The night Kirk Gibson made deadline

kirk-gibson-bobble-grab.jpgKirk Gibson bobblehead.

They're bringing Kirk Gibson back to Dodger Stadium Thursday to throw out the first ball on opening day, and like most of us who were there the night Gibson became a part of World Series history Joe Amalfitano has a story to tell.

Amalfitano's half-century career as player, coach, manager and scout — "I'm a lifer," he says — began when he was a rookie sitting on the New York Giants bench as Willie Mays made his famous catch in the 1954 World Series. Thirty-four years later, when Amalfitano was coaching third base for the Dodgers, he became the first man to shake Gibson's hand as he limped around the bases after his historic game-winning home run.

So to this day, whenever they show the the most memorable highlights of past World Series, Amalfitano relives two of his most memorable days at the ballpark. Once in a while, he even gets to see himself.

"Sometimes, they'll cut away when Gibson gets between first and second base and he's pumping his fist and limping like Chester in 'Gunsmoke,'" Amalfitano says. "But sometimes, they'll show the whole thing and I'll yell to my wife, 'Hey, get out here. Look at me.'"

My own memory of Gibson's home run elicits a different emotion: Terror.

I was writing a sports column for the LA Daily News then — talk about memories, it was one of the fastest growing papers in the country in the late 80s and now it's laying people off in droves and laboring to keep the doors open — and the game was shaping up as one of those easy ones sportswriters long for. The Oakland Athletics were winning easily and Dennis Eckersley, the best relief pitcher in baseball, was working the bottom of the ninth.

All we needed was a final score and we were good to go. And then it turned into our worst nightmare.

The people in the ballpark were screaming with joy after Gibson hit his home run, of course, but we were running for our lives. Through the mob of fans, down the elevator, crammed into a small interview room off the Dodgers' locker room where, wonder of wonders, there was Gibson waiting for us.

I don't think I'm giving away any secrets when I say Gibson was not always the easiest guy to deal with. You might catch him on a good day and he'd be curtly civil or you might get that out-of- my-face look that would make you decide to go talk to Orel Hershiser instead.

But just as Gibson had known what to do against Eckersley, he knew what his responsibility was now. For five minutes, the only voice in the room was his and, he took us through it all. Where he had been. What he had thought. What he had been told. What he had said. What he had seen. What he had done. What he had felt. Everything that had happened before, during and after his epic at-bat.

As we raced upstairs to write our stories without the luxury of thought we realized no one had to ask a single question. As far as we were concerned, Gibson had performed two heroic acts that night.

Gibson is struggling with Parkinson's disease now--some of the proceeds from Opening Day will go fund his foundation that promotes its awareness--and everybody who remembers his most famous night at the ballpark can only wish him well.

Joe Amalfitano, I'm sure, would like to shake his hand.

Me, too.

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