
The effort had so physically punished Gibson's legs that he could not walk out onto the field for the player introductions before Game 1 of the Series. He was not in the starting lineup; it was unclear whether he would be able to play at all.
Somehow, Gibson summoned the strength to pinch-hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Dodgers trailing by one run. He hobbled to the plate and looked terribly off-balance early in the count, squibbing weak foul balls against Dennis Eckersley, the best closer in baseball.
Then came Eckersley's 3-2 offering — and instant immortality.
You've seen the replay a million times. Gibson awkwardly reaches down and muscles the ball over the head of right-fielder Jose Canseco and into the stands next to the visiting team's bullpen.
He gimps around the bases, punching his fist in the air. All of Dodger Stadium — all of Los Angeles — erupts as Vin Scully, the bard of Chavez Ravine, punctuates the moment: "She is ... GAAAWWWNNN!"
In the distance the brake lights of a car flash red, as if the early-exiting driver realized, "Oh, crap, we just missed the greatest single moment in L.A. Dodger history."
Gibson never played again in the Series. He didn't have to. A team with a lineup featuring the likes of Danny Heep, Mickey Hatcher and Jeff Hamilton — what broadcaster Bob Costas accurately described as one of the worst ever fielded in the World Series – finished off the powerhouse A's with Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Parker, Terry Steinbach, and Carney Lansford in five games.
Some 25 years later, the Dodgers have yet to win another World Series. Heck, they've yet to return to the World Series.
On this day, as the afternoon sun bakes the dugout, I ask Gibson if he thinks about the home run when he returns to Dodger Stadium. He nods and peers down the right-field foul line. "I walk in here and always look up at where I hit the ball," he said. "I kind of named it myself: seat 88 for 1988."
Gibson has probably talked about this moment a thousand times, maybe more, but he seems in no hurry. "It's very vivid to this day," he continued. "I was in the locker room listening to Vin [Scully] on the TV saying, 'Kirk Gibson will not be hitting tonight,' and I just said, 'My ass.' I really had no business going up there to the plate. But, you know, it's what I live for. I felt like my teammates wanted me to do it."
I've arranged to interview Gibson because I'm trying to figure out what happened to the home run ball after it disappeared into the scrum in right field. Gibson himself never saw the ball again, and no fan came forward that evening, or the next day, claiming to have recovered it.
It is gone, permanently.
But this quest, I'm beginning to realize, is also personal. I had tickets to the very section where Gibson deposited his homer, but I didn't attend the game. I can recall exactly where I was when he hit it out — which might explain why, 25 years later, I am trying to locate a ball that will never be found.
* * *
My sister had gone into the back bedroom of our parents' apartment and shot herself.
The phone call came early in the morning on Sept. 5, 1986. I was immersed in the drudgery that paid my share of the rent, proofreading financial documents for a printing company, when my boss pulled me aside. On the line was my family from 3,000 miles away. My sister had gone into the back bedroom of our parents' apartment and shot herself.
This is what shock looks like: I hung up the phone, returned to my desk, picked up a piece of paper, and began to proofread it. One of my roommates had to rescue me from myself, ferry me to LAX, and put me on a plane to New York.
My sister and I were two years apart and very close. The one difference was that Margot appeared to have won the genetic lottery. She had long black hair that she parted in the middle, and played a mean game of basketball (and field hockey and lacrosse). She was pretty and smart.
Mental illness is none of those. It is wicked and merciless. It preyed on my sister until, on the morning she was scheduled to enter a facility for treatment, she ended her life. She would have turned 26 the following week.
I was 24 and living in a strange city far from my family. Here's a news flash: I was unhinged for a while. I drank to forget everything and drank to remember every detail. I ingested a variety of illegal substances that numbed the mind. I slept 12 hours a day, but was always exhausted. When people spoke to me, their words sounded like they were coming from underwater.
