It's more than the ball sailing over the head of a dejected Jose Canseco and into the seats in right, Gibson limping around the bases, pumping his fist. The iconic images last just seconds. But if you want to know why Kirk Gibson's home run, hit 25 years ago today, is one of baseball's greatest feats, and if you've got the time, watch the entire at-bat. All seven anxious, delirious minutes of it. History outside the vacuum.
(I've cued up the video above to Mike Davis's pinch-hit walk, at about 2:29. If you'd like a shorter video in which to skip around, Gibson's at-bat is here. The quality isn't as good, and I again urge you to watch uninterrupted.)
Gibson was out. Five days earlier, he had slid hard into second to break up a double play and pulled a hamstring and twisted a knee. There wasn't even the slightest chance of him playing. He told Tommy Lasorda he couldn't go. Bob Costas came on the air by announcing, "First item of business: Kirk Gibson will not play tonight." Gibson spent most of Game 1 sitting on a trainer's table icing both legs.
From Arash Markazi's excellent oral history for ESPN, Gibson says he got fired up by hearing Vin Scully say on the broadcast that "Gibson will not see any action tonight, for sure." "My ass," Gibson responded, got dressed, and had bat boy Mitch Poole set up a tee for him to hit.
Poole, again from the ESPN oral history:
"He looked down at me and didn't say anything. I go, 'Yeah?' He said, 'Mitch, this could be the script.'"
It wouldn't have mattered if Dennis Eckersley had retired Mike Davis, a light-hitting outfielder in his next-to-last season in baseball. Eck: "The story is Michael Davis. That's the story. I walked him! I don't walk anybody!"
Gibson couldn't move. It was obvious. He kept his legs planted, swiveling awkwardly as he clipped a fastball. And he was only going to get heat. Davis had been a speedster before ripping up his knee stepping on a sprinkler, so between the threat of the tying run stealing second and Gibson's immobility, Eckersley dialed up the gas. "All I had to do was throw him fastballs because he had no chance," he told Markazi.
Eckersley tossed over to first to keep Davis honest. Then another fastball on the outside corner that Gibson barely got around on. The fairy tale seemed destined to end depressingly, with a hobbled Gibson striking out meekly.
Another toss to first. Then another. Davis was clearly more of a threat than Gibson.
Gibson dribbed a ball weakly up the first-base line, just foul. His attempt to run was heartbreaking, like a racehorse that had just broken down.
Eckersley served up a ball outside, and backup catcher Ron Hassey fired to first. Tommy Lasorda had given Davis the green light, but only after the count was 0-2. Lasorda didn't want Oakland to intentionally walk Gibson, and figured they wouldn't do it once they had two strikes on him.
Davis went on the next pitch, a fastball up and on the outside corner that Gibson barely got around on to foul away. Then a ball—another fastball—outside for a 2-2 count. Another throw to first. Another ball, this time low and outside, and Davis took second without a throw. Gibson could have been called for interference for making contact with Hassey's glove, but the home plate ump correctly ruled that there wouldn't have been a play anyway.
Finally, Gibson stopped looking for the game-winning home run. With Davis in scoring position, his mentality changed. "Just dink it over the shortstop," he thought. Or even take a walk, and leave the game to Steve Sax.
Gibson asked for time and stepped out of the box. He thought about a meeting before the series, in which scout Mel Didier gave the Dodgers hitters the book on Eckersley. One thing stood out. Didier had told them in no uncertain terms, "Partner, sure as I'm standing here breathing, you're going to see a 3-2 backdoor slider." (In the oral history, both Didier and Gibson remember this quote, a quarter-century later, to the exact word.)
Eckersley gave him the backdoor slider, and Gibson got the barrel around. You've seen the rest a million times.
History loses something in the retelling, because the ambiguity of the outcome is stripped away and the moment reduced to an effect without cause. But Gibson's home run only becomes more dramatic in context, an eight-pitch at-bat with a flamethrower and an overmatched, gimpy batter, both crafty veterans by this point in their careers. A cat-and-mouse game on the bases. The crowd swells and deflates with each pitch, because they don't know what we do—that "the impossible" was inevitable.