The World Series is a story, and stories produce heroes. But while we all love clear, obvious heroes — the Aryas and the T’Challas, the Gibsons and the Bumgarners — it’s often the unsung heroes, the background heroes and the complicated heroes who make a sprawling story sing.
We’ve been rewatching and revisiting World Series recently — our ultimate ranking of all 115 World Series came out earlier this month — and fell freshly in love with some of our favorite World Series performances. Some of these players were, arguably, as important as the Series MVPs, but they didn’t get the same credit. Some failed utterly in the box score but helped reframe the Series/the sport/life. All of their World Series legacies are in some way complicated.
9. Mark Langston, 1998
What he did: Allowed a grand slam
As much as you can ever say this in baseball, the Padres had no chance against the ’98 Yankees. They got slaughtered, existed to get slaughtered and are remembered primarily for their part in the slaughter. But the nice thing is they still got to walk away telling themselves that but for an unjust break, they might have won. Game 1 in New York was tied 5-5 when the Yankees’ Tino Martinez batted in the seventh inning with the bases loaded. On a 2-2 pitch, the Padres’ Mark Langston threw a fastball that paralyzed Martinez. It almost perfectly bisected the plate and was clearly high enough to be a called strike three. Langston started to lean toward the dugout, the crowd froze, and, so too, did the umpire, Rich Garcia. He called it a ball. “You’ve gotta be s—ting me,” Padres manager Bruce Bochy mouthed when the camera cut to him in the dugout. The next pitch was awful, Martinez hit a grand slam and the Yankees won the game and the Series in routs. They outscored the Padres 21-8 in the Series after that pitch was called a ball.
Decades later, Langston and the rest of the Padres still feel the grievance. The umpire, Garcia, says that whether or not the pitch was above the knees, San Diego’s catcher, Carlos Hernandez, made it look low by framing it too aggressively. Garcia says he saw Hernandez try to pull the ball back into the strike zone, which made him think it must have been low. I don’t see that. To me, it looks like a good frame, and Hernandez was to that point in his career a slightly above-average framer, according to Baseball Prospectus’ advanced metrics.
“If you see the way I received the pitch, I just let my glove go to the movement of the ball,” Hernandez told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2018. “It wasn’t like too many catchers who, it’s 2 feet away and they pull it back in. That was my technique I used my whole career. Maybe I moved my wrist, but I didn’t move my shoulder. I didn’t move my elbow.”
The crucial thing is this: The Padres were almost certainly going to lose that Series no matter what the call was. They didn’t earn any benefit of the doubt for what happened afterward, immediately and in the subsequent days. But that call gave them an out: “If we win that game, who knows?” Bochy said in 2018. “You talk about believing in yourself, getting some momentum and putting some pressure on the other team. You never know.” Langston made the pitch he needed to for the Padres to win. But if you can’t win, a sense of grievance and a good what-if are the next-best things.
8. Rickey Henderson, 1993
What he did: Called timeout
From Mitch Williams’ first pitch in Game 6 — well, attempted pitch — the situation seemed out of his control. He’d entered the game having previously blown Game 4, a performance that reportedly led to death threats phoned to the Phillies’ main number while he was still on the mound. As Williams prepared to throw his first pitch of Game 6, his head down, the Blue Jays’ leadoff hitter, Rickey Henderson, called for and was granted timeout. Williams couldn’t hear that and began his delivery, not noticing until he looked up and saw this:
At the very last second, Williams stopped his motion, violently. Whether or not that affected him, it planted the idea early that “The Wild Thing” — already an agent of chaos anytime he took the field — was pitching in the middle of a hallucination.
Williams then walked Henderson on four pitches. The crowd exploded. Williams’ last two pitches looked hesitant, a little desperate as he tried to find the tiny strike zone. Once Henderson was on base, Williams threw over and over to first base and switched to an awkward slide step that he struggled to repeat and that he was getting less velocity from. He got away with a hittable pitch to Devon White before Paul Molitor hammered a center-cut fastball for a line-drive single. The ball took a nice, clean hop to center fielder Lenny Dykstra, and Henderson held at second base. That might have been the final curse on Williams, though. With Henderson on third, Williams could have focused on the hitter. But with Henderson in his sight at second base, threatening to steal, the greatest base stealer of all time was playing on a loop in Williams’ head. Williams continued the slide step. Decades later, he would blame it for the missed location of his fastball to Joe Carter. Henderson, decades later, would take credit for it.