I didn't recover so much as endure, one step forward to three staggers backward. I read everything I could in a futile attempt to comprehend her death, from "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" to Emile Durkheim's classic, groundbreaking treatise on suicide. I memorized the so-called five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
"Stages" implies a beginning and an end. Grief after suicide — and, I imagine, after other types of death — does not parse so neatly. A year passed, then more, and the pain didn't diminish. What I was left with was unrelenting sadness and a slew of unanswerable questions: Why? How did we not see her extreme agony?
In the spring of 1988, I found myself living in Echo Park, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles that was years from hipster gentrification. I could walk from my rental to Dodger Stadium in about 10 minutes. The sprawling ballyard was a revelation compared to the stadium of my youth, cramped and noisy Shea, hard by the subway and LaGuardia.
Going to Dodger games became therapy and escape. Looking out from the top level, downtown L.A. appeared as a breathtaking, steel-and-glass silhouette. From the cheap seats high above home plate, the San Gabriel Mountains shimmered with an almighty glow. The old-timey organ music, the straw bowler-wearing ushers, and the smell of grilled Dodger Dogs gave the place a cozy feel.
Going to Dodger games became therapy and escape.
The long-ago move from Brooklyn had transformed the Dodgers from loveable, hard-scrabbled losers — "Dem Bums," as rendered by cartoonist Willard Mullin — into a West Coast juggernaut. The team had won four World Series titles since 1958. The farm system churned out rookie-of-the-year candidates, and the Dodgers routinely topped three million in attendance.
Their snappy blue-and-white uniforms signified tradition and ingenuity. They were Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson, they were Sandy Koufax and Fernando-mania (with Hideo Nomo soon to open the Pacific rim); they were Vero Beach and the O'Malley family; they were Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey and Tommy Lasorda's wall of celebrity photographs and Frank Sinatra singing the Anthem on Opening Day.
They also possessed the most precious asset in the discombobulated and far-flung region known as "The Southland": Vin Scully, the spoken-word laureate of the diamond. When Vin told listeners to "pull up a chair," you simply did because it sounded like he was speaking directly to you.
No doubt, a reactionary streak lurked within Blue Heaven. Many residents who lived near Chavez Ravine resented the sweetheart land-deal presented to owner Walter O'Malley by the city of Los Angeles, one that permanently disrupted a quiet, predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood. The club could have hired the first African-American manager, with former infield star Jim Gilliam, but chose Lasorda instead. (The team of Jackie and Fernando has yet to select an African-American or Latino manager, thus squandering its reputation as a progressive franchise.) Centerfield prospect Glenn Burke was traded away in 1978 in no small part because he was gay, if not publicly "out."
There was a sneaking sense that, in the fledgling era of free agency, the much-ballyhooed "Dodger Way" was no longer relevant. The death of O'Malley in 1979 left the team in control of his son, Peter, who displayed none of the visionary ruthlessness of his father. The young corps of prospects — e.g., Mike Marshall, Greg Brock, Dave Anderson — was not as good as advertised. Critics harped that Lasorda overworked his pitchers (see Valenzuela, Fernando) and bungled situational matchups (see Clark, Jack); critics charged that Lasorda's solitary title, from the World Series played after the strike-shortened 1981 season, deserved an asterisk.
This was mere prelude to the incident that irrevocably shattered the franchise. In April of 1987, Dodgers' longtime general manage Al Campanis was invited to appear on the television program "Nightline." The show was intended to be a valentine to the national pastime on the 40th anniversary of the integration of baseball by Jackie Robinson. This was not only the proudest moment in Dodger history, but perhaps in all of American sports.
In response to a comment made by fellow guest and "Boys of Summer" author Roger Kahn, "Nightline" host Ted Koppel asked Campanis why there were no African-American managers or general managers currently in the Major Leagues.
His reply was stunning in its inanity. "I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager," he said. Campanis followed that with more nonsense: "Why are black men or black people not good swimmers? Because they don't have the buoyancy."
Campanis was fired that week. Fred Claire, a former sportswriter, took over as general manager, and L.A. sank to fourth in the division.
* * *
We painted our chests blue and orange when the Mets came.
