On October 20, 1988, 23 years ago today, the Los Angeles Dodgers completed their improbable season by beating the Oakland Athletics to win the World Series. The team climbed on the back, or rather the right arm, of Orel Hershiser, who guided them to baseball's ultimate team goal.
How the 1988 Dodgers got to the precipice of a championship is a story in itself: riding Hershiser and National League MVP Kirk Gibson to a 94-win season and a division title, beating the 100-win New York Mets team that had beaten them 10 of 11 times during the regular season, Mike Scioscia somehow hitting a game-tying home run off Dwight Gooden just three outs away from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS, Gibson overcoming multiple leg injuries with a dramatic pinch hit home run to win Game 1 of the World Series, were all preludes.
Hershiser shutout the A's in Game 2, but Mark McGwire took Jay Howell deep to end Game 3 for a 2-1 Oakland win that cut the Dodgers' series lead in half. Mike Marshall's back injury was the latest in a series of maladies for the Dodgers that resulted in a Game 4 starting lineup which produced a total of just 36 home runs during the regular season, six fewer than American League MVP Jose Canseco.
Still, despite fielding what Bob Costas called the weakest in World Series history during the NBC broadcast, the Dodgers walked away with a 4-3 win in Game 4 and a commanding 3-1 series lead over the 104-win A's. They had their ace, Hershiser, ready to go for Game 5 in Oakland.
The Dodgers jumped on Oakland starter Storm Davis early. With one out in the first inning, Franklin Stubbs lined a single to right field, setting the stage for unlikely hero Mickey Hatcher. During the Game 5 broadcast on NBC, Vin Scully recalled, "[Hatcher] had his agent call to try and get a job with the Dodgers and he thought he was going to Albuquerque, but when his agent called back and said, 'You're a Dodger,' he wound up going with the big club."
The 33-year old Hatcher was subbing for Gibson in left field, and filled in quite nicely, lining a ball into the left field seats for a two-run home run and a quick Dodgers lead. Hatcher, who hit one home run in 202 plate appearances during the regular season, hit two homers during the World Series.
After retiring the first six batters of the game, Hershiser ran into some trouble in the third inning. He allowed singles to Carney Lansford and Tony Phillips to open the frame, and after a Walt Weiss bunt moved the runners over, Stan Javier brought home a run with a lineout to Hatcher in left for a sacrifice fly. Hershiser then walked Dave Henderson, putting two runners on for Canseco, but Hershiser got Canseco to ground out to Alfredo Griffin at shortstop to end the inning.
Hatcher led off the top of the fourth inning with a high chopper to third base for an infield single, but Storm Davis struck out the next two batters. That brought up Mike Davis, who hit 22 home runs with Oakland in 1987 but struggled after signing a lucrative free agent deal with the Dodgers, hitting just .196 with two home runs in 310 plate appearances.
Davis somehow coaxed a two-out walk off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1, which set the stage for Gibson's heroics. Back to Game 5, Mike worked a 3-0 count off Storm in the battle of Davises, then got the perfect combination of a green light to swing and a get-me-over fastball, which was crushed into the right field seats for a 4-1 Dodgers lead. "I wanted it to last forever," Davis said of his home run trot, per the Los Angeles Times.
From the fourth through the seventh inning, Hershiser retired 12 of the 13 batters he faced, allowing only a walk to catcher Ron Hassey. The A's were so flustered by Hershiser that they resorted to trying to step out of the batters box frequently to try to disrupt his timing. In the bottom of the fifth inning after Phillips stepped out of the box, Hershiser met catcher Rick Dempsey about halfway between the mound and home plate, yelling loud enough to let Phillips here him.
"I wanted to let them know I didn't like it and that anytime I get aggravated I become a better pitcher," Hershiser told Ross Newhan of the Times. "I wanted to let them know it was inspiring me and not affecting me adversely. People would have better luck if they tried to lull me to sleep. The A's made sure I stayed awake."
The Dodgers tacked on a run in the top of the sixth inning when Davis walked with two outs, then was driven home on Dempsey's double over Canseco's head in deep right field. The 39-year old Dempsey had a fine season for the Dodgers in 1988, hitting seven home runs in limited duty as the backup catcher. Dempsey started Game 5 because Scioscia wrenched his knee in Game 4 and would have been unable to play had the series lasted any longer.
Down 5-1, Phillips opened the bottom of the eighth inning with a walk off Hershiser, then advanced to second base on a hit-and-run grounder to first base by Weiss, who won AL Rookie of the Year in 1988. Leadoff man Stan Javier grounded a single up the middle to score Phillips and give the A's their first rally since the third inning. A walk to Henderson brought up Canseco as the tying run with just one out.
As Jay Howell and Alejandro Peña warmed up in the bullpen for the Dodgers, Scully reveled in the excitement of the moment, with the game's best pitcher facing the game's best hitter with the game on the line. "This is the way it should be," Scully opined.
Hershiser jammed Canseco to induce a pop out to first base, "a million dollar pitch, plus" per Scully, for the second out of the inning. Canseco hit a grand slam in Game 1, but that was his only hit in 19 at-bats during the series.
Up came The Cobra, Dave Parker, who had three hits off Hershiser in Game 2, the only Oaklander with a hit in that game. Hershiser's first pitch to Parker was a wild pitch that caromed wildly off the right foot of home plate umpire Jerry Crawford, allowing the runners to advance to second and third. Hershiser's next three pitches to Parker were all strikes, including two inside breaking balls swung on and missed to end the inning.
At the end of the eighth inning, Tommy Lasorda was celebrating in the dugout and pumping up his pitcher, repeating "Attaboy, Bulldog" over and over again.
Hershiser would complete the game, allowing only a two-out single to Lansford in the ninth inning. His season-ending run was really one of the most remarkable runs in baseball history. Hershiser ended the regular season with 59 consecutive scoreless innings, a run that included five shutouts and a game in which Hershiser pitched 10 frames without allowing a run. In the postseason, he had two shutouts in five starts, and even picked up a save in the NLCS for good measure. He was 3-0 in the postseason with a 1.05 ERA. In his final 101 2/3 innings of 1988, Hershiser allowed five earned runs. He pitched nine innings or more in 12 of his final 14 starts.
Hershiser struck out Phillips to end the game, the ninth strikeout of the game for Hershiser, who would be named World Series MVP and ultimately the National League Cy Young Award winner. "They've done it," Scully said after the final strike, "Like the 1969 Mets, it's the impossible dream revisited."
Only it wasn't impossible. Thanks in large part to Orel Hershiser and a cast of unsung heroes, 23 years ago today.