Write a Big Moment For All It’s Worth

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all have favorite scenes from books and movies, story moments that hit us so powerfully we never forget them. One of mine is the stump clearing scene in Shane.

Then there are the moments that happen in real life. They can be little things, like the police officer who lay down on the floor to comfort a little boy.

Or they can be big, with millions of people watching. Of this variety, my all time favorite is the Kirk Gibson home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. You could not have scripted it any better—a hobbled hero given one shot to save the day against overwhelming odds. Here’s how it went down.

THE BACKSTORY

The Los Angeles Dodgers had been an under .500 team for two straight seasons. Then they got the opportunity to sign a premiere free agent, Kirk Gibson, age 31. The $4.5 million investment paid off. Gibson won the National League MVP award, batting .290 with 25 home runs, 76 RBIs, and 31 stolen bases. He led the Dodgers to their first division title in three years.

In the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers upset the New York Mets in seven games. Gibson hit home runs in Games 4 and 5. But his knees were hurting. He needed injections to play. And then in the last inning of Game 5, while sliding into second to break up a double play, Gibson pulled a hamstring. Which meant he would be unable to play against the Oakland A’s in the World Series. That made the Dodgers huge underdogs.

THE SET UP

Game 1 of the Series was at Dodger Stadium. The legendary Dodger announcer, Vin Scully, was calling the game for NBC, along with Joe Garagiola.

The Dodgers scored two runs in the first inning. The fans were excited. But in the second inning, Jose Conseco of the A’s, he of the huge (i.e., juiced) biceps, hit a screaming line drive with the bases loaded. The ball scorched over the centerfield fence and actually dented a TV camera. That’s how hard it was hit. Just like that, it was 4-2, A’s.

The Dodgers got another run in the sixth, and that’s where things stayed until the bottom of the ninth. With the score 4-3, the Dodgers had to face the most feared relief pitcher in all of baseball, Dennis Eckersley. This future Hall of Famer simply did not lose ballgames. I will describe the mood of the crowd by lifting a line from Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s immortal poem “Casey at the Bat.” On that stricken multitude a death-like silence sat.

Gibson was in the Dodgers training room, bags of ice on his legs, watching the game on TV. Before the inning started, Vin Scully said the following: “If you’re in the ballpark with binoculars, your first thought would be, late in the game, is Kirk Gibson in the Dodgers dugout? The answer would appear to be no…There is no Gibson. The man who was the spearhead of the Dodgers’ offense throughout the year, who saved them in the league championship series, will not see any action tonight for sure. He is not even in the dugout.”

At which point Gibson sat up on the training table and said, “My ass.” He threw on his uniform and told the ball boy to set up a batting tee. After a few thwacks he told the boy to inform Tommy Lasorda, the manager, that he could hit.

Eckersley retired the first two batters. Lasorda sent Mike Davis in as a pinch hitter. Davis had not exactly set the league on fire. In his own words, “I sucked that season” Yet this journeyman somehow drew a walk from Eckersley! The tying run was now on first base.

And then Kirk Gibson came out of the dugout, bat in hand. As Vin Scully put it on the broadcast: “And look who’s coming up. All year long, they looked to him to light the fire, and all year long, he answered the demands, until he was unable to start tonight with two bad legs…and with two out, you talk about a roll of the dice, this is it.”

THE MOMENT

The fans at the stadium went wild. I went wild in front of my TV.

But we all became more subdued after the first two pitches. Gibson, looking feeble, fouled them off. The count was now 0-2, and I don’t think there was anyone on the planet—except perhaps Gibson himself—who thought he could survive. Eckersley himself remembers thinking, “I thought he was a lamb. I’m thinking I’m going to throw him a high fastball and he’s done.”

Meanwhile, Mike Davis was becoming a distraction down at first.

On the next pitch, Gibson hit a little dribbler up the first base line. As he hobbled toward the bag, the ball managed to roll past the foul line. A miraculous save!