I followed the Dodgers' travails closely, but without getting emotionally involved. As a born-and-bred Mets fan, I was still high from the 1986 miracle. With an enviable mix of veterans and young stars — Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra, David Cone — the pieces seemed in place for dominance well into the 1990s.
The Mets went 100-60 in 1988, winning the NL East by 15 games, and took 10-of-11 games from the Dodgers during the regular season. My college buddies and I were so puffed-up proud that we painted our chests blue and orange when the Mets came to Dodger Stadium. (I mentioned that I was unhinged, right?)
Which isn't to say that the Dodgers were awful. Claire had engineered a quick turnaround by signing Kirk Gibson (declared a free agent in the offseason because of collusion) and trading for shortstop Alfredo Griffin and reliever Jay Howell. The key acquisition was Gibson, who had led the Detroit Tigers to the 1984 World Series title with two homers in the decisive Game 5.
Gibson hit .290 with 25 homers and 31 stolen bases in 1988. He brought gritty leadership, clutch hitting, and a football player's mentality to a locker room that was, by all accounts, SoCal soft. "To say that Kirk Gibson is intense is like saying Greta Garbo is quiet or Wilt Chamberlain is tall," L.A. Times columnist Jim Murray wrote.
Gibson's MVP season was overshadowed by the career year of Orel Hershiser. The lanky pitcher looked like a high school math teacher off the mound, but he was a determined gamer on it. He dominated opponents during the second half of the season, reeling off 59 consecutive scoreless innings to top Don Drysdale's mark. He finished 23-8, with a 2.26 ERA and the Cy Young award, in leading the Dodgers to the NL West crown.
It was my hometown Mets against my new city, L.A., for the pennant.
I was so confident in the Mets that, to this day, it's difficult to comprehend how they lost their way. They won the first game, defeating Hershiser and breaking the sacred scoreless streak, and were three outs away from taking a three-games-to-one lead, with Gooden cruising in Game 4. But catcher Mike Scioscia went deep to tie it in the top of the ninth, and then Gibson won it with a homer in the 12th.
Gibson had another game-winning homer in the series, and Hershiser shut out the Mets in Game 7. The Strawberry-Gooden "dynasty" was over before it had begun. The Dodgers were moving on to face the Oakland Athletics in the World Series.
If anything, the A's were better than the Mets. They had won 104 games and swept the Boston Red Sox in the AL playoffs. Canseco was the first-ever 40 home run, 40 steal player in baseball, and Eckersley had resurrected his career in the pen and registered 45 saves for manager Tony LaRussa.
Meanwhile, Gibson had severely injured his right knee while trying to break up a double play during Game 7 against the Mets. Combined with the troublesome hamstring pull behind his left knee, the Dodgers' best player could barely walk. He was likely to miss Game 1 and, perhaps, the entire Series.
* * *
I don't remember how I learned that the Dodgers were selling a few hundred general admission tickets to the Series. Maybe I saw a blurb in the newspaper; maybe I heard Vin say something on the radio. Somehow, I scored two seats in the right field pavilion for Game 1. Face value was $40 each.
This was going to be my first World Series game, and I was very excited. Until I realized that I had a conflict: I had made plans to spend time with my mother.
In the aftermath of my sister's suicide, my family struggled to regain a sense of equilibrium. Each of us grieved so differently. I was fortunate to find a support group of "suicide survivors" in L.A.; we helped each by sharing our horror stories and sobbing together.
My dad could not speak about what happened. He still can't. He has no words. My mom was eager to talk — needed to, in fact — as if by talking she could keep my sister's spirit alive. And so, when she proposed hanging out together while she attended a medical conference in New Orleans, I agreed to meet her, not thinking that the Dodgers would be in the World Series.
Family trumped baseball. I gave the two tickets to my buddies and flew to New Orleans.
Family trumped baseball. I gave the two tickets to my buddies and flew to New Orleans. Mom and I ate beignets and strolled through the French Quarter. We talked endlessly about my sister: Why didn't she reach out to us? What could we have done, or said, differently?
