Less than an hour after the Dodgers clinched the National League West championship last week at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, Kirk Gibson could be found standing on the infield grass, alone with his thoughts and a can of beer.
Amid the rowdiness and chaos that always accompanies such celebrations, Gibson said he needed to quietly slip out and absorb the moment, not streams of champagne.
He must have stood there, rigidly, for 5 minutes, staring at the moon. Then, just as abruptly, he turned and rejoined his teammates.
“I was just thinking,” Gibson said 2 days later. “There are some good memories for me at this stadium. And sometimes you need to do some work on yourself, talk to yourself. I felt like that was the appropriate time. Everything going on (during the celebration) was much different than I wanted it to be, so I went out there.”
Gibson smiled, then added: “Plus, there was a great full moon that night.”
On that night of contemplation, Gibson said he was preparing himself for meeting the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series and for a possible return to the World Series. In 1984, Gibson helped lead the Detroit Tigers to the championship over the San Diego Padres.
Postseason play is what he considers his forte. Four years ago, he was named the most valuable player in the American League playoffs and hit 2 home runs in decisive Game 5 of the World Series.
Back to his usual brash self a few days after the Dodgers’ clinching, Gibson said he relishes the importance and immediacy of the playoffs. He enters them as the Dodgers’ most versatile offensive threat, with a .290 batting average, 25 home runs, 76 runs batted in and 31 stolen bases.
“It’ll be intense,” Gibson said. “You’re in a do or die situation. It’ll be pressure-packed. That’s what we play for. You can’t look ahead. You just try to prepare yourself the best you can. It can be a very overwhelming situation.”
It is difficult to imagine Gibson being overwhelmed by anything. He may yell and gesture wildly, but he rarely loses control. He may be outspoken, he said, but he does not try to be bossy.
“I’ve really got a competitive personality,” Gibson said. “I let my emotions show. I’m the type of guy, if you’re backing me in a corner, you’re looking for a . . . well, there’ll be only one way out, let’s put it that way. I certainly don’t look for trouble. I actually try to avoid it, because I know myself, and I know what happens when I get enraged.”
Those attributes, in the view of many, played a major role in the Dodgers’ revival this season. He is one of the candidates for the National League’s most valuable player award, as much for his perceived affect on the psyche of Dodger players as his offensive production.
Gibson’s rage first showed itself on the field before the Dodgers’ first exhibition game. Tugging his cap down low over his forehead, beads of black shoe polish began to run down Gibson’s face.
A victim of a practical joke, Gibson bolted from the field. Even the black substance covering his face could not conceal his anger. He reportedly called his teammates “clowns” and, the next day, in so many words, said he goes to spring training to play baseball, not hone sophomoric humor.
Gibson said the incident was soon forgotten, but the media, believing the Dodgers to be a part of the laid-back-California cliche, see Gibson’s reaction as having snapped his teammates to attention and turned them into similarly intense competitors.
“There is something to that,” center fielder John Shelby said. “There are not many times you go into spring training and find out the way somebody is right away. He kind of let us know. We had read a lot of things about him. We found out quickly he was just (there) for playing ball.”
Gibson and several other Dodger players discount Gibson’s emotional contribution to the team.
“You can’t say Kirk Gibson has carried us,” veteran catcher Mike Scioscia said. “You can’t say Mike Marshall carried us. No one person has done it. I think what Kirk Gibson brought us is 25 home runs and 80 RBIs and 30 stolen bases, not the other stuff. Kirk is so strong on intangibles, that people start looking for it.
“I tell you what, Kirk Gibson wasn’t the first guy in a Dodger uniform to break up a double play at second base, or play with pain or not be afraid to get his uniform dirty. We’ve always played aggressive since I’ve been here.”
Scioscia has heard the talk that Gibson has all but played drill sergeant and scared the Dodgers into working hard in spring training. Not so, he says.
“It wasn’t like we had to make Kirk feel comfortable,” Scioscia said. “It wasn’t like we were on pins and needles because Kirk came. We got along the whole time. It wasn’t like any of the new guys came and wrote their ticket.
“He was by no means the designer of our psyche. As long as I’ve been here, we’ve had guys with his desire.”