Here’s a final irony: Clearly, Williams threw what he considered a mistake. The pitch was supposed to be elevated. Instead, it was low and in. But Carter considered it a great pitch — an accidental great pitch but a great pitch. He said at the time: “Ninety-nine times out of 100, I hook that pitch way foul. I don’t know why, but thank god this one stayed fair.” He explained many years later that he was looking for a slider after taking a terrible swing on Williams’ (very good) slider the previous pitch. He thought a slider was so obvious that when Williams shook off the catcher’s sign, Carter thought Williams was messing with him. By looking for a slider in roughly that location, Carter was ready to hit the fastball there, and by looking for the off-speed pitch, he was “behind” the fastball, which kept him from pulling it foul. “I guarantee you if I was looking fastball, I would have swung and missed that ball or hit a foul ball,” Carter said later.
A few years ago, Tom Scocca wondered why the only come-from-behind World Series walk-off isn’t remembered as well as Kirk Gibson’s, Bobby Thomson’s and Carlton Fisk’s home runs. Scocca’s theory seems correct: The story of the inning was not the home run but Williams’ steady, methodical collapse, which began to be clear nearly immediately. From roughly Williams’ first pitch to Rickey Henderson, Carter’s home run was nearly inevitable.
7. Tom Lawless, 1987
What he did: Narrowly avoided extreme humiliation
The success of home clubs in this Series — the home team won every game — was in part credited to the Twins’ loud fans: This was the first indoor World Series venue, and the Cardinals’ team physician, Stan London, gave every player on the team ear plugs. But the loudest moment of the Series might have come in Game 4 in St. Louis, when Tom Lawless — a 30-year-old utility man with one home run — hit what The New York Times’ Murray Chass called “one of the most unlikely, most improbable, most stunning home runs in World Series history.”
Lawless hit a Frank Viola fastball deep to left field, then slowly walked one, two, three, 13 steps down the first-base line while watching it go out. As it cleared the wall, he flung his bat skyward with his left hand, an all-time bat flip that Lawless claimed after the game not to remember doing, and then finally started jogging.
Until Jose Bautista’s ALCS flip in 2015, that was probably the most famous bat flip ever, and like Kurosawa films and Mingus recordings, it’s still as thrilling and cutting-edge an entire generation later. But the wild thing is:
“When he hit it and stood there,” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said, ”I thought it must be in the upper deck. It was about a foot out. I asked him about it later, and he said he hit it as good as he could hit a ball. I said you better run.”
Lawless would retire with three career homers, including that one.
6. Charlie Leibrandt, 1992
What he did: Lost
Charlie Leibrandt never made an All-Star Game, and he never started an Opening Day, and with about 35 career WAR, he’s the greatest starting pitcher who can say that.
In 1979, with only four major league innings to his credit, Leibrandt was put on the Reds’ postseason roster. He retired the only batter he faced, and thus began one of the most heartbreaking postseason careers in history. Leibrandt was a very good pitcher, and more than that, he was a pitcher his managers trusted a lot, which put him in position to suffer and suffer:
- In 1984, he pitched for the Royals in the ALCS, facing elimination. Leibrandt was brilliant: He allowed one run — on a third-inning fielder’s choice on which the Royals couldn’t turn two — in a complete game. The Royals lost 1-0.
- In 1985, he started Game 2 of the World Series for the Royals. Leibrandt was brilliant: He took a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning. Then, as the Royals’ great closer, Dan Quisenberry, watched from the bullpen, Leibrandt was inexplicably left in to face seven batters in the ninth, four of whom scored. The Royals lost 4-2.
- A few days later, he started Game 6 of that World Series. Leibrandt was brilliant: Through seven innings, he had held the Cardinals scoreless, and the game was tied at 0. Then his manager let him hit for himself with two on and two out. Leibrandt struck out, predictably, then allowed the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth. The Royals came back to win in the ninth, but Leibrandt didn’t get the decision.
- Then some time passed. In 1991, the Braves tapped Leibrandt to start Game 1 of the World Series instead of ace Tom Glavine. Leibrandt was more experienced and had pitched in the cacophonous Metrodome before. He pitched well until he allowed a three-run homer in the fifth. The Braves lost.
- In Game 6, Leibrandt was brought in for the 11th inning. He faced Kirby Puckett, who had been talked out of bunting by his teammates. Puckett homered on the fourth pitch, and Leibrandt was humiliated again.
