‘She is gone!’: The search for the Gibson home run ball and for the answers to a family tragedy

Going to Dodger games became therapy and escape.

The long-ago move from Brooklyn had transformed the Dodgers from loveable, hard-scrabbled losers — “Dem Bums,” as rendered by cartoonist Willard Mullin — into a West Coast juggernaut. The team had won four World Series titles since 1958. The farm system churned out rookie-of-the-year candidates, and the Dodgers routinely topped three million in attendance.

Their snappy blue-and-white uniforms signified tradition and ingenuity. They were Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson, they were Sandy Koufax and Fernando-mania (with Hideo Nomo soon to open the Pacific rim); they were Vero Beach and the O’Malley family; they were Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey and Tommy Lasorda’s wall of celebrity photographs and Frank Sinatra singing the Anthem on Opening Day.

They also possessed the most precious asset in the discombobulated and far-flung region known as “The Southland”: Vin Scully, the spoken-word laureate of the diamond. When Vin told listeners to “pull up a chair,” you simply did because it sounded like he was speaking directly to you.

No doubt, a reactionary streak lurked within Blue Heaven. Many residents who lived near Chavez Ravine resented the sweetheart land-deal presented to owner Walter O’Malley by the city of Los Angeles, one that permanently disrupted a quiet, predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood. The club could have hired the first African-American manager, with former infield star Jim Gilliam, but chose Lasorda instead. (The team of Jackie and Fernando has yet to select an African-American or Latino manager, thus squandering its reputation as a progressive franchise.) Centerfield prospect Glenn Burke was traded away in 1978 in no small part because he was gay, if not publicly “out.”

There was a sneaking sense that, in the fledgling era of free agency, the much-ballyhooed “Dodger Way” was no longer relevant. The death of O’Malley in 1979 left the team in control of his son, Peter, who displayed none of the visionary ruthlessness of his father. The young corps of prospects — e.g., Mike Marshall, Greg Brock, Dave Anderson — was not as good as advertised. Critics harped that Lasorda overworked his pitchers (see Valenzuela, Fernando) and bungled situational matchups (see Clark, Jack); critics charged that Lasorda’s solitary title, from the World Series played after the strike-shortened 1981 season, deserved an asterisk.

This was mere prelude to the incident that irrevocably shattered the franchise. In April of 1987, Dodgers’ longtime general manage Al Campanis was invited to appear on the television program “Nightline.” The show was intended to be a valentine to the national pastime on the 40th anniversary of the integration of baseball by Jackie Robinson. This was not only the proudest moment in Dodger history, but perhaps in all of American sports.

In response to a comment made by fellow guest and “Boys of Summer” author Roger Kahn, “Nightline” host Ted Koppel asked Campanis why there were no African-American managers or general managers currently in the Major Leagues.

His reply was stunning in its inanity. “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager,” he said. Campanis followed that with more nonsense: “Why are black men or black people not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”

Campanis was fired that week. Fred Claire, a former sportswriter, took over as general manager, and L.A. sank to fourth in the division.

* * *

We painted our chests blue and orange when the Mets came.

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I followed the Dodgers’ travails closely, but without getting emotionally involved. As a born-and-bred Mets fan, I was still high from the 1986 miracle. With an enviable mix of veterans and young stars — Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Lenny Dykstra, David Cone — the pieces seemed in place for dominance well into the 1990s.

The Mets went 100-60 in 1988, winning the NL East by 15 games, and took 10-of-11 games from the Dodgers during the regular season. My college buddies and I were so puffed-up proud that we painted our chests blue and orange when the Mets came to Dodger Stadium. (I mentioned that I was unhinged, right?)

Which isn’t to say that the Dodgers were awful. Claire had engineered a quick turnaround by signing Kirk Gibson (declared a free agent in the offseason because of collusion) and trading for shortstop Alfredo Griffin and reliever Jay Howell. The key acquisition was Gibson, who had led the Detroit Tigers to the 1984 World Series title with two homers in the decisive Game 5.

Gibson hit .290 with 25 homers and 31 stolen bases in 1988. He brought gritty leadership, clutch hitting, and a football player’s mentality to a locker room that was, by all accounts, SoCal soft. “To say that Kirk Gibson is intense is like saying Greta Garbo is quiet or Wilt Chamberlain is tall,” L.A. Times columnist Jim Murray wrote.

Gibson’s MVP season was overshadowed by the career year of Orel Hershiser. The lanky pitcher looked like a high school math teacher off the mound, but he was a determined gamer on it. He dominated opponents during the second half of the season, reeling off 59 consecutive scoreless innings to top Don Drysdale’s mark. He finished 23-8, with a 2.26 ERA and the Cy Young award, in leading the Dodgers to the NL West crown.

It was my hometown Mets against my new city, L.A., for the pennant.

I was so confident in the Mets that, to this day, it’s difficult to comprehend how they lost their way. They won the first game, defeating Hershiser and breaking the sacred scoreless streak, and were three outs away from taking a three-games-to-one lead, with Gooden cruising in Game 4. But catcher Mike Scioscia went deep to tie it in the top of the ninth, and then Gibson won it with a homer in the 12th.

