It’s October of 1988. One of the Dodgers’ marquee players steps to the plate in the 9th inning. With the team trailing and an untouchable ace pitcher standing on the mound, the game seems all but lost. Furthermore, the Dodgers are already heavy underdogs against a much favored behemoth of an opponent, and few give them a chance to win. Then, in an inexplicable moment nothing short of miraculous, the Dodgers batter hits a two-run homer into right field that stuns the world, paving the way for a series victory.
Obviously, the above passage immediately conjures Kirk Gibson’s legendary blast off Dennis Eckersley in game one of the 1988 World Series. But six days before Vin Scully exclaimed, “And look who’s coming up!”, an identical miracle occurred in game four of the National League Championship Series at New York’s Shea Stadium. It was Mike Scioscia’s game-tying home run off Mets ace Dwight Gooden, a moment that not only saved L.A.’s miracle title run; it arguably affected the course of baseball history.
If anything, it’s a testament to how magical Gibson’s homer is that it overshadows the 1988 NLCS whatsoever. It was not only a white-knuckle seven-game affair but as shocking an upset as one could possibly conceive. The Mets were winners of 100 games, and only two years removed from their raucous 1986 championship. Their roster was a who’s who of the best players of the era: Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Randy Myers, Rick Aguilera, Howard Johnson. Even in a decade of rapid championship turnover, they were considered a shoo-in to be baseball history’s next dynasty.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, seemed like a laughable gaggle of misfits by contrast. Their roster was frontloaded with the talent of Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser, but otherwise boasted the subpar likes of Jeff Hamilton and Franklin Stubbs. It didn’t help that in 11 regular season meetings against the Mets, they won a grand total of one game. For all intents and purposes, they would be the baseball equivalent of a “stepping stone” opponent in boxing, a respectable foe for the contender to beat up on their way to facing the real champion.
Indeed, the first three games, and first eight innings of game four played out as expected. The Mets took two of the first three contests and staked a 4-2 lead going into the ninth inning of game four. Dwight Gooden, perhaps the most electric ace of the ‘80s, was on his way to a seamless complete-game victory and a 3-1 series lead for New York. After giving up a two-run single to John Shelby in the first, he allowed merely one hit and four baserunners over the next seven innings. The odds were overwhelmingly against the Dodgers, as they had one win and 60 losses when trailing after seven innings in their postseason history.
To begin the ninth, however, Gooden made a rare mistake by issuing a walk to none other than Shelby. Up stepped catcher Mike Scioscia, who hit an unimpressive .257 and three home runs during the regular season. Then again, the 1988 Dodgers were a team that always looked pedestrian on paper, only to conjure a pitch-perfect miracle at the right time. True to the team’s improbable spirit, Scioscia cranked the first pitch he saw from Gooden deep to right. Darryl Strawberry could only watch as it landed over the wall. Flushing, NY fell silent while the Dodgers dugout erupted in joy.
Momentum had suddenly shifted in favor of Los Angeles. But the drama was merely beginning, as the game stretched all the way into the 12th inning. All too fittingly, Kirk Gibson broke a 1-for-16 series slump with a two-out solo shot off Roger McDowell in the top half. Given how movie-like the story of the 1988 Dodgers unfolded, it seems almost like a moment of foreshadowing in retrospect. But the Mets nearly undid it in the bottom half, loading the bases with one out off reliever Jesse Orosco. After a profane reprimand from Tommy Lasorda, Orosco got Strawberry to pop out. Out came Orel Hershiser, one day removed from pitching seven innings and the last man standing in the Dodger bullpen. Facing Kevin McReynolds, who had homered earlier in the game, he induced a flyball to center that Shelby raced in to catch. It didn’t come easy…but the NLCS was now tied 2-2.
Looking back from today’s vantage point, Scioscia’s home run arguably changed the trajectory of MLB history. The Mets, seemingly poised to win many championships, immediately tumbled in quality the next season and wouldn’t make the postseason again until 1999. Baseball witnessed new World Series winners every year except 1993, and the next dynasty wouldn’t come until a full decade later courtesy of the 1998-2000 Yankees.
More immediately, however, it gave the Dodgers the second wind they needed. With the series tied two games apiece, they immediately followed it with a resounding 7-4 win in game five. The action shifted back to Dodger Stadium with a Mets win in game six, but it wouldn’t matter. After all, this was the year of Hershiser’s seemingly endless parade of shutdown performances, and he twirled a complete game shutout in game seven to clinch the pennant. Next up was the Fall Classic against the Bash Brother-infused Oakland Athletics, who looked like they were cruising to an easy victory in game one. But then MIke Davis drew a walk in the bottom of the ninth off Dennis Eckersley, and…well, do I need to tell you what happened next?
Granted, it’s easy to understand why Gibson’s home run in the World Series is the better remembered moment. It happened in the series that gets the most viewership, after all, and had the extra drama of happening in spite of his debilitating injuries. Moreover, Scioscia’s clutch blast was but one of a litany of heart-stopping moments in the latter half of its respective game. Yet I can’t help but feel that if Scioscia didn’t golf that shot off Gooden, the spine-shivering crescendo of Vin Scully yelling “SHE…IIIISSSSS….GONE!” would never have happened. A common fallacy in parsing through history is assuming that events comprise a linear domino effect. In some cases, there’s a likelihood that certain developments would have happenedregardless of whether or not a certain preceding event occurred. Perhaps the Dodgers would have found a way to come back in the NLCS even if Gooden had finished them off in game four. But given the paucity of 3-1 comebacks, as well as the on-paper disparity between the Mets and Dodgers, the value of Scioscia’s game-tying blast can’t be overstated.
So before you let your DVD of the 1988 World Series roll one more time (hopefully for the last time as our most recent title), take a moment to revisit game four of NLCS that preceded it. It’s one of baseball history’s greatest, and most underrated, heroics. For Scioscia, it was undoubtedly his finest moment until managing the Angels to their first championship in 2002.
Unless, of course, you count his career at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.
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