But Gibson was still up there with two strikes. Eckersley’s next pitch was a ball…and the A’s catcher, Ron Hassey, almost picked off Mike Davis at first!

Sheesh, could this tension get stretched any further?

Of course it could.

Gibson fouled off the next pitch. Then another ball from Eckersley, putting the count at 2-2.

Another ball, and Mike Davis steals second!

Now we’ve got a full count, two outs, bottom of the ninth, the tying run on second. And all Gibson was thinking about was putting the ball in play to score Davis.

Then he played a little mind game on Eckersley. Just before the next pitch Gibson called for time and stepped out of the box. Let Eckersley think about it as the fans were screaming. At the same time, Gibson was remembering what a scout told him. If ever he faced Eckersley with a 3-2 count, you can bet your ranch he’ll come at you with a “backdoor slider.”

Which is exactly what Eckersley threw. Gibson stuck out his bat and flipped it with his wrists. It didn’t look like a hard swing at all, but it happened to meet the ball in just the right spot.

Vin Scully called it: “High fly ball into right field! She is gone!”

Gibson started limping around the bases. Scully, as he was wont to do, let the crowd noise do the talking for a long moment. And then, off the cuff, came up with one of his fabled phrases: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”

Gibson did not have another plate appearance in the Series, but the momentum from his home run carried the Dodgers to a five-game upset of the A’s.

Now that you know the story, you can have a look at it below. For me, this never gets old:

Lesson: When you write a big scene, write it for all it’s worth. Don’t hold back! Overwrite. Feel the emotions. Stretch all tension to the limit. You will edit the scene later to polish the rough edges. You may need to scale things back a bit for a greater effect. But get that raw material down first. Then your scene will have the potential to be a winning home run.

What’s a scene from a book or a movie—or real life—that has stayed with you? Why does it work?

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44 thoughts on “Write a Big Moment For All It’s Worth

  1. Sending this to my brother, a huge Dodger fan, who probably remembers it.

    Brain’s not awake enough yet to contribute anything, but you’ve left me feeling inferior when it comes to the climactic scenes I’ve attempted to write.

    • Thanks, Terry. Climactic scenes are indeed difficult to write, but that’s what the readers are paying for…and we have the tools to give it to them.

      Happy waking time.

  2. Sixty years later, I can still see it in my mind.

    Griff Rimer, a crazed, sleazy coward and self-confessed ladies man who ran away from the liquor store holdup when the police arrived, finally has his due coming.

    Months later, he has finally gone over the edge, killed the perpetrator of the robbery who had escape from prison primarily to kill Griff. But Griff Rimer had one up his sleeve. He killed the perpetrator and is now running for his life. Out on the street, two cops realize who he is and prepared to intercept him. But an out-of-control car, spinning horizontally, is headed straight for Rimer. “He’s not going to make it,” (or something like that) one
    of the officers says. It’s true. The rolling car takes out Rimer in fell swoop manner, presumably in a horrid slaughtering of the crazed kid, though we never get to see that part of it. In quick succession, the bad guy who also presumably killed the dark, handsome quarterback of the football team, Buddy McCalla, is probably splattered across the street.

    The scene is from John Farris’ first novel, Harrison High. The scene is, my opinion, so vivid that the reader adds details, as I have done though they are not really in the scene, as he or she reads.

    By the way, the book is about 60 years old now. It is still one of my two favorite novels of all time.

    • Wow, Jim. I hadn’t heard of that novel or the writer, but a few minutes’ research revealed he was in his early 20s when he wrote it, and has had an excellent and prolific career. He’s still among us, and your remembrance is a great tribute to him.

      • Let me apologize, please. I just re-read what I wrote, this morning about 4:30, when I was waiting for my allergy medicine to kick in. All of the typos and stuff that didn’t make sense.

        Wrong sport, but if you throw the flag, I’ll understand.

