Looking back at eye-black: Kirk Gibson and the incident during 1988 spring training

Kirk Gibson, who was known for his all-out approach on the field, showed a clubhouse that he was not one to be messed with following a prank.

1988 World Series GM 1 - Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Dodgers
1988 World Series GM 1 - Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Dodgers / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

As pitchers, catchers and full rosters begin to report for the 2024 season, new players will be integrating with their new teams. A big factor in any clubhouse is chemistry. What will the team be? Will they have a “take no prisoners” and all-business approach, or will they be similar to the 2004 Red Sox and get a nickname akin to their famous moniker: “Idiots”? Sometimes it only takes one player to set the tone. Back in 1988 with the Dodgers, one player did exactly that, and it all started with an innocent prank.

In the two years prior to the '88 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers went 73-89, finishing in fourth and fifth place in the NL West. In that offseason, they picked up a player known for his intensity, as well as his ability to come up big in pressure situations. That would be former Tigers right fielder Kirk Gibson. At dinner shortly after the signing, Gibson was quoted as saying, “I told Fred, ‘I’m pretty serious, and I’m going to be intense. Don’t be surprised. I might have to kick some ass.' I had won one World Series, and I wanted to win another. I didn’t want to live in California to go to Hollywood. Fred said something like, ‘Why do you think you’re here?’”.

The Dodgers were a loose group at the time. Gibson cited a few instances where he believes they lost their focus. That was all about to change in an instant.

The Dodgers were about to play the Japanese National Team when Gibson went out to get some running in and get loose. His hat flew off and everyone started laughing at him. He soon found out someone took “eye-black” and smeared his cap with it, causing it to run onto his forehead and face. Clearly not amused, Gibson stormed back into the clubhouse, refusing to play.

Gibson recalls, “I told Tommy, ‘Go get the bastard who did the eye-black.’ I said, ‘We’ve got clowns jumping out of the trunks. We do drills, and we’re throwing it into right field and everybody is laughing. There is nothing funny about that.’ That was just me being me. I’m taking no prisoners. I’m full go. Nobody knew that and nobody realized that. Tommy said, ‘They’re trying to make you feel welcome.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to feel welcome. I want to win. I’m not looking for friends; I’m looking for people who get after it.’ They wouldn’t go get the guy, so I left.”

Relief pitcher Jesse Orosco (who'd just won a World Championship in New York just two years prior) confessed to the prank. Gibson, still plenty hot from what happened the day before, addressed the team saying, "You guys are a bunch of losers. You’ve lost the last how many years? It’s not hard to see why. You come in here and it’s a big comedy show. Winning is what’s fun to me.’” Relief Pitcher Jay Howell loved the emotion, saying, “That was just theater. It was grand theater. I mean, I had visions of Clint Eastwood!”

After that day, Gibson was the undisputed leader of that clubhouse, and he proved his tough determination on the field, winning the 1988 NL MVP with a .290 batting average, 25 home runs, 76 RBI and 31 steals. He then came up to the plate in Game 1 of the World Series on two bad legs, could barely walk, never mind run, and delivered a pinch-hit home run to win it off of Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley. They went on to win the World Series and cement Kirk Gibson’s legacy in Los Angeles Dodgers lore forever.