Kirk Gibson Broke My Heart
Sports had never made this Bay Area boy cry...until 1988.
Mrs. Whitsitt’s 4th grade class didn’t claim to know everything about baseball, but we knew a few things to be true: Hank Aaron was the home run king, Roger Maris had the single season home run record, Jose Canseco was the only member of the 40/40 club, and the A’s were going to win the 1988 World Series.
Now, no one can control when and where they are born, but sometimes, time and space align perfectly to put you in the right place at the right time. I’m not convinced everyone experiences such universal kismet during their life, but it happened to me. As a 9-year-old, living in the San Francisco Bay area, 1988 was a great time to be a fan of the Oakland Athletics. I had two choices for professional baseball teams in the local vicinity, but I was an A’s fan all the way. My parents had been big fans of the Oakland Raiders, their departure to Los Angeles allowed that city loyalty to spread across sports, and I bled green and yellow.
It helped that after playing Little League for a couple of season and just as I was reaching peak interest in baseball, the team in my backyard was on a hot streak with incredible talent like Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart, and Dennis Eckersley suiting up to play each game. One of the biggest math lessons I learned that year was about the Magic Number. We all knew what it was when we woke up in the morning and we knew how much it could change by the end of the day. Watching live was our only option and I spent a lot of the regular season watching the game with one of my friends on the other end of a kitchen telephone with a very long cord. When the Magic Number hit zero, it just confirmed what we knew all along—the A’s were headed to the playoffs (they’d led the AL West since April 20th) and were a favorite to win the whole thing.
I was lucky enough to get to go to several games that season. My classmates and other assorted friends all had a running record of the team’s win/loss record when we were in attendance. I, alone, was the only one among us with a perfect undefeated record. And, as the playoffs began, we all decided that if tickets were available, I had to be the one to go.
Of course, none of us got to go to the playoffs, but in the land of make-believe that existed in our heads, it made sense that we had an answer ready in case an incredible opportunity presented itself. Of course it didn’t—the American League Championship Series was quick and decisive with an incredibly dominant display of raw batting power that we all took as a clear sign that the World Series would end the same way.
When we left school on Friday, October 14th, we all thought we’d return to school on Monday with a 2-0 series lead with the A’s coming back home on Tuesday to finish the series out on Wednesday. We discussed the party we’d have on Thursday to celebrate. Of course, our teacher didn’t approve, but we were going to have that party regardless. However, Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, and Tommy Lasorda had other plans.
After Jose Canseco’s grand slam in the second inning, I was riding high. I don’t remember a lot of what happened between that inning and the last at-bat. I’m not going to go digging on the internet for the details because they don’t really matter. All I know is that at some point, the Dodgers put up another run, making it a 4-3 lead for the A’s. The ninth inning saw Dennis Eckersley take the mound. I always felt safe when Eckersley was on the mound. Seeing his signature mustache meant that the A’s were a few outs away from another W. I’ll admit I had some nerves, but no more than I normally had in a close game with a few outs to go before victory.
Eck walked Mike Davis (I did look that one up) with two outs, meaning that whoever showed up at the plate would be in that scenario I had always placed myself in whenever I picked up a bat—winning run is at the plate, two outs, down by one, one man on...it’s all up to Smith—except I wasn’t cheering for that side tonight. I desperately wanted whoever walked up to the plate to strike out.
Now, I didn’t know that Kirk Gibson had been injured in the NLCS. I didn’t know he had been watching from the clubhouse. I definitely didn’t know he heard the announcers on TV say that they didn’t see him in the dugout and that’s what made him announce his availability to hit. Heck, I didn’t even know who Kirk Gibson was when he hobbled out to the plate...all he was to me was the sucker who was going to strike out and hand the A’s their first victory of the World Series. And, after battling off what seemed like a thousand pitches from Eckersley, Gibson got ahold of one. It looked like it should have been an easy catch for Canseco, but
somehow it had enough gas to clear the fence. I couldn’t believe what was happening. And, as Gibson pumped his fist as he slowly rounded the bases, each successive thrust pushed another tear out of my 9-year-old eyes. I stayed on the couch long after the game was over—my A’s hat pulled down over my face, my Mark McGwire t-shirt damp with the tears of infinite sadness.
After that day, I knew who Kirk Gibson was. And, every time that home run is replayed in October, I feel the sting once more.