By Glen Sparks
Kirk Gibson didn’t get the joke.
The “comic” was Jesse Orosco. A left-handed relief pitcher, Orosco liked to pull a good prank. In this case, before a spring training game in Vero Beach, Fla., he loaded Gibson’s cap with black shoe polish. Gibson, who had signed with the Dodgers after the 1987 season, pitched a fit when he put on his cap and polish began to run down his face.
He berated his new team, stormed out of the clubhouse and was probably ready to high-tail it back to his old team, the Detroit Tigers. Gibson hadn’t signed with the Dodgers to play pranks. He had signed with the Dodgers to win a World Series. Did everyone on the team understand that? Yes, sir. Clear.
As you may know, the Dodgers did indeed win a World Series in 1988. The pitching was outstanding. Local guy Tim Leary (Santa Monica High School) went 17-11 with a 2.91 ERA (115 ERA+). Rookie Tim Belcher finished 12-6, also with a 2.91 ERA. Orel Hershiser, meanwhile, was incredible. The tall, slender right-hander finished 23-8 with a 2.26 ERA (149 ERA+). He threw eight shutouts and a record-breaking 59 straight scoreless innings.
The Dodgers’ offense in 1988 didn’t quite match the pitching. Outfielder Mike Marshall hit 20 home runs and led the team with 82 RBI. Gibson drove in just 79 runs. He hit a solid, but not spectacular, 25 home runs. He batted .290, again, good but not great. He did walk enough (73 times in 632 plate appearances) to record a .377 on-base percentage. His slugging percentage was .483, and his OPS was .860. He also stole 31 bases in 35 attempts.
Hershiser, not surprisingly, won the 1988 National League Cy Young Award. Gibson, somewhat surprisingly, won the MVP. Was he the correct choice? Did Gibson’s fiery persona make him the emotional pick over a more deserving player? Or, did that persona help propel the Dodgers to a championship season? Sparky Anderson, Gibson’s manager in Detroit, once said, “(Gibson’s) a man. He comes to play and is ready to fight, down and dirty, day after day.”
Gibson, who signed with the Dodgers on Jan. 29, 1988, remains a controversial player. Even when he played in Detroit, near his hometown, he had the reputation of being ornery and temperamental, often with autograph-seeking fans.
The guy with the perpetual three days of beard stubble never turned into the superstar that some had predicted. Anderson thought he might be looking at the next Mickey Mantle. Actually, Gibson never made an All-Star team and never led the league in an important offensive category (The Mick made 16 All-Star teams and led the American League in important offensive categories throughout his career.) The former Michigan State football player was a big guy (6-feet-3, 215 pounds), and he could run, but he couldn’t throw a baseball from here to there. He had one of the weakest arms in the majors.
Even so, Gibson earned MVP votes in four different seasons. He finished with 255 home runs, 284 stolen bases, a .352 on-base percentage and an OPS+ of 123. … And, then he stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for just one season. He collected 2.5 percent of the vote in 2001, and that was that.
By many measures, 1988 was his best year. He finished with a career-high 6.5 WAR, for instance. He scored 106 times, the only time he hit the century mark in that category. His on-base percentage was good for 4th as was his OPS.
So, if not Gibson, who should have won the ’88 MVP? Well, there was always fellow Dodger Hershiser, who finished sixth. Darryl Strawberry ended up second in the voting, followed by Kevin McReynolds (Mets) Andy Van Slyke (Pirates) and Will Clark (Giants). Strawberry hit the most home runs of the group (39), Clark drove in the most runs (109), Gibson scored the most runs, stole the most bases and had the highest batting average and on-base percentage. Strawberry also had the highest slugging percentage (.545) and OPS (.911).
Here is a look at WAR for the top six finishers:
Van Slyke 6.4
Gibson played on a Dodgers team that went 94-67. Strawberry and McReynolds, though, played on a Mets team that ended up 100-60. The Pirates, meanwhile, finished 15 games back in second place at 85-75. The Giants were 83-79 and settled in fourth.
So, did the shoe polish incident make a difference? Did Orosco have a blackened hand in helping Gibson win the MVP? This argument has some merit. The shoe polish story was big news right away. Media reported that Gibson was now in charge of the Dodger clubhouse, and this would be no laid-back LA Story in ’88. Gibby led the team the whole way, along with an incredible assist from Hershiser.
Gibson continued his extraordinary run in the World Series. He came to bat one time, on two bad legs. He blasted a home run to win Game 1 in one of baseball’s greatest moments.(The home run, though, played no part in the MVP voting. Writers must send in their picks before the postseason begins.)
Gibby played two more injury-riddled seasons in LA before going to the Royals, then to the Pirates and, finally, back to Detroit. He was probably never a superstar, but he almost always was the most driven player on the field. He wanted to win; he just wanted teammates to leave the shoe polish at home.