On Saturday night, while L.A. and Oakland played Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, my mom and I went to Tipitina's, the blues joint on Tchoupitoulas Street. The music was funky and the beer was cold. It was a temporary salve to our confusion.
I remember sneaking glimpses of the game, from a black-and-white TV set behind the bar, whenever I went to order another Abita. What I missed, of course, was the moment.
As expected, Gibson was not in the starting lineup. He stayed in the clubhouse getting treatment for his legs as the A's, behind starter Dave Stewart, took a 4-2 lead on Canseco's mammoth grand slam in the second inning. The Dodgers chipped in a run in the sixth to trail, 4-3.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Scully, doing the national play-by-play on NBC, had director Harry Coyle scan the Dodger dugout with a camera. There was no sign of Gibson, and Scully told the TV audience that "[he] will not see any action tonight for sure."
Watching from the trainer's table, with ice on both knees, Gibson yelled out a profanity, yanked on his uniform, summoned Lasorda, and told him he could manage one at-bat.
After the A's went quietly in the top of the 9th, LaRussa brought in Eckersley. He retired Scioscia and Jeff Hamilton, before walking pinch-hitter Mike Davis and putting the tying run on base.
Out of the dugout limped Gibson to bat for pitcher Alejandro Pena. The crowd reacted like Willis Reed was taking the floor for the Knicks against the Lakers during the 1970 NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden.
Scully signaled the dramatics: "All year long, they looked to him to light the fire and all year long he answered their demands until he was physically unable to start tonight on two bad legs."
Gibson teetered at the plate. He fouled off the first three offerings. His swings were weak, all upper body and wrist, with no leg or hip power.
Eckersley wasted a ball, then Gibson fouled off another. Two more balls missed as Davis stole second. Full count, runner on second. Two out.
Gibson stepped out of the batter's box and tapped his cleats. He reminded himself of the report from Dodger scout Mel Didier: look for a backdoor slider from Eckersley on 3-2.
He set himself. Eckersley delivered. Sure enough: back-door slider. Gibson flung his black Tennessee Thumper at the pitch.
Ballgame. 5-4, Dodgers. Cue delirium. It was exactly 8:39 p.m. in Los Angeles.
Said Jack Buck on national radio: "I don't believe what I just saw!"
Said Don Drysdale on local radio: "And this time Mighty Casey did not strike out!"
Said Scully: "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!"
The walk-off shot stunned the A's and, seemingly, broke their spirit. The Dodgers cruised to the title, taking the Series in five games. Hershiser won the World Series MVP, but all everyone talked about was the home run. Someone taped a hand-lettered sign over Gibson's nameplate in the locker-room: "Roy Hobbs," it read.
Wrote Jim Murray: "Kirk Gibson is the biggest bargain since Alaska."
When I returned to L.A. and saw my friends, they acted sheepish. Then they confessed. They had left the stadium early, around the fifth inning. The right-field pavilion was too crowded, they said, and they couldn't enjoy themselves. They had watched Gibson's blast on TV.
I was livid. If we'd learned anything from the Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner episode, it was never to leave the World Series early. You just don't. You treasure every moment. I eventually forgave them (although I was really pissed when I learned that they hadn't saved the ticket stubs).
* * *
Take another look at the YouTube video from the 1988 World Series. Check out the players' physiques. Notice how normal-sized they look? This was the dawn of the steroids era in baseball, with Canseco soon to play the part of Timothy Leary ("Turn on, man up, ding!").
That's not to imply baseball, or the broader sports world, was innocent in 1988. Simply put, sports were less complicated, less 365 and 24-7. ESPN was a spunky upstart, not a monolith. Only nerds kept track of advanced statistical data. College players filled the roster of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. "Social media" did not exist.
Tidal changes were coming, however, beginning with the Dodgers. Gibson never fully recovered from his injuries in 1988 and departed after the 1990 season. Hershiser did not win 20 games again. Lasorda resigned for health reasons in 1996. Two years later, the O'Malley family decided to get out of the baseball business.