  3. I’m a Yankee fan, so I didn’t know who to root for in the setup to this scene. 😝 But by the time Gibson was limping around the bases, my heart was soaring.

    That’s a hero scene right there.

    Thanks for *showing* us how to do it right!

    • Haha, Monica. To be polite, I won’t go into any stories about 1963 World Series! Except to say that I was nine, and wrote a poem about Sandy Koufax and sent it to him via Dodger Stadium…and was thrilled to get an autographed photo in return. I have it in a scrapbook next to my autographed Don Drysdale, which I got when I met him face to face (actually, my kid face looking up about a mile and his face looking down!)

      • FWIW, my parents went to Fairfax High, same as Sandy Koufax. He wasn’t famous then. 😉 Dodgers and Rams were “my” teams growing up. I’ll never forget the first Dodger game my dad took us to. (He was mostly into football). As we approached the entrance, we saw a player headed toward the field from what must have been the locker room. Dad looked up his number; someone we never heard of, which disappointed my kid brother. But his first at bat, he hit a home run. And that was a game where the Dodgers were down by 11 in the first inning. I remember Vince Scully (via our transistor radios), saying “And for those of you just tuning in, I’m sure you’re asking, ‘Did he say ELEVEN?'”

        • Ah, Vin. Such a big part of my childhood. Many a summer night I fell asleep as I listened to Vin call a Dodger game on the radio. My mom would have to come into my room and turn it off.

          • My favorite memory is when it was when it was umpire Frank Secory’s birthday and Vinnie, in blind faith that almost everyone in the stands was listening via radio rather than the PA system, said “On the count of three, everyone shout ‘Happy Birthday, Frank Secory.'”
            And we did, and (via Vinnie, since I was home listening), Secory looked into the stands, dumbfounded.
            OK-that’s probably enough reminiscing for one morning.

  4. Perfect example, Jim! And so timely, too. I just wrote my “big moment” this past week (and missed two TKZ posts while in the zone — sorry, Terry & Garry!).

    On a separate note, the Rams look fantastic this year. You must be pumped.

    • Right, Sue. The Rams were my team back in the days of Roman Gabriel and the Fearsome Foursome. Even when the went to St. Louis, I stayed faithful. Now they have the most awesome stadium in the world to play in. Think what it’ll be like if fans are ever allowed inside!

  5. Great post, Jim. I’m a baseball fan, though Pirates instead of Dodgers, but Kirk’s homerun was a magnificent comeback from an all-is-lost moment.

    The scene that haunts me is an all-is-lost moment from Denise Giardina’s STORMING HEAVEN, a mostly forgotten West Virginia classic written the year before that epic homer.

    The hero, Rondal Lloyd, strives to organize the coal miners of the southern WV coal fields circa 1920. But the UMWA won’t send an organizer to help, because it’s too dangerous. Rondall writes a letter to the union in Charleston.

    Months later he’s accosted by an older, Black miner after a shift. “Are you ready to ride the goat?” he says.

    “My God, you’re here,” Rondal exclaims.

    They meet in secret on hillsides at night, signing miners one at a time until the organizer, Johnson, is caught by company men and Baldwin-Felts detectives. They force Rondal to watch as they thrown Johnson into a coke oven.

    Johnson sings a hymn as he’s cast into fire.

    It worked, because I still hear the hymn, though the words weren’t provided.
    Shortly after, 20,000 coal miners faced company gunmen and U.S. armed forces at the Battle of Blair Mountain. They lost, but the UMWA organized southern WV.

    • Thanks, Louis, for mentioning another author I was not familiar with.

      Re: the Pirates. The very first game I ever went to at Dodger Stadium was against the Pirates. I remember the colors vividly, from the lush green of the grass to the black and white and yellow of the Pirate uniforms. Don Drysdale was pitching that day. The Dodgers won 6-4.

