Monday, August 24, 2015

ECK, GIBSON & A PICTURE WORTH MORE THAN 1,000 WORDS



Kirk Gibson. The Eck. The Picture.

When I saw the two baseball legends captured in a picture that was posted in a twitter
feed I rarely check, a flood of memories rushed through my brain like Usain Bolt on crack:
incredibly fast, producing a burst of unbridled joy that ends with one simple word:

Wow.

A simple photo where a caption wasn't necessary and the subjects didn't seem to mind
their moment was interrupted by someone whose sole purpose was seemingly to post
the picture on Facebook just to get 1,000 'likes'.

Dennis Eckersley, as cool a guy as there's ever been in the history of game, spending
a moment with a man he's forever connected with, Kirk Gibson, a man who played the
game with spectacular grit, passion, and intensity. If you know what happened with them
on a baseball field in 1988, it wouldn't take much to figure how beautiful this simple,
yet powerful photo really is.

It was the first time I'd ever seen them pictured together, in or out of uniform, since
one incredible baseball moment put them in the same sentence forever in 1988.


1988 represented a time in my life where baseball was the second most important thing
in my life behind my family. I had just finished my first season as a minor-league player
in the Boston Red Sox organization and I was as engrossed in the game as a person
could possibly be. It was my true passion.


In the Fall of 1988, the Oakland A's met the Los Angles Dodgers in Game 1 of the
World Series. Eckersley was the most dominant pitcher in the game as a shut down
closer, preceding Yankees great Mariano Rivera as a baseball assassin whom opposing
hitters seemingly conceited at-bats to because they realized they had virtually no shot
of getting a hit off them, much less the fat part of the barrel on the ball.

Gibson was a throwback, a player who asked no quarter and gave no quarter, either.
As a newly signed free-agent, he changed the country club culture of the of the Dodgers,
imposing his will, intensity, and passion on a team that desperately needed it.


By the time the World Series came around Gibson was a shadow of the player
who'd win the National League MVP that season. His legs ravaged with injury,
making him a man who could  barely walk, let alone swing a bat with any kind
of authority.

Gibson didn't start Game 1 against  Oakland, in fact, he didn't even bother to come
out for pre-game introductions because he was in such pain. He did promise Dodgers
manager Tom Lasorda he could give him one at-bat if he needed him in a late-game
situation.

That situation came three hours later when the Dodgers trailed the A's by a run
in the ninth inning. Eckersley came in and more than a few fans headed for the
exits to beat the traffic. Gibson came to the plate with two outs, walking as if
there wasn't a single ounce of joy in his life, the happiness sapped by the
pain of injuries sweeping through his lower body.


If you're a baseball fan, you know what happened next. Gibson shocked the
Eck and the baseball world with a walk-off home run to win the game, propelling
the Dodgers to a monumental upset of the almighty A's.

Flash forward 27 years later to Detroit, where Gibson is working as an analyst
for the Tigers, the Eck is doing the same for the Red Sox. They meet in
a hallway of the broadcast wing of Comerica Park. I could only imagine what
was going through their minds when they stopped to chat.

Gibson was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Eckersley dealt with
demons in the early part of his career, battling alcoholism and a career that was
going in the tank before reinventing himself as a Hall of Fame closer. Gibson's
signature moment of his career was a heart-stopping, iconic home run that will
will forever be part of baseball lore. Eckersely will forever be the dominant
closer who gave up that magnanimous home run.


But that moment didn't shatter Eckersely as it did Donnie Moore or even
Ralph Branca, who gave up the home run to Bobby Thompson in the ninth
inning to give the NY Giants the pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951.

Eck was just too good and downright too cool for that to happen.

I had the good fortune of working with Eckersley for two years during my time
at NESN. A man once said to me, "Paul, perception is reality." Eckersley convinced
me that was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard.

Eckersley was  perceived to be brash, cocky, and arrogant. He was somewhat reserved
off the field and a bit of a showman  on it. He'd punctuate a big  strikeout with a point
of the finger or a pump of the fist. Admittedly, I bought into that image as well.

 

That perception couldn't be further from reality.

Eckersley is the coolest, most down-to-earth Hall of Famer  there's ever been. While
at NESN, he never played the role of a superstar, never talked down to anyone, or
make like he was better than anyone else.

He always had a minute for me, always returned my calls, and never said no when
I'd ask him to offer his unpaid analysis while I worked at MLB.com.



Unfortunately, during all my years in sports broadcasting, I never met Gibson, but I'm
fairly certain the perception of him was reality. He was gritty, gutty, and a bad-ass
when it came to competing on the field. I'm sure he's battling Parkinson's disease just
as he did all those injuries during his magical season in 1988: Without complaint and
dignity.

When pictured together as they were in Detroit, Eckersley and Gibson represented what
a lot o life and baseball is all about. There is triumph, defeat, victory, set-up backs,
toughness, trying times, passion, dignity, energy, and perseverance.

For me, it will forever be a picture of more than 1,000 words.

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