News Home » Sports » Kurkjian's October tales -- The paranoid pitcher and the birth of the walk-off homer

Kurkjian's October tales -- The paranoid pitcher and the birth of the walk-off homer

UniqueThis 1 Aug 27
9:00 AM ET

The birth of the walk-off home run. A playoff ace afraid of being poisoned. Mr. October going unrecognized. Mr. November's advice to the Commander-in-Chief. A home run still orbiting the Earth.

Each week during the playoffs, Tim Kurkjian will open up his notebook to share behind-the-scenes stories of some of the wildest games, moments and characters in MLB postseason history.

We'll reveal a new decade of vignettes right here all month, starting with the 1980s (with a bonus tale from the 1970s).

The 1970s/1980s

1988: Gibson, Eck and the birth of the walk-off homer

Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series came in Game 1, but it was one of the biggest home runs in baseball history.

Gibson, who would soon be named the MVP of the National League, was clearly hurt. He couldn't run -- he could barely move -- because of a leg injury. In the eighth inning, he was sitting in a room, not far from the Dodgers clubhouse, with teammate Orel Hershiser, when NBC broadcaster Bob Costas said Gibson had no chance of playing that night.

Gibson angrily said, "Oh yeah, I'll show him! I'll show everybody!"

Gibson told Hershiser, "Help me get ready." Gibson had the message relayed to Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda that he was available to pinch hit that night. So Lasorda sent him to the plate with two outs in the ninth, a runner at first, and the Dodgers down 4-3. Gibson had the report from Dodgers advance scout Mel Didier, who said that A's closer Dennis Eckersley liked to throw a backdoor breaking ball when he was ahead in the count.

Gibson got one, and hit a two-run home run to right.

"I can't believe what I just saw," the great Vin Scully said.

After the game, Eckersley, the ultimate stand-up guy, took every question from reporters. The Eck had his own language: He called money "iron," a fastball "cheese" and hair "moss." But that night, he used a phrase I had never heard. He called Gibson's homer a "walk-off homer."

I asked, "What does that mean?"

He said, "Well, he hit a homer, and everyone walked off the field."

The birth of a famous phrase, that night.

1988: 'The chef might poison me'

Orel Hershiser's run through the 1988 postseason was spectacular.

After a regular season in which he won the NL Cy Young, and set the record for the longest scoreless streak (59 innings) in major league history, Hershiser went 3-0 with two shutouts, a save and a 1.05 ERA in 42 2/3 innings in October. He was named the MVP of the 1988 World Series, the last time the Dodgers won it.

After that season, he attended a celebratory function at the White House. When Hershiser emerged from the limousine, a U.S. Marine greeted him. Hershiser jokingly slipped a $5 bill in the Marine's pocket as a tip.

"That will be enough, Mr. Cy Young," the Marine said.

Many years later, I asked Hershiser about that magical postseason, and wondered if he deviated his schedule or habits from that of the regular season. He said the biggest difference was that in the postseason "I never told anyone publicly where I was going out to dinner because it might end up in the newspaper. I didn't want anyone to know where I might eat. The chef might poison me."

He added that there were times, on the road, where he and his wife would order dinner, but when the meals arrived, they would switch: His wife would eat what he ordered, and he would eat what she ordered. He said he did that just in case the chef had, indeed, tried to poison him.

But that meant your wife would then be poisoned?

Hershiser smiled and said, jokingly, and without malice, "Well, we're divorced now."

1986: Simply Amazin'

My story, the biggest one I had ever covered, was written and ready to go.

It was Oct. 26, 1986, at roughly 12:25 a.m. My editor at the Baltimore Sun had edited it, all they had to do was send it to print after the final out. The story would say that the Red Sox had won the World Series for the first time since 1918 -- The Curse of the Bambino had been lifted.

The Mets had no chance to come back, it seemed, and in the 10th inning, someone in ballpark operations at Shea Stadium accidentally flashed "Congratulations" to the Red Sox on the scoreboard for winning the 1986 World Series.

Then everything changed.

At first, there was no reason for me to panic. A couple of Mets got on base, but then things quickly escalated. And in an instant, the Mets had miraculously tied the game, then the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs, the Mets won and the biggest story I had ever written had gotten even bigger. And I had 10 minutes to rewrite it to make the final edition.

That was challenging enough, but the worst was yet to come. I was sitting in the auxiliary press box down the left-field line at Shea. Suddenly, it was as if someone had emptied a keg of beer in the upper deck above me, and within seconds, I was soaked. I covered up my computer so it wouldn't short out from a tidal wave of Budweiser. Remarkably, my computer functioned despite a dousing of suds, and I got my story in the paper with a one-word lede (there was no time) for this most incredible finish:

Amazin'.

After the game, a colleague saw me, staggering, soaked in beer.

"What happened to you?" he asked.

I had no good response.

"It was a great game," I said. "I got involved."

1986: 'But the Red Sox lost yesterday'

The greatest baseball game I've ever seen was Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Angels.

The Red Sox were down, three games to one. It looked like no World Series for them again that year -- they had last won it in 1918. The Angels had never been to the World Series, nor had their legendary manager, Gene Mauch, whose 1964 Phillies team had executed a historic collapse down the stretch.

The Angels held a 5-2 lead entering the ninth. Angels reliever Gary Lucas hit a batter (Rich Gedman) for the first time in four years. The Red Sox took the lead on a two-out, two-run home run by Dave Henderson, his only hit of the series. He had been 1-for-13 in late-inning pressure situations with two out and runners on base during the season. Henderson's homer came off Angels closer Donnie Moore, who years later killed himself. He was a deeply troubled man, but it's thought that allowing that homer contributed in part to his later depression.