Under new owners Fox and Rupert Murdoch, the Dodgers became a line-item entry for a global media conglomerate. When their usefulness was over, they were discarded again, in 2004, to an inexperienced and under-funded out-of-towner, Frank McCourt, who, as one sportswriter put it, used the team like his personal ATM. McCourt was so god-awful that fans boycotted Dodger Stadium.
All of which is to say: it's been a quarter-century since the Dodgers last appeared in the World Series. The team has not had such a drought since ... ever. In Brooklyn or in L.A.
It's as if the Dodgers squeezed every dollop of good fortune into the '88 title run, only to lose their mojo to a vindictive repo man.
Despite the TV coverage and thousands of eyewitnesses, the ball never surfaced.
What's also been lost is Gibson's home run ball. Despite the TV coverage and the thousands of eyewitnesses, the ball never surfaced. It is the missing talisman, the Rosebud of Chavez Ravine. Its absence has signaled the end of the City of Angels' aura that once protected the Dodgers franchise.
It's particularly odd because we've read about so many of the people who salvaged historic home run balls — from the mailman who retrieved Gabby Hartnett's "Homer in the Gloamin'" in 1938 to Sal Durante's barehanded grab of Roger Maris's 61st in 1961 to pitcher Tom House's catch of Hank Aaron's 715th in 1974 (off Dodgers starter Al Downing) to the two fans who went to court over Barry Bonds' 73rd homer in 2001.
In 1988, no print or TV reporter did one of those the-lucky-guy-who-caught-the-ball stories. The first published mention of it that I found came during spring training of 1989, when the Times' Jim Murray wrote, "Gibson has the ball."
That's not accurate, Gibson told me. He never saw the ball after it landed in the bleachers. He said that, after the Series, a woman sent him a photograph of her thigh with a black-and-blue bruise on it. The ball had struck her there, she wrote, but she did not know who ended up with it.
"Nobody ever told me what happened to the ball," Gibson said.
I called Mark Langill, the Dodgers' team historian. He said that no one from the organization retrieved the ball. "The beauty of it was, the ball got swallowed by the crowd," he said. "People were so focused on Gibson limping around the bases that no one bothered to track it down. It's one of the two big mysteries we have: what happened to the ball and what happened to the two people who tried to burn the American flag [in the outfield of Dodger Stadium in 1976]?"
I asked Tommy Lasorda when he last saw the ball. "I never watched the ball," he said. "I was watching Canseco. I saw him go back, back, back and then when he had his back to the wall, I said, 'That ball's outta here.' I never followed the ball. I kind of didn't want to look 'cause I was hoping it wasn't a fly out, you know. But I watched Canseco and when I saw his back to the wall, I said, 'That's gone.'"
Lasorda sounded giddy. "Some guy is walking around with a ball worth a lot of money," he said.
Ah, the money. The sports memorabilia business really started to boom in the late 1980s as investors and hobbyists alike recognized the value of significant collectibles. The Gibson ball may well be the last baseball artifact of consequence to elude capture.
What would the physical link to the Dodgers' last title be worth? Tom Bartsch, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, likened it to the Wilson ball that rolled through Buckner's legs in 1986. That has been auctioned numerous times, most recently for more than $400,000.
An Internet search revealed multiple claimants to the missing ball. I contacted one of them, Ed Moran, whom several reporters, including sports business commentator Darren Rovell, believe may well have traced the ball's whereabouts. That is, if his story can be believed.
Moran is an Angeleno and a Dodger fan. He told me that he was not at the game, but that his Uncle Carlos and sister Jasmine were. Moran remembers that they came home that night with what they claimed was the Gibson homer. Apparently, the ball did not land near them. It bounced off a few bodies and hands, and then rolled to Carlos' feet. He scooped it up off the ground and tucked it away.
Later that night, a family member took a photograph of Carlos and Jasmine holding what appears to be a legitimate 1988 World Series baseball. The picture is time-stamped "15-10-88," Oct. 15, 1988, the night of the game.