Note the theme here: It isn’t Leibrandt failing, over and over again. It isn’t entirely that, at least. He kept being thrust into massively important postseason moments, with one of the greatest catalogs of high-leverage postseason moments of the past century. He often pitched brilliantly until his manager screwed up and left him out there too long or until his teammates failed to support him or until a single swing ruined everything.
And so, in Game 6 of the 1992 World Series, Leibrandt got one more chance to be the hero. The game was tied after nine innings, and rather than go to closer Jeff Reardon, Bobby Cox called on Leibrandt. Leibrandt threw a scoreless 10th inning. He’d be the winner, the hero at last, if the Braves could score in the bottom of the 10th. They did not.
Leibrandt went back for the 11th. A one-out fastball narrowly clipped Devon White’s thigh — White didn’t attempt to dodge it. Roberto Alomar singled. Then Leibrandt got Joe Carter for the second out. Reardon stood in the bullpen, warm but unused. Dave Winfield was up. Leibrandt threw two perfect pitches to get two strikes and then a nearly perfect 2-2 changeup — but Winfield laid off. With a 3-2 count, the runners got to go on the pitch. Winfield grounded a ball down the third-base line, left fielder Ron Gant misplayed the ball, and between Gant’s misplay and the runners going on the pitch, two runs scored.
By championship win probability added, Leibrandt is the 14th-most destructive postseason player in history. But it wasn’t that he was bad. He was asked to do so, so much, and nobody — not his managers, his teammates, his opponents or the gods — helped him one bit. Leibrandt threw 57 postseason innings with a 3.77 ERA. Jack Morris threw 90 postseason innings with a 3.80 ERA. For Morris, that got him into the Hall of Fame. For Leibrandt … this.
5. Troy Percival, 2002
What he did: Challenged Barry Bonds
It’s wild to watch this Series and realize we hadn’t reached the peak of the Barry Bonds panic. Bonds was walked intentionally 68 times that regular season, which blew away the record, but within two years, he would walk almost twice that many times in a season. The Angels, in October 2002, were ahead of the rest of the league. Adam Kennedy declared after Game 1 that if the Angels could hold Bonds to one solo homer per game, they’d win the Series. To ensure that, the Angels almost never pitched to him: Bonds batted 30 times that World Series and walked 13 times — 43% of his plate appearances! — seven of them intentional.
It probably would have been better if Barry Bonds had just retired after the 2000 season, rather than becoming the precedent-wrecking force that he was from (especially) 2001 to 2004. There were, it seemed, only two possibilities when that PED-fueled version of Bonds batted: He could be walked intentionally, over and over, which played as a real farce. Or he could be pitched to, whereby he would homer, ruining the day/season/career of some pitcher who just wanted to pitch against the best players in the world without those best players taking further, illegal advantages. The walks were farce; the home runs were tragedy. But the one positive role Bonds sometimes played, when the circumstances aligned, was a role akin to Deep Blue, the chess-conquering computer, or Watson, the “Jeopardy!”-champion software. When the stakes were lowered slightly and Bonds couldn’t tie or win the game, and a pitcher had no reason not to challenge Bonds with his very best fastball, we got to see great pitchers measure themselves against the platonically perfect baseball player for fun. Barry Bonds could serve as a test, as the constant.
The two best moments of Bonds’ peak were not his 71st homer in 2001 (an ambivalent moment for most of the sport) or his 756th homer in 2007 (an almost melancholy one) but two plate appearances he had against ace closers when he couldn’t tie the game. One was against Eric Gagne, in 2004, in one of the most entertaining full at-bats in history. The other was when Bonds faced Troy Percival, down by two with two outs in the ninth inning of an outlandishly wild Game 2 of the World Series:
- After the first, Angels 5-0
- After the second, Angels 7-4
- After the fifth, Giants 9-8
- In the top of the ninth, Angels 11-9
Percival, crucially, did the hard work of getting the first two men of the inning out before Bonds batted in that ninth. Bonds represented the Giants’ 10th run but no more than that. After he fell behind 1-0, Percival got his moment to challenge the most dominant hitter since (at least) Babe Ruth and went right at Bonds with a 97 mph fastball. Bonds swung harder than usual and hit the ball so hard, so far, that no truly good video exists of it; the cameraman lost it. The broadcast salvaged the moment with a quick cut to Tim Salmon on the bench, whose words are incredibly easy to lip-read:
“That’s the farthest ball I’ve ever seen hit.”
