Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Miracle Men excerpt: Game 5, 1988 NLCS -- Dodgers at Mets


This is an excerpt from my recent book: "Miracle Men: Hershiser, Gibson & the Improbable 1988 Dodgers." You can order a copy here, here, or at most major bookstores.

Monday, October 10, 1988
New York
Dodgers vs. Mets
NLCS Game 5

Jay Howell watched Game 4 from his hotel room with his wife, Alison. Crank callers found out his hotel room and called to heckle him, pour more salt in the wounds. Normally, they’d have taken the phone off the hook. But they were awaiting another phone call.
Late that night, the call arrived. Alison’s father, Otto Quale, died of cancer. Otto knew he was going to die. He never let his daughter and son-in-law know how bad his condition was. He loved Jay Howell like his own son and lived vicariously through his major league career. In his will, Otto arranged for his own memorial service to take place in November, just in case the Dodgers were in the World Series. Otto didn’t want his funeral affecting Howell or the team.
Jay and Alison Howell never got the chance to say goodbye to Otto Quale. The only people who knew about his death were Tommy Lasorda and Fred Claire. Howell’s name was all over the newspapers. He wanted to appeal his decision and wanted to explain his motivation to National League president Bart Giamatti. He didn’t want people to think it was sandpaper, that he was a cheater for life. An informal hearing expedited the process. Giamatti cut a game off the suspension, making Howell eligible to pitch in Game 6.
Giamatti told Howell, “You’ll be in the headlines for a couple more weeks, and somebody else is going to take over in a big way, let me tell you. You’re not going to make headlines for long, I can assure you.”

Howell didn’t realize what that meant at the time. But a few months later, when Howell heard that Pete Rose was being investigated for betting on baseball, he knew what Giamatti meant.
Tim Belcher, after watching Game 4 from his hotel room, was one of the most rested players on the field for Game 5. It showed as he retired the first nine Mets hitters he faced.
“I think that they played late and I was back at the hotel gave me some of an advantage,” Belcher recalled. “The other thing was, remember, I was still a rookie. Our bullpen was spent. In the back of my mind, I thought I need a heck of an effort. I needed to pitch late in the game to give us a chance. It was a pretty pressure-packed game. After Game 2 was under my belt, I was feeling pretty confident.”
Sid Fernandez, another one of those former Dodgers who was traded away for a left-handed reliever to replace Steve Howe, started Game 5 for the Mets. Scoreless in the fourth inning, Gibson lined out, Marshall singled to center, Shelby drew another rare walk, and Rick Dempsey doubled down the left-field line—just inches fair—to score two runs. Alfredo Griffin doubled him home, and it was 3–0 Dodgers.
Photo courtesy of LA Daily News
Sax started the fifth inning with a single. Mickey Hatcher also singled to right. Next up was Kirk Gibson.
It was 13 hours after his dramatic home run put the Dodgers ahead in the 12th inning of Game 4. Gibson was running on virtually no sleep. He returned to his hotel room about 4:00 am and went to bed but couldn’t sleep. He wanted to play Game 5 immediately. He got up, packed his suitcase, and tried to fall back asleep. He didn’t sleep much before heading back to the ballpark.
Gibson was thinking home run again. He tried to jack the first pitch he saw from Sid Fernandez, took what he admitted was “a stupid swing,” and fouled the ball off his foot. Gibson stepped out of the box, scolded himself for trying to hit a home run, and just tried to hit the ball hard somewhere.
On a 2–1 pitch, Gibson pounced on a Fernandez mistake and hit it hard somewhere. So hard, in fact, it went over the right-field fence for a home run. The score was 6–0 Dodgers.
This home run trot was more mellow, until he reached home plate. Gibson body-slammed with the equally excitable Sax and nearly separated Mike Marshall’s shoulder with the force of his high five.
Photo courtesy of LA Daily News
Of course the Mets would rally, and of course they wouldn’t wait long. Johnson and Backman singled. Dykstra hit a three-run homer off Belcher. The lead was down to 6–3. Belcher regrouped. He retired the heart of the Mets lineup, in order, in the sixth inning. He shook off a leadoff single in the seventh.
In the eighth, Dykstra doubled to right, and Jefferies singled yet again. The lead was down to 6–4, and the Dodgers’ bullpen would be tested again. This time, Lasorda went to the seldom-used Ricky Horton. Pena wasn’t available after those three innings yesterday. Orosco was barely getting anybody out. Leary wasn’t effective the night before, and he needed to start Game 6.
Horton faced the two lefties. This was why Claire traded for him in late August, this exact scenario. Horton did half his job. He struck out Hernandez, and then Strawberry singled, making it runners at first and second with one out.
Lasorda turned to Brian Holton, whose performances were so important and so rarely made headlines all year. But after Holton, who was left? Incredibly, Hershiser was warming up in the bullpen again.
Luck helped end the Mets’ threat. McReynolds hit a slow roller that neither Hamilton nor Griffin could reach. Jefferies saw the ball rolling the same direction he was running and tried to jump over it. The ball hit the lip of the grass, took a higher bounce than Jefferies was expecting, and nicked his left cleat. Jefferies was out.
Instead of a possible one-run game, there was still a two-run cushion and now two outs. Carter followed with a deep drive to left field, but it was not deep enough. Gibson caught it at the warning track.
In the top of the ninth, Gibson singled with two outs. Gibson was looking for one more insurance run. Considering the status of his knees and hamstrings, and the score, it was probably not the time to push the envelope. Gibson only knew one way to play the game, though. Gibson took off for second base, looking to manufacture one more run.
The pitch from McDowell was in the dirt and got away from Carter. No throw was even attempted. Gibson didn’t look back. He didn’t know he could ease into the bag. As always, he slid hard into second base. The infield dirt was hard from all that rain. He actually felt a pain, a pop, in his final strides.
Photo courtesy of LA Daily News
Gibson knew he was leaving the game right away. The 50,000 fans at Shea Stadium cheered his departure. It wasn’t a classy move at Shea Stadium, but Gibson took it as a compliment. The injury was called an aggravated hamstring below his left knee.
In hindsight, the risk of stealing second base looked even worse. Marshall tripled to right-center. Pinch runner Jose Gonzalez scored easily. The score was 7–4.
Holton retired the Mets in order in the ninth inning. By far, that was Holton’s No. 1 thrill of his baseball career. In the clubhouse, Hershiser thanked Holton for getting the final four outs and saving his arm.
The Dodgers were going back to L.A. leading 3–2, but the status of Gibson was unknown. He received a cortisone injection, said some prayers, and told reporters not to count him out. When it was suggested he took an unnecessary risk—something that even the Mets’ Hernandez said wasn’t smart—Gibson bristled.
“We were only two runs ahead, and it wasn’t like the Mets were laying down,” Gibson said that day. “They keep coming at you every inning. They weren’t conceding the game, but they weren’t paying attention to me. I had just beat out the infield hit, my leg felt fine. I didn’t feel I was jeopardizing it by running. I wanted the other run and made up my mind to go. I’m sure they’re sitting over there thinking I’m a dumb shit, but this injury is actually in a little different area than where I had felt it earlier. Besides, I can’t change my style. I have to play aggressively.”
Even through the lens of history, Gibson doesn’t regret that stolen base.
“I didn’t take it for granted that we had enough runs to win,” Gibson said. “Shit happens. We were almost down 3–1. Now we’re about to go up 3–2. You go. It’s time to go. It’s not time to say you’ve got enough runs. It’s full go.”
* * *
To order your copy of Miracle Men, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 1 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 2 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 3 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To read the excerpt from Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.

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