Five years ago, with the 20th anniversary approaching, Moran rented a DVD of the Series. He studied the play frame-by-frame, focusing on the instant the ball reached the stands. He said that he was able to identify blurry images of Jasmine and Carlos in the stands, thus establishing their presence in the stadium. (Moran mentioned that this was the first Major League Baseball game that Carlos ever attended.)
When Moran asked his uncle about the ball, Carlos said that he kept it in his sock drawer for years. Then, he gave it to a girlfriend he was trying to impress. The two are no longer dating. Moran called her. She told him that it was somewhere in the garage and that she would phone him when she found it.
Moran is waiting for the call. "Even if she did come up with the ball, people would question it," he admitted.
Moran and his uncle are not the only claimants. Rovell’s 2010 story attracted more than 250 responses, including 31 from people who either professed to have the ball or knew who did. There's practically no way that any of them can prove it is THE ball.
Perhaps it's best this way. Perhaps it's best that no one owns the ball, that it is not in a museum or locked inside some wealthy collector's trophy case. It belongs to all of us.
Leave it to Vin Scully to put it best. "It's too bad we don't have the ball," he told me, "but I don't think it matters. The memory will remain forever."
* * *
Her suicide, inextricably wrapped around the Dodgers' 1988 title run, altered the trajectory of my life.
Last year, when I turned 50, I did another calculation. My sister has been dead longer than she was alive. Sometimes it doesn't seem like that much time has gone by, but I never got to see her marry or have kids. Her hair never turned gray. She is eternally 25.
An acute sense of loss lingers where the pain has faded. I miss Margot terribly. I miss her beautiful smile and the postcards she sent me with cheery messages written in her miniscule scrawl. I kept two of her jackets. They're so threadbare I can't wear them often, but when I do I feel safe.
It's clear to me now that her suicide, inextricably wrapped around the Dodgers' 1988 title run, altered the trajectory of my life. I had arrived in L.A. on a lark, with no intention of settling here. This was going to be a sunny pit stop until the next adventure.
In the morass after her death, I decided to quit my dead-end proofreading job and look for something more purposeful. I took an unpaid internship at the largest alternative newspaper in town. I fact-checked articles, did occasional reporting, and learned how to be a professional journalist.
Los Angeles became my home, first by default, then by choice. Soon enough, my boss at the newspaper asked me to start a sports section. I was now covering, and writing about, sports for a living. An unarticulated dream came true.
As someone a lot smarter than me put it, "Man makes plans and God laughs."
A couple of years ago, Kirk Gibson auctioned off his bat, helmet and uniform from the 1988 World Series, as well as his MVP trophy. Southern California-based SCP Auctions sold the entire cache for approximately $1.2 million.
I asked Gibson why he got rid of the stuff. It was simple, he said. A chunk of the proceeds funded scholarships that honor his mother and father, both of whom were teachers. "I've given a lot of money away to children who want to get a college education [at Michigan State University]," he said. "I'm trying to build the foundation up so we can give away full scholarships at some point."
This was about moving forward with his life, he indicated. "As great as the moment was, I've got other places I want to go," he said. "So, I keep truckin'. I put my head down and keep going."
An expanse of green grass was reflected in Gibson's mirrored sunglasses as he gazed at the right-field bleachers. Beneath a large Coca-Cola sign the benches were freshly painted. No plaque or marker designated where the Gibson '88 touched down.
"You go through life and go through some tough times," he continued. "I had to endure a lot to get to that moment and to succeed in that moment. And then you have the feeling of succeeding for the fans and for your teammates, and it turns into a big thing for baseball. You feel good about yourself. And so, I always use moments like that as a positive affirmation, sometimes, when my mind might wander and I might struggle with confidence."
He turned to watch his youthful Diamondbacks. The sound of ball striking bat crackled through the empty stadium. Batting-practice homers soared into the stands and rattled off the seats before disappearing.
It was almost game time.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255. If you have experienced the death of a loved one to suicide and want to speak with other "suicide survivors," you can locate support groups through the American Association of Suicidology (www.suicidology.org) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org).