From Detroit Tigers World Series hero to LA Dodgers legend

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As the LA Dodgers embark on trying to win their first World Series since 1988, let’s look back at the lead up to the “impossible” home run by Kirk Gibson and the role the Detroit Tigers played

Growing up as Detroit Tigers fans, we remember Kirk Gibson kissing the crowd as he rounded the bases after his home run off Hall of Famer Goose Gossage in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series (he hit one off Mark Thurmond earlier in the game). Tiger Stadium rose to a crescendo that Sunday night. A storyline that would be a part of Gibson’s career.

A storyline I found interesting in the Los Angeles Dodgers’s 8-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays was how history never stops repeating itself. Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts became the fifth pair of former MVPs to home as teammates in a World Series since 1964. Throw in Clayton Kershaw’s brilliant pitching performance and you had three MVP’s play a role in Game 1’s outcome.

Here’s the thing about 1984. I was three years old. I have no recollection of celebrating my combined birthday with my older brother, whose birthday was later in the month, of watching Kirk Gibson’s 1984 Game 5 performance, just a picture of my father carrying me around with a look of confusion.

However, as you grow older, you can always watch the various VHS tapes or DVDs of the 1984 Detroit Tigers season. But one of the first storylines and memories from my youth I remembered was one of Gibson in a Dodgers uniform. How did that happen?

Gibson heads west.

On January 23rd,1988,  arbitrator Tom Roberts ruled in favor of seven players to become free agents after it was discovered that baseball owners had conspired to restrict the movement of free agents. Gibson, Carlton Fisk, Donnie Moore, Butch Wynegar, Juan Beniquez, and former Tigers third baseman Tom Brookens were the seven.

Baseball did not allow Kirk Gibson to hit the market three years earlier. Detroit’s roster towards the latter part of the 80’s may have looked completely different if Gibson would have hit the market in 1985. Both the Dodgers and the Mariners had deals with the Tigers in place. Seattle would have allegedly sent over Phil Bradley and LA would have sent over Pedro Guerrero (Drew and Mike fans, I can’t help think of the OJ Simpson audio drop of “Pedro Guerrero” whenever I hear his name)

Making the best decision for himself and his family, he signed a three-year $4.5 million contract with the Dodgers just 10 days after the ruling.  The best offer Detroit gave him for his current contract was a one-year extension through 1989 for $1.3 million dollars.  This was his quote in the Free Press from 1988. 

“It’s not a matter of just taking the money and run, as some of you might want to say,” Gibson told about 20 reporters. “My wish, all along, was to stay in Detroit. But I just felt there was such a gap. The financial picture was much more appealing from Los Angeles.  The Tigers were standing pat with they were going to offer. I really had no choice”. 

“The only thing I’m ever going to be guilty of is the fact that I never lived up to everybody else’s expectations.”

Gibson would go on to have the best season of his career, winning the NL MVP, coming through in clutch moments throughout the season, and being the difference-maker the Dodgers needed. In 1987, LA finished 73-89 and Gibson was the difference maker between them and the second-place Cincinnati Reds. Former Reds manager Pete Rose discussed after a close 4-3 loss how Gibson’s presence impacted the Dodgers lineup. 

“He’s their heart. There are other guys on that team with more runs batted in, but he seems always to get the hit when they need it”.

While we remember Kirk Gibson roaming in right field, it was his play in left field for the Dodgers that would come through not only from an offensive standpoint but showed his glove, making a great catch here after slipping in the 1988 NLCS against the Mets.

The Dodgers were underdogs heading into the World Series against the Oakland A’s. Gibson had sustained injuries to both of his legs in that grueling seven-game series against the Mets. This is where my first memory of Kirk Gibson would forever be engraved into my head.

His only at-bat of the Series would be the difference-maker against the seemly invisible Oakland A’s and their closer and future MVP and Hall of Famer, Dennis Eckersley. If you notice the graphic at the 1:13 mark, the jinx of stating a stat like Eckersley not allowing a home run since August 24th then a home run happens is something on Twitter within seconds after it happens, people will yell “oops” or “jinx” but I digress.

Two future MVPs squared off and Gibson would win the battle.

That home run would help fuel the LA Dodgers win the World Series and help him secure the MVP vote a month later. If you ever played any sport, you tried to do the Gibson arm pump in some sort of fashion when you had a big play.  Gibson’s 76 RBIs would be the fewest by an MVP since Pete Rose in 1973. From his home in Michigan, Gibson gave a quote that fit him well.

“I’m not a numbers person. I never set goals to hit this number or get so many RBIs. The intangibles obviously were taken into consideration and that makes me feel good”

“Winning the MVP was never my goal. But I’m happy that so many people had the opinion that I had that much impact on our winning. My goal was for us to become world champs. That’s what makes this that much sweeter”. 

I remember him coming back to Detroit in 1993, and his fantastic 1994 season of hitting 23 home runs at the age of 37. Even while I was finishing high school, he and Josh Levin made a great combo on TV.

Kirk Gibson had two of the most iconic moments in World Series history off two Hall of Fame pitchers. His story continues with the Kirk Gibson Foundation and working the booth on the TV side with Matt Shepard.

The bearded Gibson with his hands held high frozen in time in 1984 may linger in my mind but watching in awe of the home run live in 1988 and realizing the magnitude of it, later on, provided a perspective that goes beyond the box score and it is a simple philosophy that applies to anyone. You can always go back home.

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