Archive for October, 2013

FAST Blast: Reflections on Kirk Gibson’s homer and the peerless Pinch-Hitter (PART 2)

10/31/2013

The Boston Red Sox have won the 2013 World Series, without needing any ninth-inning home run heroics. But 25 years ago, Game 1 of the A’s-Dodgers World Series ended with a homer that many consider the most dramatic in baseball history…

Kirk Gibson: Part 1

Since Kirk Gibson’s home run is the signature pinch-hit in baseball lore, it is a classic case study for examining the significance of the cross of Christ.

Following is a blow-by-blow account of Gibson’s Game 1 experience:

At various junctures of the Gibson account, we’ll pause to consider how a facet of his story serves, in a small way, to illustrate Jesus’ pinch-hit appearance nearly 2,000 years earlier — those paragraphs will be set apart by italics. Also, along with references to Christ’s crucifixion, you will notice some references to His resurrection, since the two events are inextricably bound together, and Gibson’s story provides some apt analogy overlaps.

When October 15, 1988, dawned for Kirk Gibson, Game 1 of the World Series might as well have been the moon. He suffered from a strained hamstring in his left leg and a badly sprained ligament in his right knee. The day before Game 1, the knee was so bad that Gibson couldn’t jog or swing a bat, according to The Sporting News’ online ranking of the Top 25 moments in baseball history (Gibson’s homer is No. 6).

When the day of Jesus’ death dawned, any talk of His being the Messiah sent to save Israel was reaching well beyond the moon. Remember, while the Jewish conception of the Messiah included conquering the Romans, it definitely did not include being arrested by the Romans and then crucified in disgrace.

An ESPN.com report said of Gibson: “He could barely walk. Actually, he could barely stand without his leg wobbling and shaking.” This report was part of ESPN’s 2004 ranking of the 100 Most Memorable Moments of the Past 25 Years (as part of ESPN’s 25th anniversary celebration). Gibson’s homer was No. 3, behind only U.S. hockey’s Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics (No. 1) and Bill Buckner’s infamous error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (No. 2).

The ESPN.com report continues: “When [Gibson] was in the batting cage outside the Los Angeles Dodgers’ locker room during Game 1 … he actually used a bat a few times as a walking cane, to balance himself.”

Jesus was beaten badly — i.e., injured — before he was crucified and apparently was unable to carry his own cross: “They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. … As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.” Matthew 27:30,32/NIV

Did anyone expect Gibson to be available for Game 1? Not NBC pregame host Bob Costas. Pop diva Debbie Gibson (no relation to Kirk) sang the national anthem before Game 1, which prompted Costas to say, “So the Dodgers brought in Debbie Gibson — now if only they had Kirk Gibson!”

More from Costas: “I remember coming on the air and saying, ‘First item of business: Kirk Gibson will not play tonight.’ We had been told he was out. That was how we set the stage for Game 1.”

Naturally, since Jesus was injured and then fatally wounded, no one expected Him to be in the lineup anytime soon thereafter — not even His disciples …“While everyone was marveling at what Jesus did, he said to His disciples, ‘Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.’ But they did not understand what this meant.” (Luke 9:43-45/NIV) Further: “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” (Mark 14:27/NIV)

When Game 1 began, Kirk Gibson was in the L.A. trainer’s room. “Gibson didn’t even come out for the [pregame] introductions,” says then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. “He was [on] the rubbing table the whole time.” Moreover, Gibson didn’t have his uniform on.

L.A. drew first blood in the bottom of the first inning on a two-run homer by Mickey Hatcher, Gibson’s replacement in the lineup. But the A’s came roaring back in the top of the second on Jose Canseco’s two-out grand slam off starter Tim Belcher (it turned out to be his only hit of the Series). Ironically, it was the 15th grand slam in World Series history … yes, on the ides (15th) of October.

Lasorda went with the rookie Belcher because ace Orel Hershiser wasn’t available for Game 1 after pitching a complete-game shutout in NLCS Game 7 to eliminate the Mets.

In Jesus’ case, his opponents drew first blood, of course, when they flogged him, and shortly thereafter the nail-spikes pierced the flesh of his hands and feet, causing more blood to flow. “And when they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified him … Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:33-34/NIV)

The Dodgers scored a run in the sixth inning to cut the deficit to 4-3. Throughout the game, Lasorda had been checking in with his injured slugger: “Every inning I would run into the training room and I’d stand at the door and say, ‘How do you feel, big boy?’” Each time, Lasorda says, Gibson gave a wordless reply: two thumbs down.