The Angels had a chance to win the game in the last of the ninth, with Doug DeCinces at the plate with one out and the potential winning run at third. DeCinces had delivered that runner home in those situations 68% of the time during the regular season. Mauch said after the game, "I would have bet my house that DeCinces would have gotten him in."

Henderson hit a sacrifice fly in the 11th, and the Red Sox won 7-6. At the time, it was only the second game in postseason history -- and the second game in the past 21 hours in that ballpark -- that a team had won a game down by two runs entering the ninth inning.

Two tortured Red Sox fans, a husband and wife, had left the ballpark after eight innings, and went drinking, then vowed not to watch or read anything about the game, or about the Angels going to the World Series. The next morning, the couple was on a plane to Boston, sitting next to a baseball writer who was covering the series.

"Do you have family in Boston?" the wife asked.

"No, I am going there for Game 6," the writer said.

"But the Red Sox lost yesterday," the husband said.

"No," the writer said. "They won. Didn't you hear?"

1984: Bless You Boys

There was nobody better than Sparky Anderson.

He was the manager of the 1984 Tigers, the team that won 35 of its first 40 games and rolled, wire-to-wire, to win the World Series. They demolished the overmatched Padres in the World Series, which was memorable for so many reasons: the sheer dominance of the Tigers, the energy outfielder Kirk Gibson brought to the team, the near perfection of closer Willie Hernandez and the beauty of watching Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker play up the middle every day.

But that team was about Sparky, who became the first manager in history to win the World Series in both leagues. That team was about Sparky and his effusive charm. He was your white-haired grandfather, smoking his signature pipe, rocking on the front porch on a summer evening, explaining the beautiful game of baseball, all the while embellishing the facts and the greatness of his players, as well as fracturing the English language.

He asked in wonderment why there had to be a "your, a you're and a you are." He questioned why there had to be a "there, a they're and a their," when, he said, they are all the same. And why, he asked, do we really need "a to, a too and a two?" Three of them?

No one ever misunderstood what Sparky was saying because, in the end, he was smarter than most, especially about baseball. After the 1984 World Series, he wrote a book (with help) called Bless You Boys. It had become the moniker for that team, and that season.

The night the World Series ended, I asked Sparky about his team.

He said: "There will never be another like it. How blessed am I?"

1982: Bruce Sutter's long-fingered fastball

The 1982 Cardinals were so entertaining. They had a shortstop, Ozzie Smith, who did backflips. An outfielder, Tito Landrum, who was a male model. An outfielder, Willie McGee, affectionately known as E.T. -- except he didn't phone home, he ran home, really fast. Maybe the best defensive first baseman of all time, Keith Hernandez. And a kooky starting pitcher, Joaquin Andujar, who once said you can sum up baseball in one word: youneverknow.

And, at the end, they had a closer named Bruce Sutter, who saved 36 games that season, and finished third in the Cy Young voting and fifth in the MVP race. In the postseason, he was overpowering in the NLCS against the Braves, then saved two games in the 1982 World Series against the Brewers, including Game 7.

Sutter threw 102 1/3 innings that season; he was a premier closer before they became one-inning specialists. And he had a devastating split-fingered fastball, one of the first pitchers to popularize it.

Before Game 3 of the World Series that season, I was talking to him about throwing that pitch so well.

"How are you able to stick the ball so easily between your index and middle finger?" I asked.

He looked and me and laughed at my youth, then thrust his huge right hand in front of my face.

"Look how long my fingers are!" he said. "I can pick my nose from here!"

1979: The Orioles gotta see Wapner

The 1979 Orioles were a great team, and the best team ever to cover. I know because I covered them briefly that year.

They were filled with personalities, funny guys, loose guys -- and none of them funnier or looser than pitcher Mike Flanagan.

Flanagan was the master of nicknames. He called Orioles closer Don Stanhouse "Stan The Man Unusual" because he was so wild on the mound, and off the field, so obtuse in so many ways. (Orioles manager Earl Weaver called Stanhouse "Full Pack" because Weaver would smoke a full pack of Camels when Stanhouse pitched.)

Flanagan won the Cy Young that season. The next season, 1980, when Steve Stone was on his way to winning the Cy Young, Flanagan presented "The stages of Cy." He was Cy Young because he was the reigning Cy Young winner. Stone was Cy Present because he was going to win that year. Jim Palmer, of course, was Cy Old, because he had won the award three times previously. And young Scott McGregor was Cy Future because Flanagan believed he would win the award someday.

Anyway, back to 1979. The Orioles beat the Angels in the ALCS in part because John "Tonight Let It Be" Lowenstein hit a pinch-hit, three-run, walk-off home run in Game 1. Weaver was way ahead of the analytics craze -- he had the pitcher-batter matchup numbers he needed on index cards -- but he didn't have any numbers on reliever John Montague, who was new to the Angels.

Weaver called the press box. Charles Steinberg, a dentist who worked for the club in public relations, found the Montague matchups and gave them to an Orioles BaseBell, who was usually a young woman who ran errands during a game. This night, the BaseBell was Earl's daughter, Kim. She hastily ran the card through the Orioles clubhouse, past a naked Palmer, and got the information to her dad. Lowenstein had great numbers against Montague. He was the choice. Then he hit the game-winning homer.

The Orioles advanced to the World Series against the Pirates. The Orioles were slightly late to the pregame introductions before Game 1.

The word was, they were nervous for their first World Series game since 1971.

"We weren't nervous," Flanagan said. "We were in the clubhouse waiting for (famed TV) Judge Wapner to make his ruling. We couldn't leave until we knew."