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

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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