Despite those thumbs-down signs, Gibson says, “I sat in the trainer’s room the whole game and just kind of dreamed about maybe … exactly how the moment happened, I dreamed about.”

As the Dodgers took the field in the top of the ninth, NBC broadcaster Vin Scully told television viewers worldwide, “The man who’s been there for the Dodgers all season, Kirk Gibson, is not in the dugout and will not be here for them tonight.”

This angered Gibson, who was watching the broadcast on a TV in the trainer’s room. “I’ll be there,” he shouted.

Scully said more recently, “Years later, I told him, looking over my career, my greatest single contribution to the Dodgers was getting you off that training table.”

Compare Gibson’s “I’ll be there” proclamation with what Jesus told His disciples: “Jesus began to explain … that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:22/NIV) “After I have risen I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (Mark 14:27-28/NIV) So the One called Immanuel — God with us — said He would conquer death in extra innings and be there for His disciples once again.

With the pitcher scheduled to bat fourth in the bottom of the ninth, Gibson told the bat boy to set up the hitting tee there in the bowels of Dodger Stadium so he could take some swings and test his right knee. Meanwhile, he strapped an ice bag to the knee. “The bat boy … came and told me,” Lasorda says, “that Gibson wanted to see me in the tunnel.” When Lasorda met Gibson in the tunnel (or runway), the hurting star was in uniform — and he gave his manager this message: “Skip, I think I can hit for you.”

The Apostle’s Creed declares that Jesus “descended into hell.” While we can ascertain that an injured Kirk Gibson hit off a tee underneath the stands at Dodger Stadium, Scripture is largely silent about what Jesus did after he died while He waited in the bowels of death.

Perhaps He took some figurative practice swings to warm up for when He was called back into the contest … and even if He didn’t, it’s safe to say He was ready to hit for His Abba-Manager on that third day.

Heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers still trailed 4-3, and Eckersley came in to close the game for Oakland. Gibson was still not in the Dodgers dugout. He explains that Lasorda told the 31-year-old to stay “in the runway because he didn’t … want [A’s manager] Tony La Russa and Oakland to know that maybe I was gonna hit.”

Eckersley retired L.A.’s first two batters. By then, Gibson apparently couldn’t bear watching from the tunnel and had taken a seat in the dugout. Lasorda had Mike Davis pinch hit for shortstop Alfredo Griffin in the No. 8 spot. At that point, Lasorda says, “Gibson wanted to go to the on-deck circle. I said, ‘I don’t want them to know you can hit.’” Instead, the manager shrewdly sent Dave Anderson out. Vin Scully noted, “By the way, Gibson is not on deck, Dave Anderson is.”

When Davis drew a walk from Eckersley — who had issued just nine unintentional walks that season — the stage was set for the Pontiac, Michigan native named Kirk Gibson. Anderson headed back to the dugout and Gibson hobbled to the batter’s box while 56,000-plus fans went wild.

“The fans really pumped me up,” he would tell the media afterward. “I didn’t even think about the pain. I was just trying to visualize hitting.” Years later, Gibson would explain further: “I’m a real believer in positive visualization, and some people think I’m crazy, but … I dreamed it up and it happened.”

Apparently, Jesus did some visualization of His own during His darkest hours on earth: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2/NIV)

To be continued…
(and concluded in Part 3)

Kirk Gibson: Part 3

© Bruce Deckert 2013

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FAST Blast: Reflections on Kirk Gibson’s homer and the peerless Pinch-Hitter (PART 1)

10/23/2013

The World Series begins Wednesday — the Boston Red Sox vs. the St. Louis Cardinals, two teams with plenty of history. Twenty-five years ago this October, Game 1 of the World Series ended with a home run that many consider the most dramatic in baseball history…

If Shakespeare’s soothsayer — think: high school English, “Julius Caesar” and “Beware the ides of March” — could travel via time machine to autumn 1988, he might give this warning to the Oakland Athletics:

Beware the ides of October.

Surely A’s die-hards wish that scenario had transpired. No soothsayer or sabermetrician can erase the heartache of Oakland fans who watched Kirk Gibson hit perhaps the most improbable home run in baseball history on October 15, 1988. Dodgers fans, however, still rejoice at the events that unfolded on that date.

