Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It's Comin', or, The 3 - 2 Slider

In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!
-Dodger Broadcaster, Vin Scully

With all of the craziness going on with the economic meltdown and the theft of taxpayer money, it's fitting that I'm writing on a great sports moment. Despite the scandals that have rocked major sports (roids in baseball, the persecution of the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick and refs on the take in the NBA), I'm a romantic. I remember the love I had for athletes and sports as a kid, and that has carried over to adulthood. I can't help it.

I love sports because there's no pretension on the court or field; you can talk shit all you want, but at the end of the day, it's your performance that stands. As I've said before, in East Los we played seasonally, basketball, football and baseball. The latter was not my favorite to play, but this piece focuses on a great sports memory; Kirk Gibson's '88 home run, at Dodger Stadium in the lead game of the World Series. Today marks the 20th anniversary of the (second) shot heard 'round the world.

I happened to be watching the game by myself, and the moment was marked by high drama; Dennis Eckersley, Oakland's and the major league's run-away consensus lock as the ace reliever. Gibson, who would go on to garner the MVP Award, hobbled by knee injuries, was called up by manager Tommy Lasorda with one man on and the Dodgers' backs against the wall. They had to score.

The count would come down full, 3 and 2. And then, in one of my favorite documentaries on Fox Sports, they cut to Dodger scout Mel Didier. In dramatic tones, he said that with the count full, Eckersley would fall back on his slider. The tape then cuts to Gibson, and he calls time, steps out of the box, then the cut to Gibson, recalling the moment, and he says two of the greatest words an athlete can say:

It's comin'.

But in a key and very shrewd move, before he called Gibson to come out, Lasorda told Gibson to stay out of view. Instead, he had "light-hitting" Dave Anderson on deck as the next batter. Thus, Eckersley was willing to live with putting Mike Davis on base. Davis then would steal second and put himself in scoring position.

It's why I love sports so much, the strategy, the out-thinking. The Dodger organization had given Gibson the edge he needed. The athletically gifted and physically trained give themselves the edge when they think. It separates the excellent from the great.

When the time came, Lasorda of course called up Gibson to pinch hit instead of Anderson, and the crowd went wild, affirming what Gibson had told himself if the time came; that their positive reaction would help him get past the pain.

When he connected on the as Didier predicted Eckersley slider, people in the neighborhood went crazy; shouts could be heard everywhere. Chills went up my spine as I pumped my fists in the air.

It's hard for people who don't love sports to understand, but watching great moments in sports rivals anything in art for me. I find it endlessly fascinating to take these highly trained athletes, put them in pressure cooker situations and watch what happens. It's even more drama and fun when you stake the game. A friend of a friend was at the game; when Gibby's home run found its way to the right field bleachers, he cried.

I remember Gibson circling the bases, doing his now famous fist pump. What a moment.

Jim Gray, a seasoned sports reporter for NBC, says in a documentary commemorating Gibson's home run, that he was at the game as a fan. With little hope left, he had to run a friend to the airport and left early. As the tape of the hit runs, the taillights of the cars who'd made their early departure can be seen exiting. Cut to Gray who then relives that moment:

[by the time they'd tuned him in on the car radiolegendary Dodger broadcaster] Vin Scully was breathless, and we both looked at each other. What idiots! We've just left history.
-Jim Gray