America needs a Kirk Gibson moment, now more than ever.
Americans are in a funk. There’s just no way to sugarcoat it, which is usually my first reaction to bad news. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the “wrong direction.” A recent CBS poll put that plurality at 75 percent. There’s some deep psychology behind those polls, all of which is above my pay grade. For now, I’m just calling it a giant buzz kill.
However, I would venture a guess that what’s exacerbating our national wall of worry — composed of Covid, inflation, Buffalo, war, the border, crime, climate, and the enigma of Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson — is America’s protracted state of polarization. It’s not at the same level as 1861, but it’s bad. In fact, a new report in the journal Science says our national polarization is degenerating into sectarianism, which is much more insidious and corrosive than a mere clash of opinions.
“This phenomenon differs from the familiar divergence each party holds on policy issues related to the economy, foreign policy and the role of social safety nets,” notes the report. “Instead it centers on members of one party holding a basic abhorrence for their opponents—an ‘othering’ in which a group conceives of its rivals as wholly alien in every way. This toxic form of polarization has fundamentally altered political discourse, public civility and even the way politicians govern.”
I think underlying the wave of pessimism sweeping our country is the fear that it’s not going to get much better if we devolve into a sectarian society, if there’s nobody we can depend on to rise above it and invoke our better angels as Lincoln did more than 150 years ago.
It’s certainly hard to see that kind of leadership today. The Twitter war going on right now between Jeff Bezos and Joe Biden is emblematic of America’s leadership void. Dialogue in this country has devolved into bickering and social media one-upmanship. To quote Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s disconcerting.
Enter Kirk Gibson.
One of the gifts that sports give us is that of real-time allegory. Often what we see played out on the field — or track, court, course or ice rink — reflects the tragedy, frustration, courage and victory of our daily lives. Think Tiger Woods persevering at the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg, Michael Jordan powering through a playoff game with the flu in 1997 to score 38 points, or Sonny Leon and Rich Strike’s Cinderella moment at this year’s Kentucky Derby.
But it’s spring time and our thoughts turn to baseball, so let us now remember Kirk Gibson in 1988.
It was the first game of the World Series between two legendary teams: Tommy Lasorda’s Los Angeles Dodgers and Tony LaRussa’s Oakland Athletics. First games don’t often determine a World Series, but they often set the tone. This one was held in Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine on a warm October night and naturally, it was a close game, with the A’s up by a run in the bottom of the 9th. Dennis Eckersley, the A’s ace who had 45 saves during the regular season, was brought in to close the game. Dodger Mike Davis was on first, but the team only had one out left.
What happened next would eventually be judged as one of the greatest moments in the history of baseball.
Dodger slugger Kirk Gibson was out of the lineup that night. He’d sustained serious leg injuries during the pennant series and as the game started, he was in the clubhouse watching it on TV while getting some physical therapy. When announcer Vin Scully scanned the dugout and announced that Gibson was “nowhere to be found,” it riled Gibson up and he sent word to Lasorda that he was ready to pinch-hit.
Lasorda, never one to shy away from drama, put him in. This YouTube clip is 9 minutes long, but it’s exquisite — the drama, the tension, Scully’s perfect announcing and the unbelievable fairy-tale ending. As Scully said, as only Scully could, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
Like any good playoff baseball game, this one had been a grind. It was mentally and physically intense. And then suddenly, resolution. The gridlock was broken. One person answered the call and shifted the tide. Gibson never had another at-bat for the rest of the Series, but it didn’t really matter. He had set the tone and the Dodgers went on to win it all.
As an allegory for our times, it’s just exactly perfect. Don’t we all long for someone to come along and, at the flick of a bat, lift us out of our national morass? Our life today is as grinding as that first World Series game, one at-bat after another, with no clear resolution. But unlike baseball, it’s doubtful that a single individual will come along to change the game. We may project our hopes and aspiration onto sports, but at the end of the day, there’s sports and then there’s real life.
But allegories are open to interpretation, so here’s mine. Maybe we are Kirk Gibson; or Kirk Gibson is all of us. Maybe that’s all of us in the clubhouse, tending to our injuries (which are many) and watching life go on at a distance. Then something equivalent to Scully’s observation about Gibson’s absence shocks us. We rally ourselves, and realize it’s not up to somebody else. It’s up to us. We are the ones who have to say enough of this grind, this endless bickering and demonizing. We can change this. But we have to get to the plate and try, injuries and all. And maybe, just maybe, we can send that ball high up in the air, slipping the surly bonds of our differences in a long, tide-shifting arc.
And a year from now, maybe we’ll hear Vin Scully’s words again: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
I know what some of you will say. “That can never happened as long as X is in charge!” “As soon as X gets a brain we might be able to have a conversation.” “The only way we’re going to fix things is to make sure they go my way.” Sorry. You’re still on the team, but stay in the dugout. This play is for people who hope against all odds, people who know rationally they have no chance of prevailing, but swing away nonetheless. This play is for Kirk Gibson.