ESPN.com readers have voted Gibson’s ninth-inning, game-winning homer the all-time greatest moment in World Series history. His heroics propelled the Los Angeles Dodgers to a Game 1 victory and set the tone for the Dodgers’ upset of the mighty A’s.

Indeed, beware the ides of October — specifically, the A’s wish someone had warned closer Dennis Eckersley that Gibson was lurking as L.A.’s pinch-hitter of choice in that fateful ninth inning. But for that warning to have been possible, the A’s would have had to know that Gibson was, in fact, available to pinch hit. However, no one in Oakland’s dugout got that memo. Apparently, the A’s didn’t know until they saw the injured slugger limping to the batter’s box. Even Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda received the news at the last minute (more on that in a moment).

If that sounds confusing, let’s begin at the beginning and set the stage for this historic October drama…

Let’s begin with a classic understatement: The Dodgers entered the 1988 World Series as distinct underdogs.

Oakland had baseball’s best record that season (104-58). Those 104 wins were the most in the American League in the 1980s, equaled only by the 1984 Detroit Tigers. Gibson was one of the leaders on that World Series-winning Detroit team. He was drafted by the Tigers, debuted with them in September 1979, and remained a Tiger from his rookie year in 1980 until 1987. In January 1988, Gibson signed with L.A. as a free agent.

By the way, the 1986 New York Mets had baseball’s best overall record in the decade (108-54).

Back to the ’88 World Series: The swashbuckling A’s were powered by the Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, that year’s American League MVP. In ’88, Canseco became the first 40-40 player in baseball history (at least 40 homers and 40 steals in the same season).

Oakland featured four pitchers with 17 or more wins, led by ace Dave Stewart, a 21-game winner. The closer was Eckersley, the future Hall of Famer who posted 45 saves in ’88, one shy of Yankees closer Dave Righetti’s then-record 46 saves in ’86.

Few baseball observers, whether casual or astute, would have been surprised if Oakland had dissed, dismantled and dispatched the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. To get there, the A’s mowed down the Boston Red Sox in four straight games in the American League Championship Series. L.A., meanwhile, wasn’t supposed to even sniff the Fall Classic. The Dodgers did so by upsetting the star-studded Mets in seven games in the National League Championship Series.

Yes, L.A. had Orel Hershiser, the ’88 National League Cy Young award-winner who closed the season with a record streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings. But Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodgers’ longtime inspiration in the rotation, struggled through an injury-plagued season and didn’t throw one pitch in the postseason. And Kirk Gibson, the ’88 National League MVP, was injured before the World Series began, making his availability doubtful at best.

But, as it turned out, Gibson managed one Series plate appearance — in Game 1 in L.A. And with a single swing in that singular at-bat, he changed the course of baseball history.

As we relive that at-bat, let’s see what this 20th century sporting event can teach us about the heart of the Christian faith.

Gibson’s home run and the circumstances surrounding it provide an apt (and richly detailed) analogy for how a peerless first century Pinch-Hitter stepped to the plate and delivered the biggest clutch hit of all time.

Yes, I’m speaking of an itinerant Jewish rabbi who — we can be reasonably certain — never played baseball. Nonetheless, just as Gibson used his bat to alter the outcome of the ’88 World Series, Jesus of Nazareth changed the course of human history via another use of lumber that was at once creative, courageous and barely comprehensible.

This news has been reported by those timeless sports pages known as the Gospels. While they record the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, the rest of the New Testament explains the significance of this stunning event.

One of the core realities of a Christian world view is the concept that human beings cannot — by their effort alone, or by their ability apart from God, or by their own goodness — restore the broken relationship with their Creator that resulted from Adam’s fall. That is precisely why Jesus Christ came: to restore this forever-vital relationship via His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.

A theology textbook will tell you that Christ’s brutal death on that Roman cross can be described as substitutionary atonement (whereby Jesus died as a sinless substitute on behalf of messed-up, sinful humans).

A baseball fan will tell you there’s a simpler term: pinch-hitting atonement. Since Kirk Gibson’s home run is the signature pinch-hit in baseball lore, it is a classic case study for examining the significance of the cross of Christ.

To be continued…

Kirk Gibson: Part 2

© Bruce Deckert 2013