When you think of the 1988 Dodgers, the names that come to mind instantly are obvious. Gibson and Hershiser lead the pack, followed by Scioscia, Hatcher, Sax, and Orosco. Dempsey and Marshall stick in the mind too, and one of course can’t forget Valenzuela, although his 1988 season was limited by injury.
Yet, for me, what truly makes the ‘88 squad a special team in baseball history is the far more obscure bulk of the roster. I’m talking about the likes of Jeff Hamilton and Franklin Stubbs, most of which was so mediocre (or downright terrible) that Bob Costas infamously dubbed them “the worst team ever put on the field to play in a World Series game.” It’s one thing for a team to win a World Series with a stacked roster. It’s another to win with a roster that largely looks like it shouldn’t even make the playoffs to begin with.
As much as I’d love to rhapsodize about all of these obscure names, this piece is meant to shed light on one particular forgotten hero: relief pitcher Brian Holton. While Holton is definitely on the more overshadowed part of the 1988 roster, he was nowhere near mediocre, posting the best ERA of the entire pitching staff that season. My affinity for Holton is evidenced by the fact that he’s currently my Twitter avatar, and in the second installment of our new Random Dodgers series, it’s time to show him some love.
Under The Radar
Now, even the most hallowed championship teams are bound to have their unsung, or even forgotten, members. Even with that in mind, it’s odd how much Holton has slipped through the cracks of our memories. He was not only the 1988 team’s ace reliever, but without him, they might never have won it all.
We’ll get to just why in a bit. But first, a little background on Brian John Holton. Born on November 29, 1959 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. the 6’2” right-hander was selected by the Dodgers in the first round of the 1978 draft. His path to the majors would be one of perseverance, grinding out year after year in AAA Albuquerque and even Tommy John surgery in 1983.
It eventually paid off. After a few games with the Dodgers in 1985 and 1986, he saw a full season in 1987 and pitched solidly. 1988 was the culmination of his talents, with a 7-2 record and 1.70 ERA in the regular season.
In the NLCS against the heavily favored Mets, Holton’s importance was magnified by closer Jay Howell’s suspension for pine tar use in game three. Holton twirled four innings across games four, five and six, allowing just one run. His best moment was a 1.2-inning save in game five, putting the team one win away from the pennant.
In the World Series, Holton only saw action in game one. But that one appearance was all he needed to help the Dodgers claim a miraculous title. With Oakland leading 4-2, Holton came on to pitch in the top of the sixth, retiring Carney Lansford, Dave Henderson and Jose Canseco in order. After a leadoff walk to Dave Parker in the seventh, he rebounded by easily dispatching Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach and Glenn Hubbard.
The importance of these two innings can’t be overstated. They helped keep the game in reach, with Mike Scioscia’s RBI single in the bottom of the sixth trimming the lead to 4-3. It stayed that way until the bottom of the ninth, when a certain outfielder from Pontiac strode to the plate. Unfortunately, Holton wouldn’t be the pitcher of record, that honor going to Alejandro Pena.
The Gibson home run and all that preceded it has been recounted time and again, seemingly no detail about it unspared. Yet the fact that Holton quelled Oakland’s dangerous bats enough to set it up remains unjustly overlooked. In those two innings, he managed retire both of the Bash Brothers, among other powerful hitters. Getting Canseco was especially crucial, given all of Oakland’s four runs came on his camera-denting grand slam in the second.
Sadly, Holton’s clutch 1988 heroics proved to be his last in Dodger Blue. In December of that year, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles along with Ken Howell and Juan Bell to acquire Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. It was news he didn’t take well, slamming the phone and cursing. His hopes of receiving his World Series ring at a Dodger Stadium ceremony were supplanted by getting it in the mail, as if it were any mundane package.
From thereon, it was downhill for Holton, professionally and personally. He managed a 7-10 record and 4.18 ERA in two seasons with the Orioles, and never saw the majors again. He came back to the Dodgers minor league system, but never got called up and instead retired at age 32.
The World Series ring he earned so unceremoniously was pawned to stave off bankruptcy. Alcohol and painkiller addictions worsened things, eventually sending him to a substance abuse program. He and his wife divorced, and he wound up in a Wisconsin jail for a stint for not making child support payments. At another time, he lived in a homeless shelter. He worked odd jobs just to keep his uncertain life moving forward.
When Bill Plaschke caught up with him for a moving profile in the L.A. Times last year, he was undergoing a second knee-replacement surgery. As of that article’s publication, he was living in a friend’s house in Milwaukee, with no job and only his life savings and player’s pension to keep him afloat. Despite his anger over being traded by them in 1988, he still retains his love for the Dodgers, wearing a souvenir cap every time he watches their games.
With the Dodgers’ grueling championship drought now officially at 30 years and counting, it’s high time Brian Holton got his due. He played a huge part in bringing Los Angeles its most cherished baseball title, setting up the Gibson home run that made history. Yet he didn’t even properly receive his ring for it with the team, a ring he was forced to part with among many other hardships since his year in the sun.
Next time the Dodgers make the postseason, once again chasing that elusive first trophy since ‘88, they would do right by having Holton throw out the ceremonial first pitch. It’s time to bring his name out of obscurity and to the forefront of our recollection of the improbable, impossible team that defined the franchise forever.
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