By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 1999
It was life imitating art.
In 1984, The Natural had flickered across movie screens -- the climactic scene of Roy Hobbs finding one more home-run swing in his bat, the triumphant trot around the bases, teammates spilling out of the dugout, the crowd roaring. . .
Four years later, Kirk Gibson supplanted Robert Redford in the starring role.
The Oakland Athletics were prohibitive favorites when the 1988 World Series began. Their arsenal included Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, who hit a grand slam in the second inning. Power, it seemed, would propel the A's to the championship.
Gibson, fierce leader of the Los Angeles Dodgers, had hit two game-winning homers as they beat the New York Mets for the National League pennant. But he also had a pulled left hamstring and a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He walked like Walter Brennan, only more painfully.
Gibson spent the first 81/2 innings of the World Series opener in the trainer's room. He didn't even make it onto the field for pregame introductions. He was busy getting a cortisone injection.
Now, with the Dodgers trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Gibson was seated, half-dressed, with an ice pack on the right knee, watching the game on television.
Vin Scully, longtime Dodgers broadcaster, was doing play-by-play for NBC.
"I heard him say on TV that I wasn't in the dugout, so it looked like I was definitely out," Gibson said. "I said, "That's bull----!' "
He told Mitch Poole, a clubhouse attendant, to set up a batting tee and to summon manager Tommy Lasorda. "Tommy came waddling up the tunnel, and I will never forget the sight. He looked as if he had seen a ghost."
"I said, "Hit (Mike) Davis eighth. I'll hit for the pitcher.' Lasorda turned around and headed hell-bent for the dugout. Then he yelled back, "You stay up there until I come and get you!' " Dennis Eckersley, Oakland's superb relief pitcher, retired the first two batters.
Davis pinch hit and Dave Anderson moved to the on-deck circle. Davis walked. Lasorda called Anderson back to the bench.
Gibson limped up the steps to home plate, the fans cheering his appearance. He hadn't swung a bat in three days.
With Eckersley throwing fastballs, the count went to 2-2. Davis stole second on ball three.
"The words of our advance scout, Mel Didier, rang in my mind," Gibson said. " "If Eckersley goes 3 and 2 on you, you're goin' to see a backdoor slider. I've seen him freeze George Brett with it. I've seen him freeze Wade Boggs. If you get him to 3 and 2, get ready to step into it because it will be that backdoor slider.' " Eckersley threw a slider. Gibson swung. The ball soared into the night sky and landed in the rightfield seats. The roar of the crowd was deafening.
"It was the most theatrical home run I've ever seen," Scully said. "The only question was whether he could make it around the bases unassisted."
Gibson hobbled the 360 feet, pistoning his arm in celebration. The Dodgers enveloped him as he stepped on the plate to seal their 5-4 victory.
NBC introduced Game2 with a motion-picture montage of The Natural and the end of Game1, dissolving back and forth in slow-motion from Redford to Gibson -- walking to the plate, taking warmup swings, hitting the ball, rounding the bases. . .
And in the Dodgers clubhouse, coach Mark Cresse scratched Roy Hobbs on a scrap of paper and taped it over Gibson's nameplate at his locker.
The inspired Dodgers won the World Series in five games.