      But my next Pirate memory is being at Dodger Stadium when Willie Stargell hit a home run to beat us. Such is life!

  6. There are many. But what came to mind were two scenes from Braveheart, one of my all-time favorite movies.

    The first scene is when William Wallace learns of Murron’s murder. I don’t know exactly how long the scene ran from the time he rides out of the hills on his horse to the end, when he exacts his revenge on the English lord, but it was tense. The second scene is Wallace’s execution. In between views of his horrible torture, the camera pans the bloodthirsty crowd, which, for me heightened the tension and dread.

    I’ve watched the movie multiple times, and it never gets old for me.

    • That Mel. He knows how to make a movie. Apocalypto has several memorable moments, but the one that sticks out for me is when the main character, Jaguar Paw, is used as target practice for his Mayan captors. The tension is perfectly stretched and pretty much stays that way the rest of the film.

  7. The more dramatic story–a tragedy–would be the memory from the kid whose father decided to leave the stadium at the bottom of the ninth to beat the traffic.

    Great post!

    • You’re so right, John. Dodger fans are notorious for leaving the park early to beat traffic. I can’t imagine the regret of a family driving away, listening to the game on the radio, and hearing what happened. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such stories!

  8. The perfect example as I begin my last edit. I tried to concentrate hard, but my husband kept booing in my ear every time the A’s threw to first. I gave him a look, but as a Dodgers fan, he said, “You have to do it.”

    My first example was the Braveheart scene, too. My second is Sleepless in Seattle. Meg Ryan watches the Empire State Building from the restaurant. Doesn’t know Tom Hanks’s son is there waiting for her. She finally abandons her fiance and goes to the Building just as the little boy gives up and leaves. She waits for Hanks all evening. The Building observation deck is closing. Everyone leaves. She’s alone, probably thinking, what have I done. Then Hanks and his son catch the last ride up because the son has left his teddy bear up there. And they meet as she is being forced to take the last ride down.

    Ah, the last second. Ticking clock. Even in a RomCom and sports.

  9. The big moment should also be something the reader gives a sh*t about. The characters, the events, and the possibilities of the future should all have been set up beforehand, then the big moment should whack them like a homerun ball to the face and heart.

  10. “When you write a big scene, write it for all it’s worth. Don’t hold back! Overwrite. Feel the emotions. Stretch all tension to the limit. You will edit the scene later to polish the rough edges. You may need to scale things back a bit for a greater effect. But get that raw material down first. Then your scene will have the potential to be a winning home run.”
    Terrific advice for experienced writers and newbies, Jim.

  11. Such an epic story and such great advice for all of us writers.

    The first favorite scene for me that floated up from my subconscious after reading this is the climax of the 1964 film “Zulu.” After an all-day and all-night battle between a Zulu army of four thousand warriors and the hundred odd British defenders of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift in which numerous acts of heroism were made on both sides, the Zulu army massed on the hills around the station for a final assault that morning.

    The exhausted British defenders, behind their sandbags held their Martini-Henry rifles and waited the assault. The Zulus broke into booming song that echoed across the valley. The British company, which belonged to the (largely) Welsh 24 regiment, answered by singing “Men of Harlech”:

    “Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming,
    Can’t you see their spearpoints gleaming,
    See their warrior pennants streaming,
    To this battle field!”

    Both sides songs rise to a crescendo, then the Zulus chant, raise their assegais and shields, turn and leave, having honored their opponents.

  12. A great post, JSB, and so true. I remember that game and that moment vividly, though as a Yankee fan I had no skin in the game. Still, tough to not pull for Kirk in that moment.

    When I was living in South Carolina in the early 90’s I met Roman Gabriel. It was at a card show, but we had a mutual friend who introduced us before the show and we chatted for about five minutes. Seemed like a nice guy. My son still has the photo Roman signed for him that day.