It was said to have gone 485 feet, but this was before Statcast or even Hit Tracker. (Another home run Bonds hit later in the Series, against Frankie Rodriguez, was also deemed 485 feet.)
I was at that game in the right-field seats. I showed up to the park with my glove, and when I took my seat, we all had a good laugh at the idea of a ball reaching us. Bonds’ ball landed, in my memory, about five rows in front of me. The sight of it in the air coming directly at us felt like a preview of the meteor that will someday wipe out Earth. “That may have been entertaining to a lot of people,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters, “but it wasn’t entertaining to us. I haven’t seen a ball hit that far here. That ball was launched.” It was Bonds’ one solo home run for the game, and the Angels did indeed win in spite of it. Percival pitched twice more without having to face Bonds. He didn’t allow any more runs.
The home run became part of conspiracy theory lore, as Percival told reporters afterward that the balls in the World Series were juiced. He wasn’t complaining about it — “Both teams have to throw them” — but he had a bunch near his locker that he had actually cut up, claiming to have found evidence. “They’re twice as hard as any ball I’ve played with,” Percival said.
4. Jason Heyward, 2016
What he did: Went to third on an error
Jason Heyward reportedly took less money to sign with the Cubs as a free agent the winter of 2015 because he wanted to help them win the World Series. When teams rebuild, there’s a sequence they all go through, which usually goes like this: Admit that the team is going nowhere as it is, tear it all down, lose for a while as they hoard prospects, sift through mediocre players until a few gems emerge, start calling up the prospects, consolidate it all into a credible team, and then, when the championship window starts to open, spend the money to get the final piece. Jason Heyward was the final piece, and as soon as he signed with the Cubs, everything went wrong. Still young and theoretically in his physical prime, he had his worst season by far: He was on MVP ballots in 2015, and he was the third-worst qualifying hitter in the league in 2016. He was even worse in the postseason, hitting .116/.156/.186 in the 15 games before Game 7 of the World Series. Then he went 0-for-5 in Game 7!
Yet Heyward is famously remembered as a hero in that game, as the final piece in one of the team’s final moments: During the rain delay before the 10th inning, Heyward reportedly got the team together for a meeting and gave his teammates the pep talk that preceded their 10th-inning two-run rally. Baseball is a sport that doesn’t have the tradition of inspirational pregame speeches like football does or the halftime reboot speeches like basketball does. But Heyward snuck one in, and a half-hour later, he was on TV, being interviewed as one of the stars of the game.
But I’ve always loved an even tinier way that Heyward was a hero in that game. It happened in the ninth inning, when he reached on a fielder’s choice. On a 3-1 count to Javier Baez, Heyward stole second base. The throw skidded off the wet grass, and Heyward popped up and went to third. He was the potential winning run, with only one out in the inning, so Cleveland replaced Coco Crisp (who has a very weak arm) in left field with Michael Martinez (who has a better one). Heyward didn’t score. The game went to extra innings. The Cubs went ahead in the top of the 10th. Cleveland rallied in the bottom of the 10th. The potential winning run came to the plate, and that hitter was Michael Martinez, the owner of a career .197/.241/.266 slash line, the worst hitter on either club and one of the worst hitters ever to bat in a World Series moment that mattered. Jason Heyward did that. Martinez grounded out.
3. Eddie Murray, 1979
What he did: Interspersed successes and failures
Eddie Murray is the answer to a trivia question that has never been asked until now: Who batted in the biggest moment in World Series history?
Of course, we can debate what we mean by that, and more often than not in the writing of history, something becomes the biggest moment based on what happens, not what might have happened. But when Murray batted in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1979 World Series, the championship leverage index of the moment was higher than that of any other play in history. For Murray, that plate appearance was the conclusion of a nightmarish sequence:
Murray entered the Series on a tear. He was 23, in his third season and already on a Hall of Fame trajectory. In the ALCS, he hit .417/.588/.667. In Game 1 of the World Series, he had a hit, two walks and a stolen base. In Game 2, he homered in his first at-bat, walked in his second and doubled home the tying run in his third.
In the next hour of Game 2, he was involved in three game-altering plays:
- In the sixth, after moving to third, he tried to score on a fly ball. Dave Parker’s perfect throw gunned him down.
- In the eighth, with the game still tied, the Orioles had two on and nobody out. The Baltimore batter grounded to the shortstop, who got the force at second and then caught Murray, hung up between second and third, for an ultra-rare 6-4-5-4 double play.
