Dodgers Book Review – The 1988 Dodgers: Reliving the Championship Season

Look back at 1988 in a whole new light.

Just hours after the MLB trade deadline, the Dodgers were widely panned as they didn’t pull the trigger on a move — the move — that could help put them over the top for the first time in 31 years.

31 full seasons…1988. Every Dodgers fan (and the opposite) knows all too well that, as of this moment, it’s the last championship in franchise history. And now that it’s 3 decades and counting in the rearview mirror, it’s one some fans have become weary of resting their laurels upon. It’s a sentiment we here at Dodgers Nation echo very unapologetically. We know the story forwards and backwards, after all, and we’re ready to create new championship history.

Yet just because a certain period of history has been discussed and written about ad infinitum doesn’t mean it’s been sufficiently detailed. Take my personal favorite book of all-time, Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. Covering the tumultuous period of U.S. history in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, on the surface it runs the risk of being redundant by addressing well-worn territory like Richard Nixon, Woodstock, Kent State, and the assassinations of RFK and MLK. Yet not only does it unearth many overlooked and forgotten developments from that era, but it manages to regale the more familiar episodes in a manner that feels new and insightful. 

The same can be said of K.P. Wee’s The 1988 Dodgers: Reliving the Championship Season. Any book that details perhaps the unlikeliest World Series winner ever has to make the oft-told pit stops: the eye-black incident, Orel Hershiser’s scoreless innings streak, Mike Scioscia’s home run off Dwight Gooden and the upset of the Mets in the NLCS, Bob Costas’ galvanizing remarks, Kirk Gibson’s limping blast off Dennis Eckersley, and Hershiser’s final complete game masterpiece to clinch it. Writing more as a judicious chronicler of baseball history than a fan, Wee instead paints a much broader picture of a resourceful team that owed its triumph down to the last man, rather than just a string of miracles. 

The key to the book’s freshness is that Wee chooses to emphasize the lesser-known players and perspectives of 1988. Too many fans and historians tend to frame the team as Hershiser, Gibson and a coterie of mediocre misfits, a propensity the book acknowledges. Instead, the season is recounted through the eyes of underappreciated players, scouts, coaches, and sportswriters. Every contribution, no matter how small, is emphasized in great detail. The interviews are a joy to read, especially to get the feeling of what the season meant (and still means) to the men who aren’t celebrated enough for it. 

One of the best chapters revolves around “the Stuntmen,” the durable yet nondescript group of backup players who did everything necessary to win all season long. These included the likes of catcher Rick Dempsey, outfielder Danny Heep, 1B/OF Franklin Stubbs, and surprise World Series hero Mickey Hatcher, among others. The scouts who prepared the team for their Rocky-vs.-Apollo Creed matches with the Mets and Athletics are also given their due at last. Just as admirable is an entire chapter highlighting how indispensable Fred Claire was not only in assembling the 1988 team as GM, but his work for years beforehand in perfecting the Dodgers brand in other executive roles. 

Likewise, underrated moments both from the regular season and postseason are given their due. The best is Jay Howell’s recollection of the seventh inning of game four of the World Series, facing Mark McGwire with the bases loaded and two outs a night after surrendering a walk-off home run to him. As Wee makes clear, it’s the moment that could have altered the course of the series, and by escaping it Howell ensured a crucial 3-1 series lead with Hershiser waiting in the wings for game five. Yet it’s hardly discussed today. 

By drawing on a wide variety of player, coach and executive interviews, Wee also provides different perspectives on moments many believe are known forwards and backwards. Take the infamous “eye-black” incident in spring training, when Jesse Orosco’s prank of putting eye-black in Kirk Gibson’s cap sent him into a rage, reprimanding the team for being too loose. Many have cited this as the galvanic moment when the hard-assed Gibson turned the soft, underachieving Dodgers around and made them serious about winning. Yet it turns out there are some, like John Shelby, who felt it wasn’t all that important to the team’s success that year. 

Another of the book’s eminent strengths is that Wee provides ample contextual history at almost every juncture. He traces individual player moments even years before they were on the Dodgers to the very at-bat, and makes frequent comparisons to other World Series moments. One passage details the Dodgers’ gory history of October failures, making one appreciate the heroics of ‘88 all the more. Given 1988 is quite some time ago, some of the interviewees aren’t always accurate in their recollection, and Wee is studious in providing the correct facts at every stop. 

Blue Heaven Connection

Wee joined our hosts of the Blue Heaven Podcast to discuss his process in putting this book together, and relish in some of his highlights in the interviews.

Final Thoughts

The book does have its flaws. By leaning heavily on extensive quotations from interview passages, it can sag a bit in places, and is sometimes repetitive. But these are not major flaws, and are forgivable byproducts of Wee’s exhaustive approach to making sure every fact and angle is accounted for. 

With its plethora of detailed recollections, meticulous accuracy and moving remembrance for a once-in-history team, Reliving the Championship Season is a must for the library of not only every Dodgers fan, but every baseball fan period. Beyond just Gibson’s blast and Hershiser’s streak, it makes you appreciate the tenacity of the Miracle Men down to the last gritty bunt and nail-biting pitch.

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