Gibson had another game-winning homer in the series, and Hershiser shut out the Mets in Game 7. The Strawberry-Gooden “dynasty” was over before it had begun. The Dodgers were moving on to face the Oakland Athletics in the World Series.

If anything, the A’s were better than the Mets. They had won 104 games and swept the Boston Red Sox in the AL playoffs. Canseco was the first-ever 40 home run, 40 steal player in baseball, and Eckersley had resurrected his career in the pen and registered 45 saves for manager Tony LaRussa.

Meanwhile, Gibson had severely injured his right knee while trying to break up a double play during Game 7 against the Mets. Combined with the troublesome hamstring pull behind his left knee, the Dodgers’ best player could barely walk. He was likely to miss Game 1 and, perhaps, the entire Series.

* * *

I don’t remember how I learned that the Dodgers were selling a few hundred general admission tickets to the Series. Maybe I saw a blurb in the newspaper; maybe I heard Vin say something on the radio. Somehow, I scored two seats in the right field pavilion for Game 1. Face value was $40 each.

This was going to be my first World Series game, and I was very excited. Until I realized that I had a conflict: I had made plans to spend time with my mother.

In the aftermath of my sister’s suicide, my family struggled to regain a sense of equilibrium. Each of us grieved so differently. I was fortunate to find a support group of “suicide survivors” in L.A.; we helped each by sharing our horror stories and sobbing together.

My dad could not speak about what happened. He still can’t. He has no words. My mom was eager to talk — needed to, in fact — as if by talking she could keep my sister’s spirit alive. And so, when she proposed hanging out together while she attended a medical conference in New Orleans, I agreed to meet her, not thinking that the Dodgers would be in the World Series.

Family trumped baseball. I gave the two tickets to my buddies and flew to New Orleans.

Family trumped baseball. I gave the two tickets to my buddies and flew to New Orleans. Mom and I ate beignets and strolled through the French Quarter. We talked endlessly about my sister: Why didn’t she reach out to us? What could we have done, or said, differently?

On Saturday night, while L.A. and Oakland played Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, my mom and I went to Tipitina’s, the blues joint on Tchoupitoulas Street. The music was funky and the beer was cold. It was a temporary salve to our confusion.

I remember sneaking glimpses of the game, from a black-and-white TV set behind the bar, whenever I went to order another Abita. What I missed, of course, was the moment.

As expected, Gibson was not in the starting lineup. He stayed in the clubhouse getting treatment for his legs as the A’s, behind starter Dave Stewart, took a 4-2 lead on Canseco’s mammoth grand slam in the second inning. The Dodgers chipped in a run in the sixth to trail, 4-3.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Scully, doing the national play-by-play on NBC, had director Harry Coyle scan the Dodger dugout with a camera. There was no sign of Gibson, and Scully told the TV audience that “[he] will not see any action tonight for sure.”

Watching from the trainer’s table, with ice on both knees, Gibson yelled out a profanity, yanked on his uniform, summoned Lasorda, and told him he could manage one at-bat.

After the A’s went quietly in the top of the 9th, LaRussa brought in Eckersley. He retired Scioscia and Jeff Hamilton, before walking pinch-hitter Mike Davis and putting the tying run on base.

Out of the dugout limped Gibson to bat for pitcher Alejandro Pena. The crowd reacted like Willis Reed was taking the floor for the Knicks against the Lakers during the 1970 NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden.

Scully signaled the dramatics: “All year long, they looked to him to light the fire and all year long he answered their demands until he was physically unable to start tonight on two bad legs.”

Gibson teetered at the plate. He fouled off the first three offerings. His swings were weak, all upper body and wrist, with no leg or hip power.

Eckersley wasted a ball, then Gibson fouled off another. Two more balls missed as Davis stole second. Full count, runner on second. Two out.

Gibson stepped out of the batter’s box and tapped his cleats. He reminded himself of the report from Dodger scout Mel Didier: look for a backdoor slider from Eckersley on 3-2.

He set himself. Eckersley delivered. Sure enough: back-door slider. Gibson flung his black Tennessee Thumper at the pitch.

Ballgame. 5-4, Dodgers. Cue delirium. It was exactly 8:39 p.m. in Los Angeles.

Said Jack Buck on national radio: “I don’t believe what I just saw!”

Said Don Drysdale on local radio: “And this time Mighty Casey did not strike out!”

Said Scully: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”

The walk-off shot stunned the A’s and, seemingly, broke their spirit. The Dodgers cruised to the title, taking the Series in five games. Hershiser won the World Series MVP, but all everyone talked about was the home run. Someone taped a hand-lettered sign over Gibson’s nameplate in the locker-room: “Roy Hobbs,” it read.

Wrote Jim Murray: “Kirk Gibson is the biggest bargain since Alaska.”

When I returned to L.A. and saw my friends, they acted sheepish. Then they confessed. They had left the stadium early, around the fifth inning. The right-field pavilion was too crowded, they said, and they couldn’t enjoy themselves. They had watched Gibson’s blast on TV.

I was livid. If we’d learned anything from the Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner episode, it was never to leave the World Series early. You just don’t. You treasure every moment. I eventually forgave them (although I was really pissed when I learned that they hadn’t saved the ticket stubs).

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