Kirk Gibson changed baseball 35 years ago in LA. But he never wanted to leave Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Kirk Gibson doesn’t want you to read this.

It’s a warm morning in early March outside the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium when the former Tigers slugger, who now works as an analyst for Bally Sports Detroit, walks up to me. We’re both part of a small media contingent waiting to speak with manager A.J. Hinch at his pregame news conference before a spring training game.

Gibson arrives a few minutes early and marches toward me.

“Hey, I don’t think I want you to write that,” he tells me quietly but directly.

At first, I’m not sure if he’s messing with me. The night before, I spent two exhausting hours trying to get Gibson, 65, to stand still long enough between his frames at Willie Horton’s charity bowling event so that I could conduct 15 two-minute interviews.

So maybe he’s kidding, maybe he’s testing me. He was a former National League Manager of the Year for the Arizona Diamondbacks and there’s still a didactic streak in him. He likes using the Socratic method by asking questions to elicit answers. At one point, he quizzes me about baserunning.

But Gibson isn’t kidding. He isn’t teaching or testing me. He’s sincerely concerned.

“I don’t want people to think it’s all about me,” he says.

This happens more often than you’d think. People open up to journalists and a day later they have reservations about what they said or how they might have come off. But it usually happens with people less practiced at dealing with reporters, not former star athletes and MLB managers.

It’s understandable. Gibson and I aren’t friends. In fact, we barely know each other, but he graciously agreed to speak with me about the reason I came to Florida.

The reason is him.

I wanted to know what it was like to be Kirk Gibson 35 years ago, when he left the team he grew up rooting for to sign with the Dodgers and in so doing changed the balance in baseball with an MVP season, a World Series championship and one of the most famous and dramatic home runs in the game’s history.

Quintessential Michigander

Hinch speaks at about 10 a.m. for a 1 p.m. start. Fans won’t enter the stadium for another hour and there’s no fielding practice on this day, so the stadium is especially quiet and a little empty. It’s the exact opposite of the previous night. I can still hear the ringing in my ears from the rolling thunder and crashing pins at Orange Bowl Lanes in Lakeland, a classic slice of 10-pin Americana located next door to Lucky’s Sports, Oyster and Tiki Bar.

The quiet around us helps me make my argument slowly and calmly to Gibson. I get it. He was candid — maybe too candid — about his ugly departure from the Tigers, his difficult start with the Dodgers and his ongoing fight with Parkinson’s Disease that’s approaching 10 years. There’s no reason for him to trust me yet.

“I think people want to hear your story,” I tell him. “I think it can help and it might inspire some people.”

What I don’t tell Gibson is that I don’t think his story might help people. I know it will. I’ve watched and followed him around for a few days at the ballpark and at the bowling alley to understand what he still means to fans.

One fan thrusts out a hand near press box. “How are you doing, Mr. Gibson?” Another quietly tells his wife, “That’s Kirk Gibson,” and follows with a shout of encouragement as Gibson makes his way to the parking lot: “Keep up the good work, Gibby!”

Many of the fans at Joker Marchant are current or former Michigan residents and Gibson is about as Great Lakes State as it gets. He’s a favorite son and a champion who grew up in Waterford, played baseball and football for Michigan State and then signed with the Tigers. He loves hunting and fishing and boats and the outdoors. He embodies the hard-nosed, plain-spoken, working-class ethos of the state.

If Michiganders were mythological Greeks, Gibson would be their Achilles. If they were ancient Israelites, he would be their Samson.

After he hit his homer for the ages in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series to help the Dodgers win the title in five games, all Gibson wanted to do was come home. Some players might have wanted to bask in the afterglow and adulation, especially in a place like L.A. Not Gibson.

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“I missed home,” he said. “I love Michigan. I’ve been everywhere in Michigan with my horse, my motorcycle, my plane, my boats. I’ve been everywhere. I hiked. And I missed it.

“And then we were supposed to go see the president and I told them I wasn’t going. My wife says, ‘You’ve got to go.’ The way I got out of it is I took my daughter to go see Michael Jackson at the Palace.”

Gibson let out a sly little smile after he said this.

I didn’t want to leave

Under the ownership of Tom Monaghan, the Tigers had been playing hardball — and probably lowball — with Gibson at the negotiating table for years. After the 1987 season, he became a top-of-the-market free agent who boasted power, production and speed.

“By the time I was a free agent, I had 14 teams interested,” he said. “Thirteen teams in one morning called and said they were no longer interested.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because before any of that could happen, Gibson had to do something he never wanted to do. He had to leave the Tigers and his beloved Michigan.

“Atlanta was still in. It was later I believe they found (commissioner Peter) Uberroth called (Braves owner) Ted Turner and said if you want to broadcast games on TV, withdraw your interest. That happened. OK, so then the collusion thing happened.”