- In the ninth, with two on and two out, Pirates pinch hitter Manny Sanguillen singled to right. Murray unexpectedly cut off Ken Singleton’s throw home “as thousands gasped,” Sports Illustrated reported. Singleton claimed that the throw was strong and true and shouldn’t have been cut. Catcher Rick Dempsey hadn’t told Murray to cut it and thought the throw had a shot. Murray tried to relay it home, late.
None of Murray’s actions was necessarily a mistake. In the sixth, he ran home on his third-base coach’s command, and Parker made a typically perfect throw. There was nothing Murray could do. In the eighth, he had to hold up to avoid running into — in his judgment — a triple play. There was nothing Murray could do. In the ninth, he maintained that the throw was offline. On a wet, muddy field, it might have been too risky to let it skip in to the plate, and the crowd was too loud for Murray to hear his catcher’s directions. His manager backed him up. There was maybe nothing Murray could do.
But it all contributed to an unpleasant postgame in the clubhouse. Murray had to defend himself in waves. “Suddenly, no one wanted to know about his runs batted in, or the fact that Murray had reached base seven times in his eight times at bat in the first two games,” The New York Times reported. “‘Is everybody here so I can answer this for the last time, I hope?’ Murray said.”
The next day, the hottest hitter in the Series went 0-for-4. In Game 4, he went 0-for-5 with a pair of strikeouts, a double play and a groundout as the potential tying run. He went 0-for-4 in Game 5 and the same in Game 6, with another double play. By the eighth inning of Game 7, he was 0-for-3, hitless in his past 20 plate appearances. Then he suffered the greatest insult: The Pirates, up by one, intentionally walked Ken Singleton to load the bases and face Murray.
The sidearming Kent Tekulve’s first two pitches were mistakes, sinkers at the belt, but Murray awkwardly tapped them foul. With the crowd at full volume, he lofted a fly ball to the edge of the warning track in right field for the final out. The crowd was silent again. The Orioles gave up two runs in the top of the ninth — with five pitchers sharing the blame — and the Series was soon over.
On paper, it’s about as low as a player has ever been. But they play more than one season — we all play more than one season — and Eddie Murray’s career is a testament to that. He was even better in 1980. He led the Orioles to the World Series in 1983, hitting two homers in the clinching Game 5. He came up as a postseason hero for the Orioles in 1996, when he was 40, an entire generation older than he was in 1979. He’s in the Hall of Fame. The 1979 World Series might be the 50th thing anybody thinks of when they hear his name now.
2. Graeme Lloyd, 1996
What he did: Was damaged, good
This was the first postseason for Derek Jeter, and by the end of it, the New York papers were already calling him the new Mr. October. It was the first high-leverage postseason for Mariano Rivera, who threw 14⅓ postseason innings and allowed only one run. But the most fun postseason breakout in this Series was by a guy few remember: Graeme Lloyd.
Lloyd was acquired in a trade from Milwaukee earlier that summer. He was absolutely terrible for New York in the regular season. He gave up 10 runs before he completed his second inning as a Yankee, and he was booed at home. (Worse, George Steinbrenner reportedly became furious at his GM over the deal.) It emerged that Lloyd had a bone spur in his elbow and had received a cortisone shot for his shoulder just before the trade, and the Brewers hadn’t told the Yankees. In the final week of the regular season, New York filed a “damaged goods” complaint with the league. The Yankees wanted the trade undone, for Lloyd to be back on the Brewers. If they could, they’d probably have demanded the Brewers take those 10 runs allowed back, too. But against all odds and logic, the Yankees kept Lloyd on the postseason roster while they waited for the league to decide on the grievance.
Lloyd was great in the early playoff rounds, and in the World Series, he was something else. He faced seven Atlanta batters across four games: Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff (three times) and Ryan Klesko (three times). Those three batters hit 92 homers and drove in 310 runners in the regular season, but Lloyd retired them all, getting a total of eight outs. By championship win probability added, Lloyd was the third-most valuable Yankee, ahead of Rivera and Jeter.
There was a great sequence in Game 4: The Yankees had come from six runs behind to tie the game and force extra innings. Bernie Williams batted with runners on first and second, and Bobby Cox intentionally walked him, loading the bases and pushing the go-ahead run to third. The Yankees pinch hit with Wade Boggs, a future Hall of Famer and one of the best on-base batters in history. He drew a walk to win the game. Bobby Cox still made the Hall of Fame as a manager, but boy, I don’t know. Graeme Lloyd got the win.
