Friday, October 17, 2008

History Unfiltered

I enjoy good sports writing. Like anyone, I enjoy Gary Smith, Frank DeFord, and Peter Gammons. Bill James or Rob Neyer could write books about the 100 all-time best coffee pots and I'd probably pre-order it on Amazon, at least if Posnanski hasn't written that one up as an aside on his blog already. Be it baseball, boxing, or curling, a good writer can make any sports story sizzle or, at the very least, make you think, so I'll always seek it out.

But you know something? Sometimes sportswriters get in the way. They don't mean to, of course, but sometimes, in the honest and noble desire to illuminate an event with sparkling prose, they sort of lose sight of the event itself. As a result, we lose sight of the fact that a spectacular happening is no less spectacular absent the adornment of historians and scribes.

Example: Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series. I watched it happen on TV and practically -- hell, maybe literally -- fell of the damn couch. Since then, however, I have mostly read about it. Maybe a hundred times, even. Every article about it sets the stage with Gibson's humorlessness as the new arrival at Dodgertown in spring training that year. They all go on to talk about how Gibby used his force of will to turn an undisciplined Dodger team into a champion. About how, hobbled, the 1988 NL MVP came up to bat and hit that homer off of Eckersley. It's a hero story now, and even most televised replays of it come complete with an overlay of narration, context, and reflection, all in Very Epic Terms.

Somewhere along the line, however, we've forgotten that this was still an at bat in a ballgame, and that the normal dynamics of an at bat in a ballgame were unfolding at the time. Gibson certainly didn't know he was about to author a signature moment, he was only trying to be the tough gamer he'd always been. Eckersley certainly didn't think he was about to become one of the few Hall of Famers best known for a moment of failure instead of triumph, he was simply trying to get Game 1 in the bag and maybe think up some canned quotes for the beat writers. The thing is, most extraordinary moments are perfectly normal up until the moment they become extraordinary, and those moments of normalcy are often forgotten after the fact.

But thankfully not this moment, as ESPN has a nice oral recitation of the leadup to one of baseball's most amazing highlights ever, straight from the mouths of Gibson and Eckersley:

DENNIS ECKERSLEY:Mike Davis was a .200 hitter. I have no idea why I walked him. I gave him way too much credit. I glanced over at the on-deck circle, but I'm not really paying attention because I'm pissed I walked Davis. Then the crowd starts to rise and I look back over, and there's Gibson . . .

KIRK GIBSON: It goes 3-2, and there's a report from Mel Didier, one of our scouts. Didier's been associated with baseball for about 50 years. He says to me, "Partner, as sure as I'm standing here breathing, Eckersley throws a backdoor slider on 3-2." Now, there are people who claim Eckersley almost never went to a 3-2 count. He might have gone to one three or four times that season, but Mel had the book on it.

I stepped out of the batter's box and I said to myself, looking at Eckersley, "As sure as I'm standing here breathing, you're gonna throw a backdoor slider." Then I stepped back in.
These aren't necessarily new insights -- I've heard Gibson mention the Didier scouting report a bunch of times in the past, and I'm sure Eck has talked about Mike Davis before -- but the presentation is new and refreshing. Just two guys talking about it. No background music. No narration. No Jack Buck "I don't believe what I just saw!" Not that those are bad things -- Jack's call was sublime -- they're just a bit distracting when you're interested in going beyond the newsreel nature of the moment.

More please.


Daniel said...

Am I the only one who remembers the Vin Scully call better? Being in the LA area, we were blessed with Scully's play by play for the telecast. I will never forget watching that moment on TV. Other than chanting "Wally" in Angel Stadium in 1986, this homerun is probably my first substantial baseball memory (I was 6 at the time).

I will always remember that call as Gibson circled the bases.

"On a night of the improbable, the impossible has happened."

I just got chills.

Mr. Thursday said...

Daniel --

I, too, think only of the Scully call. Though I think the line was, "in a year that's been so improbable, the impossible has happened."

No one was quite as good as Scully at capturing the hugeness and minuteness of each moment.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Yeah, that's another aspect of this right? IIRC, Scully was doing the call for NBC, right? That's where I was watching. Wasn't Buck radio? If that's the case, the only reason I remember the Buck call is because it is the one played on retrospectives and highlight shows all of the time.

Daniel said...

Good call on the quote. I guess my memory isn't pristine, but I just remember Vin Scully being able to describe something so incredibly exciting with such simple language. He is the best broadcaster at being able to convey the full effect of an epic moment like that without raising his voice to shrill levels.

There are great calls like "the Giants win the pennant" and "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" that have their place. But give me Scully with his barely raised voice.

rob said...

At least Eck bounced back and used this event to give the world the phrase "Walk-off".

Grant said...

To be fair, you probably had a little "liquid help" falling of the couch, amiright?

Craig Calcaterra said...

Well, considering I was 15 at the time, the liquid was probably Cherry Coke or Gatorade or something.