BOSTON – The Los Angeles Dodgers’ last World Series title 30 years ago is remembered for Kirk Gibson’s home run.
Maybe just as unlikely: The Dodgers finished well under .500 the prior two seasons. In 1988, they made it to the postseason and beat the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series to face – and defeat – an Oakland A's team that seemingly was more stacked.
“I know talent when I see it and our guys did not compare to those guys in any way,” then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda told USA TODAY Sports at Fenway Park before Game 2 of the World Series. “You look at that team and look at our team, you wonder how the hell we beat them? Some how, some way we beat them.”
The Dodgers return to Chavez Ravine on Friday night for Game 3 against the Boston Red Sox, trailing 2-0. The last time a team lost the first two games of a World Series on the road and came back to win was 1981, when the Dodgers rallied to beat the New York Yankees. Lasorda recalls that 30 years ago, not many people gave the Dodgers a chance, either.
That A’s roster had a would-be Hall of Famer: Dennis Eckersley, one of the game’s best closers, who gave up that home run in Game 1 in Gibson’s only at-bat of the series. First baseman Mark McGwire certainly has the numbers for Cooperstown, although his link to – and then admission to using – performance-enhancing drugs has kept the 12-time All-Star out.
Despite those PED ties, McGwire received the ninth-most votes four times and the 10th-most votes once. That’s higher than any player on the 1988 Dodgers roster finished in Hall of Fame voting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
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The Dodgers did have Orel Hershiser, who won the Cy Young Award that season and had two complete-game victories en route to securing the World Series MVP award.
“Orel couldn’t pitch every game,” Lasorda quipped. “We did not have an interesting team to be where we were. For us to win the whole thing was a miracle.”
Take the man hoisting Hershiser after the Dodgers clinched the title in Game 5 in Oakland. That’d be Rick Dempsey, the team’s backup catcher who was old enough at the time (39) that he didn’t have to wear a helmet under his mask behind the plate. Dempsey was in the game after Mike Scioscia injured his knee in Game 4.
“When you look at that roster and the pieces we put together, keep in mind we were 17 or more games under .500 in 1986 and 1987,” Fred Claire, the general manager of the Dodgers at the time, told USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t know there’s a team that’s ever finished that far back in consecutive seasons and then went on to win the World Series.”
Claire targeted pitching during the 1988 off-season, signing relievers Jay Howell and Jesse Orosco. The Dodgers acquired John Tudor midseason in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for fan-favorite first baseman Pedro Guerrero.
The staff combined to limit McGwire and fellow slugger Jose Canseco to a hit each in the World Series, although both were key in Oakland’s Game 3 victory. The A’s hit .177 in the series.
“During the stretch run, Howell said, ‘Put the saddle on my back. I’ll get you there,’ ” Claire said. “That was symbolic of the whole group. It was the attitude – and it wasn’t just Jay. Look at (utility player) Mickey Hatcher, who was one of the first players I signed. I placed a high value on attitude, not just statistics.”
Many of those players and coaches gathered for a reunion earlier this year.
“The conversations there felt like the 1988 title happened two days earlier,” Claire said.
Lasorda, now 91, wearing a Dodgers jacket feet from where the team he managed for two decades fell to 2-0 in this year’s World Series, perked up when asked if it felt like 30 years since Los Angeles won a title.
“No,” Lasorda said. “It feels like about a month ago.”
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