A hearing to settle the complaint had been scheduled for one week after the Series ended. It was postponed indefinitely, and the Yankees kept Lloyd.
1. Mel Didier, 1988
What he did: Scouted
The most famous an advance scout ever got was Mel Didier — for telling Kirk Gibson to look for the 3-2 slider Dennis Eckersley threw him on the last pitch of Game 1. Gibson’s hobbled swing produced the most dramatic home run in World Series history. Didier had spent the summer scouting the A’s, saw Eckersley fall into that predictable pattern in that particular situation, noticed and remembered it, and prophetically told Gibson that Eckersley always threw that pitch to lefties on that count. That’s the story, at least, but I don’t entirely buy it. I think the real story is even better, and Didier should be even more legendary for it.
To be clear: The story of Didier tipping off Gibson is reliable. This is not one of the many baseball legends that got told only years later, after memories had blurred. Didier was credited with Gibson’s homer just a week after that swing. (For that matter, newspapers were talking about the Dodgers’ exhaustive advance scouting of the A’s before Gibson homered. One of Didier’s partners in the project, Steve Boros, had even been the A’s manager a few years earlier.) Gibson homered on Oct. 15, and here’s the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 22:
It turns out that Gibson was looking for the slider in that situation because scouts Mel Didier, Steve Boros and Jerry Stephenson had detected a tendency on Eckersley’s part to throw it to left-handed hitters in critical situations. Didier, Boros and Stephenson had met with Dodger players the day before to discuss the A’s.
Didier, a Texan, reflected on that meeting Friday and said:
“When we got to Eckersley, and it was my turn to speak, I used my best Southern drawl and said, ‘Pardners, you can bank on this as sure as I’m standing here. If you’re a left-handed hitter and you get in a tough, tough situation with Eckersley, he’s going to throw you that back-door slider.’
“Well, when the count went full on Kirk, the players tell me that everyone on the bench was whispering, ‘Back-door slider,’ and Kirk told me later that he stepped out of the batter’s box and kind of laughed and smiled to himself because he could see me standing there talking about it. He said: ‘Mel, I knew what I was going to get, picked it up as soon as it left his hand and hit it as hard as I could.'”
Satisfaction? “Of course,” Didier said. “We work hard on the reports.”
It is not that Didier knew Eck threw 3-2 sliders to lefties; it’s that Didier knew he threw 3-2 sliders to lefties in a specific subset of situations. As Didier said, “It was broken down more than that. I said that if Eck faces a left-handed batter only on a 3-2 pitch with the tying or winning run on second and/or third, I’ll bet that you are going to get a backdoor slider. I’d seen the A’s play 25 or 30 times, and at the end of the season, I followed them closely.”
The story has been told and retold, and it’s consistent. Gibson confirmed it almost word for word: “He came up to me [before the Series] in his Southern drawl and said, ‘Pardnuh, as sure as I’m standin’ here breathin’, you’re goin’ to see a 3-2 backdoor slider.’ You can watch it [on the video]. As soon as he comes set at 3-2, I called timeout, and I step out of the box, and I’m looking at him and hearing, ‘Pardnuh, as sure as I’m standin’ here breathin’, you’re goin’ to see a 3-2 backdoor slider.'”
We have two facts established: Didier definitely told Gibson to look for a slider on 3-2 from Eckersley. Eckersley threw a slider on 3-2 to Gibson, which Gibson hit for a home run.
It seems to follow that Didier had, in fact, observed Eckersley throwing multiple sliders to left-handed batters on 3-2, that he had a good reason for telling Gibson what he did. But did he?
Eckersley had incredible control. He rarely went to three-ball counts. He went to 21 full counts in the entire 1988 regular season, and only 10 of those were to left-handed batters. There was one more in the postseason — to the Red Sox’s Rich Gedman — so at most, Didier could have seen Eck throw 11 3-2 pitches to left-handed batters in 1988.
Realistically, it would have been far fewer than that. Didier said he saw 30-ish A’s games and specifies that he was watching at the end of the season. There were only five 3-2 lefty counts from Aug. 1 onward, including the one in the ALCS to Gedman. Didier says specifically that Eck’s tendency to throw 3-2 sliders emerged in situations with the winning run on second and/or third. Let’s be generous and say the tying or winning run: There were only two such situations in 1988, one in May — before the Dodgers would have been advance scouting an AL team — and one in the ALCS to Gedman.