That fall, arbitrator Thomas Roberts ruled that owners had colluded and violated the collective bargaining agreement by conspiring to restrict player movement. In January 1988, Roberts ordered owners to pay $10.5 million in damages to players and granted Gibson and six others another chance at free agency.

Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley called Gibson and gave him a pitch he couldn’t resist. Gibson was the only free agent among the seven to sign with a new team when he agreed to a three-year, $4.5 million deal.

He was also recruited by longtime Dodgers scout Mel Didier, who assured him a new culture with new people was being established in L.A.

“He had lunch with me,” Gibson said, “and convinced me that I could make a difference.”

Gibson paused for a moment, then smiled.

“(Bleeping) Dodgers,” he said. “Come on. The Dodgers were pretty good.”

Yes, and about to get a lot better.

But the discord back in Detroit was as bad as ever. Owners ruled baseball with an iron fist back then in a system that was practically feudal by today’s standards. Mike Schmidt predicted “true free agency” was over and that owners would learn to live without it.

When Gibson turned down the Tigers’ offer of $1.3 million to stay for the 1988 season, Monaghan didn’t hide his scorn.

“I didn’t want to (leave),” Gibson said. “But if you looked at the papers, there were two pages. You open it up and it’s ‘good riddance.’ Tom Monaghan called me a disgrace to the Tiger uniform. He just called me a disgrace because I didn’t shave.”

Gibson says he never intended to stick it to the Tigers or show up Monaghan. He says he didn’t hold a grudge, either. But he did give Monaghan a little advice about running a team and how to treat people when the owner called and apologized.

“He said he was wrong and wanted to have lunch,” Gibson said. “I said, ‘Thank you for calling. I don’t think you realize — you just don’t — people are busting their ass for you, you know? They’re trying and doing the best they can.’

“You’ve got to take that seriously. You can’t just pop off on your players to the paper, you know?”

The lunch never happened, and probably never will.

“He reached out to me last year again,” Gibson said of Monaghan, who is 86 and sold the Tigers to Mike Ilitch in 1992. “He wanted to do something. Just move on.

“I stuck up for him, the fans, Detroit. We’d defend him all the time and in the end it was a great part of our lives. I take it very seriously. It goes both ways.”

I told them they were clowns

If Gibson thought leaving Monaghan and the Tigers would put an end to his professional frustrations, he was about to encounter a different kind of challenge with his new teammates in his first spring training with the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla.

Gibson was used to Sparky Anderson’s structure and his insistence on maintaining a professional environment. The Dodgers were almost the opposite of that under Tommy Lasorda.

“Everybody was (bleeping) around,” Gibson said. “Made me very uncomfortable. I was very intense. We were doing PFPs, pitchers fielding practice. We were doing bunt plays and they threw the ball to right field. Everybody started laughing. I was like, ‘That’s not funny.’ It wasn’t funny to me.”

The hijinks intensified and Gibson became a target. Relief pitcher Jesse Orosco put eye black on the inside of Gibson’s cap. When he took it off on the field, everyone laughed. Well, almost everyone.

“And I just went nuts,” he said. “I told Lasorda. I went off on everybody. I told them they were clowns. I told them, ‘No wonder you finished in fourth or fifth place (in 1987).”

Gibson furiously stomped off the field.

“Lasorda called me at 5 o’clock in the morning the next day,” he said, “and asked me to come over. He said, ‘Let’s just say something a personal issue came up.’ He talked for like 20 minutes. I never said a word. He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to tell everybody the truth.’ And I did.

“We took a different approach from that point on. We had some good players and we all kind of came together. Fun year, you know? Fun year.”

Gibson was a wide receiver at Michigan State and was taken in the seventh round of the 1979 NFL draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. But if not for coach Darryl Rogers suggesting he go out for baseball, Gibson wouldn’t have hit .390 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs in his lone college baseball season that made him a first-round pick of the Tigers.

Gibson, a football All-American at MSU, picked baseball as a pro. But in his heart and mind, he was a football player. He was big and fast and loved contact. He was built for the grind of the gridiron more than the deliberate of the diamond.

“I think EVERYBODY would tell you the same thing,” his longtime friend and Hall of Famer Alan Trammell said, “that Gibby was the guy that changed the culture (in L.A.). And it’s just his intensity.

“Again, that’s the football. But he was able to channel it and use it in baseball, which there’s been a few but not many. But the way he went about it was total football. Basically, stay away from him. Really.”

The home run

It’s rare for any player to hit the most famous home run in his team’s history. It’s even rarer for him to do it for two different teams.

Four years before he joined the Dodgers, Gibson hit a three-run homer off the Padres’ Goose Gossage in Game 5 of the World Series-clincher at Tiger Stadium. His celebration, captured perfectly in a mid-air leap after he crossed the plate, was memorialized by Free Press photographer Mary Schroeder in what is widely considered the most famous sports picture in Detroit history.

