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

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

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

  1. Julian Alexander Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    Greetings from Florida. I always enjoy your posts, even though I am not much of a sports fan. They always take me briefly into a (to me) foreign world. For example I never even heard of the earth-shattering homer of which you speak. I was very intrigued with your suggestion that the Gibson-homer event could be seen as a metaphor for the crucifixion of our Lord. I will be interested in the second half of your essay.

    I assume all is going well with you. I am still in pretty good shape for a guy who is by now almost 97 years old. I still serve as liturgist on Sunday mornings in a church with a great woman pastor. As I tell people, my role is to be “the token male voice in the pulpit.”

    Best personal regards, JULIAN

    Like

  2. bwdeckert Says:

    Julian, greetings…

    Thank you for the comment and good to hear from you.

    And thanks for the update. Hard to believe — as the saying goes when time is the topic — that it was 30-plus years ago that you retired from Willow Grove. Glad to hear that you still haven’t fully retired…!

    Life marches on … and may we hear and follow the beat of the true Drummer.

    Peace,
    Bruce

    P.S. Sorry for my delayed reply … one of those weeks.

    Like

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