'Only in Hollywood': How MLB Network Captures the Drama (and Humor) of the '88 Dodgers

MLB Network Presents: Only in Hollywood Trailer Still 1 - Screengrab - H 2018
Screengrab/MLB Network

When Rob Reiner met Michele Singer, he was making the film When Harry Met Sally.

On a fateful Saturday night in mid-October 1988, the Hollywood writer, director and producer invited the photographer to his home in L.A. to catch what was left of NBC's coverage of Game 1 of the World Series, which happened to feature his David-esque Los Angeles Dodgers against the heavily favored Goliath-role-playing Oakland A's.

It couldn't have been scripted much better than having Kirk Gibson hobble up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning and, in a Roy Hobbs, too-good-to-be-true swing of the bat, change the course of events in several ways.

"He hits this home run, and it's somewhat of an aphrodisiac for me," Reiner admits at a critical point of an MLB Network doc titled Only in Hollywood, which looks back 30 years ago at that Dodgers' improbable season.

"We were going to meet Bruno Kirby and Billy Crystal to go see a documentary. And let's put it this way: We didn't make it to the movie theater. That's all I'm going to say."

As much as this particular documentary, debuting Sunday on the MLB-owned channel, could recreate another amatory moment for any Dodger fan, Only in Hollywood is a loving reminder that some of the best unscripted drama comes from getting out of the way and letting sports take its course on its biggest stage.

That resonated with a gathering of some 300 people who gathered for an invitation-only screening this week at the iHeartRadio L.A. Theater in Burbank, hosted by retired Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, former Dodgers Cy Young Award winner and current SportsNet L.A. team analyst Orel Hershiser and former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire. To bookend this production, footage was included from an emotional reunion in April on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium where Hershiser tears up talking about the impact of that season as he now sees Gibson, 61 and battling Parkinson's disease, with 90-year-old former manager Tommy Lasorda.

"The overwhelming theme was the emotion of this team — incredible heart and togetherness," Claire told the gathering during a Q&A after the screening. "They did an incredible job with this to portray what this team was all about."

"That was really special," Hershiser said of experiencing the film with the audience for the first time.

Bob Costas, the multiple Emmy-winning sportscaster who becomes a noteworthy voice in providing additional context to the story of the '88 Dodgers, gives credit to MLB Network senior coordinating producer Bruce Cornblatt and narration from actor Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) for effecting a piece that goes beyond simply reliving that moment in time.

"Many of these pieces that Bruce has produced for MLBN are Emmy-worthy, but I really think this is the best of all of them, and that bar has already been set very high," Costas told The Hollywood Reporter this week.

Noting that previous MLB Network docs were able to marry Hollywood types narrating baseball history — Chicago native John Cusack on the Cubs finally winning a World Series, Detroit Tigers fan Tom Selleck on the life of the late pitcher Mark Fidrych and Canadian-born William Shatner on the history of the Montreal Expos — Costas said that having Dodgers lifelong fan Cranston as part of this continues a proven formula for success.

"As someone who isn't just a casual Dodgers fan but a rabid one, hanging onto every pitch of a Vin Scully call, he already has an understanding of this story. I'm sure he thought of this the same way an actor thinks of reading a script. Your performance is one thing but if they give you terrific material to begin with, and then you're more than equal to the task, you can further elevate that material. The very same words could have been delivered by someone else and not have been as effective.

"In the end, this accomplishes what you want something like this to do: It truly documents what happened, but at the same time it gets to you emotionally, not in a manipulative way but in a genuine way," he said. "The story is genuinely dramatic and theatrical and, in the end, poignant. The trick is to strike the right balance. They both did it perfectly."

Costas, a field reporter for NBC on that 1988 World Series telecast as Scully and Joe Garagiola called it in the booth, was in the corner of the Dodgers' dugout at the end of Game 1 preparing for interviews when he heard Gibson thwacking balls off a tee down the hallway, followed by loud grunts of pain.

Costas was able to alert the production team of the drama that was taking place after Scully had just instructed legendary director Harry Coyle to camera pan the Dodgers' bench and illustrate how Gibson wasn't there and likely would not be able to pinch hit as the Dodgers trailed, 4-3, going into the bottom of the ninth. Gibson heard Scully's call in the locker room and decided to see if he could change this script.

Eventually, Costas' greatest unintentional impact on the World Series coverage came a few days later in Oakland before Game 4.

In the pre-game, Costas, noting that the Dodgers had lost another power hitter in Mike Marshall due to injury, told the TV audience: "Without Marshall and Gibson, and pitching aside, this Dodger lineup has to be one of the weakest ever to take the field for a World Series game."

Lasorda saw and heard that off a TV monitor in the Dodgers' clubhouse and used it as more motivation for his team. Costas quickly found that out.

"I was along the first-base side of the visitors' dugout and was walking off the field when they started the National Anthem, so I stopped and found myself standing next to Hershiser, who was standing at the end of the line of players with their caps over their hearts," Costas said.

"Out of the corner of his mouth, Orel says to me, 'You really got Tommy going … You got the guys all worked up over what you said.' What was it I said? I finally figured it out."

In a post-game interview with Marv Albert after the Dodgers pulled off a 4-3 win to take a three-games-to-one series lead, Lasorda proclaimed that Costas should be the World Series MVP. He also said he got his players chanting "Kill Costas!" after seeing the TV screen.

Costas then popped in on the live interview and said told Lasorda he'd be available any time to help.

"I played along with it, but as stories get spread in different ways, I heard that (Oakland manager) Tony La Russa was under the impression that somehow Tommy and I were in cahoots," Costas said. "I had to go to Tony's office before Game 5 and tell him how it all unfolded, and we patched things up. I now look back at it all as an amusing footnote.

"I knew 30 years ago, and I know today, Lasorda wasn't the least bit upset about it. I knew him well enough to know what was going on — he would take anything that could be a rally cry for his team. Actually, what I had said in many cases was misrepresented. I never said the Dodgers were the weakest team in World Series history. The lineup they had for Game 4 was a bunch of fading stars or backup guys. In historical context, that lineup for that game was one of the weakest ever — which made their accomplishment actually the more impressive and memorable."

The Dodgers' lineup in Game 4 had a combined 36 homers all season — less than half of the 72 homers that the A's Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire combined for that year.

It should also be noted — the Dodgers' bench players that season, led by Mickey Hatcher, referred to themselves as the "Stunt Men." Just other element that played into that only-in-Hollywood theme.

When Hershiser finished off Game 5 with another complete-game victory to give the Dodgers what remains their most recent championship, it also marked the final World Series that either Scully or Garagiola would ever do on TV, and the last World Series game NBC would do until 1997.

Had that '88 Dodgers team not won it all, Costas agreed there might not have been a need for this documentary.

"They had to win it all to tie it all together and make it all the more remarkable," he said. "Once Gibson hit the home run, it wasn't a one-game shift, it was a seismic shift."

And one that, amid personal celebration choices, could have produced a bump in the population data of L.A. by the summer of '89.

"If that did [cause a spike in the population], they would have had to stay up very late that night, and by the time they got home, I'm not sure they'd have had any energy left," Costas said with a laugh.

Only in Hollywood
From the MLB Network Presents documentary series
Airs: Sunday, July 15, at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. (MLB Network)
Narrator: Bryan Cranston
Featuring: Rob Reiner, Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, Vin Scully, Bob Costas, Tommy Lasorda, Mickey Hatcher, Mike Scioscia, Fred Claire, Bill Plaschke.
Running time: 48 minutes