    In that spirit of memorable dramatic movie scenes, how the scene in the John Wayne movie The Undefeated where Blue Boy, played by none other than Roman Gabriel, has been missing for many days and is feared dead, or worse, run off with the Confederate colonel’s daughter. At a desperate moment in an attack by Mexican bandits who outnumber John Wayne’s men by seemingly fifty to one, Blue Boy comes charging into camp leading Rock Hudson and the Confederates.

    Here’s hoping for a renewal of the Yankees/Dodgers World Series rivalry—and a repeat of 1977/78 instead of 81. 🙂

  13. What a great video! I watched the whole thing and felt the excitement, even knowing what the outcome would be.

    Several movie scenes immediately sprang into my mind:
    – Atticus Finch shooting the rabid dog
    – Seabiscuit out-running the Triple Crown champion War Admiral to win an incredible match race
    – Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. (It’s a great video — takes a little less than four minutes.)

    From real-life: our son, a lefty, played first base in little league. He wasn’t the most athletic guy on the field, but he was the smartest. He provided me with one of those highlight-of-your-life moments. With one out, the opposing team had a runner on first. The runner led off, and the batter hit a line drive. Our son caught it in the air and then stepped on the first base bag. An unassisted double play that retired the side. For a minute, Arthur was the only person who knew what had happened, and he quietly trotted off the field. When the rest of us figured it out, everybody stood up and applauded. I’ll never forget it.

    • Thanks, Kay. Great examples. Including your son. Reminded me of my son’s first year in Little League, when he was just starting to learn the game. He was put in as second baseman for the first couple of games, but his errors led the coach to tell me he was going to switch Nate to right field (the graveyard of Little Leaguers). I asked the coach for a favor…one more chance. That week I spent every day practicing with Nate. The next game, a tense one, we needed one out to win. With two down, the batter popped up…toward second! In one of those slo-mo moments, my heart in my throat, I watched as my son got under the ball…and caught it! He was mobbed by his teammates. It was the start of a very good Little League career.

  14. Jim–
    What a gift for this finally clear-aired Sunday morning in the Northwest, a vivid and beautifully done recounting of one of my favorite Dodger moments. (And I have a lot of them; my dad had an old vinyl album entitled “Dodgers ’59” from their first year in L.A., and I played it endlessly, mainly to listen to Vinny.) At my dad’s funeral, even though I hated speaking in front of people I got up and told the attendees how as a little kid I knew my dad had to be the smartest man in the world because he knew how to keep score in the program. And how he never called me on sneaking a transistor radio (that’s how long ago it was!) into my room and listening under the covers on a school night…even though I later figured out he had to have known because it was his radio.

    And now, when I have a big moment to write, this scene is going to pop into my head. And that’s a very good thing!

    PS:
    PS: if you had looked Drysdale in the face, you’d have been a very tall kid!! I’ll never forget that elbows-back delivery of his.

    • Ha! As I said in my comment, I felt like I was looking UP a mile when I met him. My friend lived next door to him in Hidden Hills, and one time when I was visiting he said, “You want to meet Don Drysdale?” So over we went to his big, ranch-style house, with a door that looked like it belonged in a castle. We rang the bell, the door opened, and Don Drysdale filled it. He shook my hand, which momentarily disappeared. He was quite nice.

      Speaking of transistors, I snuck one into school during the ’65 series, when all the games were during the day. I slipped the earpiece wire up my sleeve, then rested my head on my hand to hide my ear. When I inadvertently shouted “Yea!” the teacher knew what was up, and that was that.

  15. Following up on my first comment. I sent my brother to the site, and he replied to me:
    I remember it quite vividly. The bartender at Duplex [the restaurant my brother ran] brought a radio so that we could hear the game (no customers as everyone was at home listening or watching). In the event’s honor, I invented a drink to feature. The Kirk Gibson. A Gibson served up with the onion garnish being two that hung outside of the rim and one inside thus being “Gibson up, two out and one on.”

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