Four years later, in Game 1 of the World Series against the Oakland A’s, Gibson hit what would have to be considered the most famous homer in World Series history. It’s not the most meaningful or important, because Bill Mazeroski hit a walkoff for the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, and Joe Carter did the same for the Blue Jays in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series.

But Mazeroski and Carter’s homers didn’t carry the emotional weight and drama of Gibson’s pinch-hit homer off a Hall of Fame pitcher having a dominant season as a closer. Gibson was almost a tragic figure. He could barely walk, dealing with a sore left hamstring and a swollen right knee. It certainly didn’t hurt to have Vin Scully, who will probably go down as baseball’s most famous announcer, make the call on television.

REMEMBERING THE CALLS:How broadcasting legend Vin Scully captured one of Detroit sports’ most iconic moments

The Dodgers had upset the Mets in the NLCS and now they were down to their last strike against the heavily favored A’s. Gibson’s at-bat lasted eight pitches and five minutes before he sent Dennis Eckersley’s full-count backdoor slider into the right-field bleachers.

I asked Gibson if he ever gets tired of being asked about that moment, fully aware I was asking him the very thing that might annoy him.

“It’s somewhat humbling,” he says. “I like to utilize it to try and do good. When you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense. I was fortunate. A lot of people were in my corner for a long time and this is the result.

“My hope is that I can help somebody experience something like that. You can’t figure it out. You don’t want to be disrespectful to the guys I played against. Just very humbling that it all happened. It makes it worth it.”

For a long time in L.A., the joke was that Dodger Stadium held 55,000 fans but the night Gibson hit his homer a million fans claimed they were there. That night, Trammell was watching the game at his home in San Diego.

The Tigers didn’t have a bad year in ’88, even without Gibson. They led the AL East as late as Sept. 4, but a 4-10 nose dive and a surge from Boston had them finish one game behind the Red Sox. They wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 2006 and wouldn’t win another division title until 2011.

Trammell knew what was happening. The Tigers had lost Lance Parrish in ‘87, Gibson in ’88 and would lose Darrell Evans the next year. Their run was coming to an end.

“Jealous? I’d say that,” Trammell admitted of watching Gibson in the World Series. “But it’s true. I wish that we would have been in. But we didn’t. When you make it, you deserve it. We didn’t earn it.

“So he made it. I was very happy for him. I mean, my God, we were still friends. If we couldn’t win, I was glad he could.”

Fighting Parkinson’s

Gibson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015. According to the National Institute of Health, about 500,000 to 1 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease and it’s the second-most common neurodegenerative disorder in the United States behind Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s affects every part of a person’s body and being: walking, talking, swallowing, sleeping, cognition. There are medications and treatment, but there’s no cure.

“So it kind of freaks you out when you find out you have it, mentally,” Gibson said. “You see guys put their hands in their pockets because they’re trying to hide it. I’m trying to be a role model by doing what I do and I thank Bally and the Tigers for letting me remain.”

Gibson is talking about his highly visible role as an analyst on Tigers broadcasts. But if people could see what he really does every day, how he fights his illness like he’s down to his last strike, that would be even more inspiring.

Simply put, the man doesn’t stop moving. Exercise is one of the best ways to combat Parkinson’s symptoms and Gibson could be the poster child for that effort. He golfs, he plays ping-pong, he shoots pool and he fishes, to name just a few activities.

He also has made the disorder part of the expanded mission of his foundation, which has provided grants of more than $800,000 to the Parkinson’s community since 2015.

About a decade ago, I was diagnosed with a non-cancerous blood disorder that landed me in the hospital for a few weeks. If you’ve ever had a serious medical problem, you understand something other people don’t. You understand that once people know of your illness you sometimes become little more than that illness to them. This is why it bothers me to ask Gibson how he’s handling Parkinson’s.

“Um — how am I doing?” he says slowly as he considers his answers. “You have a choice in any situation and you can engage it or you can let it engage you. So I have Parkinson’s, yet I fight it all the time and I try and help others.

“A guy told me his wife is really getting bad and she can’t move. I said, ‘Just hear me out. That’s when you gotta go after it. That’s when you have to attack it. Don’t make that step and say it’s gotten me.’”

Just a couple of months ago, Gibson took up bowling. At Horton’s charity tournament, he joined his team on Lane 23 as “Hoot,” a nickname to his friends, and started with three straight strikes on his way to bowling a 255. He already understands the nuances of the game. He points out how the lane is oiled and how much spin he needs. His eyes flash with the thrill of competition.

But there’s something else. There’s a young man named Sam who’s on Gibson’s team. He isn’t much of a bowler, so Gibson takes Sam under his wing and starts giving him pointers. Sam starts to do better and Gibson lets out little yelps of joy over Sam’s success.

This story? No, this story definitely isn’t all about Kirk Gibson.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez. For more information about Kirk Gibson’s foundation, visit www.kirkgibsonfoundation.org.

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