Incumbent, incipient legends drive D-backs
Gibson brings World Series experience to Upton, who craves it
Baseball heroes and baseball legends are both forged in October. The difference between them is that heroes do extraordinary things -- and legends do extraordinary things when they are not expected.Only the rarest have the opportunity to become a legend twice in one lifetime, which makes Kirk Gibson the Zeus in Major League Baseball's pantheon. Twenty-three years ago, he couldn't walk, yet he connected for only the second pinch-hit walk-off home run in World Series history. Today he is the manager of a team that was expected to crawl, yet he has it running away, with a National League West title and on the verge of crashing the playoffs. The D-backs have an incipient legend on the field, too. Right fielder Justin Upton could apply his signature to the 2011 postseason. He has the genes for it: Older brother B.J. glowed all over the 2008 playoffs for the Rays. Yet Arizona's most compelling myth-maker will be sitting on the bench, or leaning against the dugout railing. The 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers and the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks have a lot in common. When those Dodgers took on the Oakland A's, they were labeled by the media as the "worst World Series team ever." These D-backs took on a division ruled by the reigning World Series champion Giants with everyone predicting they'd repeat their last-place finish of 2010. The teams from different generations obviously have something much more important in common: Gibson, the über-competitor who has only one face, a game face, and the eyes in that game face are on one thing only -- today's game, and winning it. Before he became an October legend, Gibson was simply an October hero: In 1984, he commandeered Detroit's World Series clincher over San Diego by clubbing two homers to drive in five runs in the 8-4 knockout.
|"We understand we'll be the underdog if we get in there. That's fine. That's right where we want to be. I've been on several teams like that."|
|-- Kirk Gibson|
Have another layer of karma: That upset was triggered by Dusty Rhodes' three-run walk-off homer in Game 1 -- the only pinch walk-off homer in Series history until Gibson's strike.Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia made the Indians invincible -- just like Doc Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels do for today's Phillies. "We understand we'll be the underdog if we get in there," Gibson said. "That's fine. That's right where we want to be. I've been on several teams like that." The '88 Dodgers certainly were like that. They'd hit .248 as a team; not one player batted higher than .290 nor had more than 82 RBIs. They were to be bugs to the Bash Brothers A's windshield. Furthermore, the A's had swept away the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, giving themselves a week's rest before the World Series and enabling manager Tony La Russa to set up his rotation to lead off with ace Dave Stewart. Meanwhile, the Dodgers were spent after outlasting the Mets in a seven-game NLCS and down to their No. 3 starter, rookie Tim Belcher. Worst, Gibson had given his body to that series, coming out of it with a pulled left hamstring and a swollen right knee. Play? He couldn't even get out of bed. "His name came up in our [pre-Series] meetings, but we totally downplayed him," Dennis Eckersley, a member of the '88 Athletics, a Hall of Famer and now an analyst for TBS' MLB crew, told MLB.com. "I do remember our advance scout saying, 'Don't give him anything offspeed. Nothing but fastballs. He can't get around on it.'" The Dodgers were well on the way to fulfilling their dire destiny 98.1 percent through Game 1, in Dodger Stadium. Jose Canseco's second-inning grand slam still held up as Stewart, having pitched six-hit ball through eight, handed a one-run ninth-inning lead to Eckersley. Out of sight and out of the minds of La Russa and Eckersley, Gibson was in the dugout runway, warming up. If you want to call it that: Only hours after he'd been given injections of cortisone and xylocaine, he alternately used his bat to take swings at a ball on a tee, and to prop himself up to keep from falling over. Mike Scioscia popped out to short. Jeff Hamilton looked at a third strike. Mike Davis pinch-hit for Alfredo Griffin and, while working to him, Eckersley spotted Dave Anderson on deck to hit for pitcher Alejandro Pena. "I think I might have given Davis too much respect. That might have been my big mistake," said Eckersley, who smugly felt that neither the right-handed-hitting Anderson nor the lefty-hitting Gibson, if he somehow materialized, could get him. "So I might have been a little too anxious. I didn't come close the last two [pitches]." Davis walked on five. Anderson turned to head back to the dugout; Gibson limped the other way. The fate was 98.1 percent sealed, 53 of 54 outs; Gibson was that last 1.9 percent. "His leg was wrapped, this huge wrap, and he could barely walk," Griffin said. "He was bowlegged, and he had to open his legs to walk. He comes walking by, hobbling like that, and I'm thinking, 'Where the heck is he going?'"
"It took him a long time to get out there," Eckersley said. "It surprised me, seeing him, but I wasn't concerned. If it had been the real Gibson -- now then I would have been real concerned."Eckersley dialed up the fastballs. Gibson fouled off the first, then the second. With the count 0-2, Eckersley switched to a hard sinker, eliciting an off-balance swing that sent a slow roller up the first-base line. Both Eckersley and first baseman Mark McGwire had a chance to reach it before it veered foul; neither did. "I've got a picture of me, Gibson and Mac looking down at that ball," Eckersley said. "At the time, I didn't think much of it. Later, it became, 'My God, how things might have been different.' But right then, I was certain I'd get him out." Eckersley delivered three straight balls to run the count full. Advance scout Mel Didier had told the Dodgers, about Eckersley, "Sure as shine, he'll throw you a 3-2 slider." "That's when scouts were scouts!" Eckersley exclaimed. I didn't go to many 3-2 counts to begin with." During that season, Eckersley had faced 279 batters and run the count full 21 times, allowing two hits, both singles, in those situations. On No. 22, he ignored his scout's advice and went to the slider. "I'd thrown him so many fastballs to begin with," Eckersley said, "I just thought I could get him off it." Instead, Gibson got off one of the most memorable -- and consequential -- home runs in history. And with that 5-4 victory, the Dodgers turned the tables on the A's and went on to take the World Series in five games -- although Gibson never made another appearance. As the drive settled into the right-field pavilion and Gibson dragged his feet around the bases, Jack Buck repeatedly told the national TV audience, "I don't believe what I just saw!" B.J. Upton also had people rubbing their eyes in disbelief three years ago, when he had seven homers and 15 RBIs as the Rays rolled through the AL Division Series and ALCS. Justin was on hand for the heroics, "but I was there only as a spectator. We didn't really talk much ball." But he did get an up-close look at where he wants to be. "You definitely get excited by the opportunity," said Justin, at 25 a two-time All-Star who leads the D-backs in the Triple Crown categories (.299 average, 30 homers, 86 RBIs). "You want to go and experience the energy, the pressure of those games." His manager wears blinders and mufflers to shut out any premature postseason talk. But when the time is right, Upton will be looking forward to hearing Gibson's advice on how to capture the moment. "I'm more interested in seeing how our team reacts," Upton said. "How we prepare ourselves to play in that moment." If it is the way they have played in all the moments thus far, it will be with focus and selflessness. "We remain determined in our goals. We're not just going to try and gain a playoff berth and let our guard down. We're after home-field advantage," said Gibson, alluding to the last remaining race, with the Milwaukee Brewers, "then beyond. All the way." You can virtually hear Buck, looking down from heaven to exclaim, "I don't believe what I'm about to see!"