Let’s assume Didier saw all five 3-2 counts after Aug. 1, including the one in the ALCS to Gedman. Well, three of the hitters Eckersley was facing were terrible: Thad Bosley had a .618 OPS that year. Jim Eisenreich had an OPS of .518. Spike Owen had an OPS of .694. We don’t know what Eckersley threw them. But if you wanted to know what Eckersley would throw to Kirk Gibson — the NL MVP that year! — would it really help to know what he threw to Jim Eisenreich? Eisenreich was closer to a pitcher batting than he was to Gibson.
That leaves Eddie Murray, a star like Gibson. And it leaves Rich Gedman in the ALCS.
We don’t know what Eckersley threw Murray. Let’s assume it was a slider. We do know what Eckersley threw Gedman because that game — which took place just a week before the Gibson homer — is still on the internet. The tying run was on second, and the count was 3-2. Gedman was left-handed. If there was any pitch that Didier surely would have seen and that would have stuck in his mind, it was that pitch, and Eckersley threw a fastball!
Now, Didier definitely saw Eckersley pitch before 1988. Eck had been in the league for 14 years, but he had undergone a complete reinvention as a pitcher the previous two seasons. He was a starter his whole career through 1986. Scouting Dennis Eckersley in 1986 as a starter would arguably be less helpful than scouting some other team’s closer in 1988. What a pitcher does as a starter doesn’t tell you anything about what he’ll do as a reliever. Eckersley’s strikeout rate doubled when he moved to the bullpen. He became a totally different player. Listen to Paul Molitor tell it:
“As a starter, he was a dominant, hard thrower who controlled games with velocity, aggressiveness and intimidation. As he got older, his control became better. He had two pitches as a closer that were so effective you couldn’t look for one or the other. There was no pattern to what he would throw you. You could see four sliders in a row on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, you’d never see a slider.”
(Eckersley pitched as a reliever in 1987 but in the American League for a non-contending team. There’s no reason to think a Dodgers advance scout would have seen much, if any, of him.)
Eckersley also sounds skeptical that Didier picked up on anything. “First of all, I didn’t get to 3-2 on too many hitters, so if [Gibson] wants to give the credit to the scout, that’s OK,” he said. Said Eckersley’s catcher, Ron Hassey: “To tell you the truth, you hear rumors that every time Dennis Eckersley got to 3-2, he threw a slider. That’s not true. He didn’t walk anybody, and he never got to 3-2 all that often. Again, it makes a good story that the Dodgers knew what was coming, but it wasn’t the truth.”
Did Mel Didier see Eckersley continually throw 3-2 sliders to lefties in 1988, enough that the average person would be convinced? I’m skeptical.
Here’s what I do believe: Didier knew Eckersley as a competitor. They’d been in the game together for a long time. He had a sense of Eckersley that he probably couldn’t fully explain logically but that he could intuit. I think he saw Eckersley throw one slider to a 3-2 batter — to Murray, with a runner on first base and a two-run lead — and with that pitch and his previous knowledge of Eckersley the person and his scattered impressions of human psychology, he made a decision: Gibson needed to look slider. (He might even have figured it would be better for Gibson to look slider and be wrong than to look fastball and be wrong.) Didier also knew that nobody would listen to him if he said, in that pre-Series meeting, “Pardners, I don’t have any real evidence of this, and I’m really not sure if I’m right, but sure as I’m standing here, I have a weird, unconvincing hunch that Eckersley might throw you a backdoor slider on 3-2. I saw him do it once, out of a few times. In fact, last time I saw him face a lefty in that situation, he threw a fastball. But shoot, I don’t know. Look slider, OK?”
Didier, who died in 2017 after 60 years of scouting and front-office work, did two amazing things that only a scout with his experience, expertise and authority could do: He guessed right, and he convinced Kirk Gibson that he wasn’t guessing at all. Is it a better story if he was holding four aces or bluffing with a pair of threes?
- Derek Holland for throwing a strike after 11 consecutive balls to start his outing in the 2010 World Series.
- Goose Gossage for talking his manager out of intentionally walking Kirk Gibson in the 1984 World Series (and then allowing a homer to Gibson).
- John Stuper for throwing a complete game as a rookie in Game 6 of the 1982 World Series, despite a 12-run lead and two long rain delays that stretched the game past five hours.
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