‘It was just time’: Former Tigers prospect Cam Gibson at peace with life after baseball

Detroit News

Rather than keeping an eye on the clock Friday, making sure he headed to the ballpark in time for another minor-league day and game, Cam Gibson had other plans on a summer morning.

“Just finished up doing some school work,” he said during a phone conversation. “Sitting in my apartment, watching Wimbledon, getting ready to go to a museum. There’s a Van Gogh exhibit in town.”

Gibson has been hanging tight, much of the time, at his brother Kevin’s pad in Royal Oak. His afternoon art tour was set for downtown Detroit’s TCF Center, where the Van Gogh show was waiting for a 27-year-old man and his girlfriend, Bella.

It’s a new era for Gibson, who until this spring was a Tigers outfield prospect who had climbed to Double A before COVID quashed last year’s farm calendar. Gibson played last winter in Australia. Early this year, he decided he had seen and experienced enough. He was done with professional baseball.

“You didn’t hear much about it,” Gibson said of his decision, which came six years after the Tigers drafted him in the fifth round from Michigan State. “I kind of tried to keep it quiet. Didn’t want to make a big deal of it.

“It was just time. I wasn’t really advancing. My body was hurting a bit in Australia — just general, daily, nagging aches and pains that I could get through before. I just figured if I can’t compete at the highest level I can, it might be time to move on. It wasn’t an easy decision. But everybody has to come to terms that they might not be needed. I figured if I was hurting this bad, it was hard to give everything I could to the game.”

There is comfort with a career decision athletes tend, by nature, to resist. One consolation for Gibson is the degree in criminal justice from MSU he expects to lock down in December, after he completes a few more online courses that now have him re-involved with classrooms he hasn’t known since his junior season at State.

Gibson’s father, Kirk, has a certain celebrity in the Tigers community, and in most of the conscious baseball world from his 17 years in the big leagues, as well as from Kirk’s current perch in the Tigers TV booth. Like his dad, Cam was an outfielder and a left-handed hitter.

But numbers were a tad shy when playing outfield in the big league depends so deeply on offense. Gibson’s five-season totals on Detroit’s farm: .241 batting average, .324 on-base percentage, .392 slugging (.716 OPS), with 42 home runs, and a combined 101 triples and doubles.

He could run. He was fine on defense. He had fire that carried a certain father’s DNA. But the likelihood his bat would never surpass, nor perhaps reach, fourth-outfielder status in Detroit or elsewhere was part of this year’s decision.

“I don’t know, I was probably either going back to Erie, or even to A ball (Lakeland or West Michigan),” Gibson said. “I didn’t hear much, so I don’t think I was really on many lists. A little self-recognition time for myself, I suppose.”

That probably meshed with the Tigers’ private appraisal. Organizationally, they have a jam-up in their outfield, which wouldn’t be as jammed if enough players were better hitters. But what could be said about Detroit, or most MLB teams, is that Double A and the surrounding minor-league circuits are filled with players who all face a common deficit: hitting enough to crack the big leagues.

Dave Littlefield, who heads player development for the Tigers, paid Gibson a heartfelt compliment that didn’t require any in-depth critiques or analysis of the obvious.

“Great guy and competitor,” Littlefield said via text. “We wish him the best.”

Adjusting to days without baseball isn’t a great deal different from a year ago when COVID shut down the minors and Gibson was left to work on his own.

But a year ago, there remained hope he might yet make it. Now he deals with the reality that a MLB debut won’t happen.

“At first it was harder,” he said of the weeks and months that followed his formal farewell. “I had to try and cope with not going to the locker room every day, to be around guys …”

Here he mentioned some of his old Erie teammates: Tigers outfield prospects Danny Woodrow, Jacob Robson, and Chad Sedio, as well as pitcher Joe Navilhon.

“That part was probably the hardest for me,” Gibson said. “But I still talk to my main group of friends almost every day: Robbie, Woodie, Navilhon, Sedio. Same as when we were together.

“But I feel better now, mentally and physically, not beating myself up on the field. I feel good. I’m at peace with my decision.”

In that sense, Gibson agrees his winter trip to Australia probably worked as a fitting clincher. He and Robson played for the Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League. Gibson hit .298 in 13 games with a .693 OPS.

“I loved Sydney,” he said. “The only bad part was having to quarantine (COVID) for two weeks. They didn’t even give us a room key. Once you were in that room, you were in it. But after Jacob and I got out, we lived just outside of Sydney, and it was great.”

What he does with that forthcoming criminal justice diploma, he isn’t quite sure. He acknowledges he had no soulful attachment to working in the field of justice, or law

“I wasn’t a big fan of math classes, and criminal justice kind of had the fewest math classes,” he said. “But getting into it was a lot of fun. I got to learn a lot about court cases, and it helped that my cousin, Jack, was in law school then.

“But it’s crazy,” he said about wrapping up his online courses, hopefully, at the end of fall semester. “I never thought I would graduate from school (MSU).”

What he hopes to do, Gibson said, is open-ended, with but one exception: He wants a career that will be interactive.

“As far as life, I’m an outgoing person, personable, and I like to work with people,” he said, adding an allusion to his baseball past: “And, obviously, I like to work.”

His parents, he assured, are on board with his decision. He gave it all he had, Gibson says, a personal reminder that he and his dad share the same ethic.

Now, it’s time for something new. And exciting. And fulfilling. And reaffirming that, in fact, he had a rich college and minor-league baseball experience.

It was an adventure, he agrees — one that left him all the more ready, and enthused, for whatever comes next.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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