Scioscia said he didn’t want to be misunderstood. He said he is as appreciative of Gibson’s contributions as anyone. But he said he believes people are focusing on the wrong contributions.
“I’d vote for Kirk for MVP right now because he’s hit 25 home runs, drove in 80 runs and stole 30 bases,” Scioscia said. “If we don’t have Kirk’s offense, we don’t win.”
Tim Belcher, the Dodgers’ rookie pitcher, said it is merely Gibson’s approach that draws attention.
“I think it’s all a matter of appearances,” Belcher said. “Who looks more intense of the mound, Jay Howell or Orel (Hershiser)? Jay. Now, is it fair to say he’s more of a competitor than Orel? No.
“There are guys that look the part. Kirk looks the part, you know. He comes out with that spiked hair and the beard, and he’s this tight, wound piece of machinery.”
After his first few weeks with the Dodgers, Gibson apparently felt comfortable enough to occasionally unwind. He can take a joke now. “It’s just a thing you grow into,” Gibson said when asked when he first felt comfortable as a Dodger. “It’s hard to say. The important thing is that they made me feel comfortable, the organization and the players.”
Said Belcher: “I think we all realized he’s just as sensitive as we are. He could be just a regular guy. He doesn’t have to be an animal all the time. He can let his guard down for a few minutes. That’s good. You can’t stay wound tight as a clock for 6 months.”
That, however, is how Gibson plays best.
There have been games this season when Gibson simply has taken over, refusing to accept defeat as an alternative.
On June 26, for example, the Dodgers trailed the Cincinnati Reds, 6-5, in the ninth inning after blowing three leads. Gibson led off with a liner that bounced in front of Dave Collins in left field and stretched the hit into a double. Two batters later, Gibson scored on Shelby’s single, beginning a 4-run rally for a Dodger win.
On Aug. 20, the Montreal Expos had a 3-2 lead over the Dodgers in the ninth inning when Gibson singled in the tying run. He then stole second base. And, when Expos pitcher John Dopson threw a wild pitch, Gibson was not satisfied with taking third base. Barely hesitating, he continued to home plate, beating the throw. The Dodgers won, 4-3.
“He wants to win bad,” Manager Tom Lasorda said. “All I know is that he’d go 4 for 5, and we’d lose, and he’d be miserable. But I’ve seen him go 0 for 4 and we’d win, and he’s the happiest guy in the clubhouse. A very unusual man. I wish I had 24 Kirk Gibsons.”
One may be all Lasorda needs. Although Gibson’s offensive statistics fall below usual MVP qualifications in this season of struggle for nearly all National League hitters, he still is considered among the favorites to win the award.
“It’s not a priority of mine,” Gibson said. “I would certainly be honored, but it’s not a goal of mine, OK? I don’t want to get into the political campaign thing. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. I want to keep focused on the real goal, and that is to win.”
Perhaps Gibson’s statistics would be better if he had not been hampered recently by minor injuries. In 6 weeks, Gibson has suffered renewed soreness in his left shoulder, a strained muscle in his right buttock, and, most recently, lingering soreness in his left hamstring.
Throughout his career, Gibson has missed the equivalent of 2 full seasons because of injuries. This season, though, Gibson has played in 150 games despite the discomfort.
“Last year (with Detroit), I went on the (disabled list) for 5 or 6 weeks when I pulled my side,” Gibson said. “I had to. I couldn’t breathe. You can’t play through that. But nagging type of injuries I can play through. My legs this year have been the major thing. It hurts, but you can play through it. You get a leg cramp, and if it’s not too bad, you can throttle down and still play.”
The idea of Gibson throttling his game or emotions seems as unthinkable as in 1984.
You will not find Gibson much different today. He hasn’t, as Woody Allen once joked, moved to Los Angeles and mellowed so much that he ripened and rotted.
But yes, he said, he has slightly altered his personality to a new environment. Or maybe it’s that he’s turned 30, and the wild-man routine can get stale. Although Gibson occasionally still sends teammates scattering by throwing his helmet after a strikeout, it happens far less frequently than in his Detroit days.
Is it the change in environment or a change in Gibson?
“Probably both,” Gibson said. “I’ve gotten away from things (distractions) I was around in Detroit. I needed the change. I feel a lot of the burden is off me. What I did in Detroit was never good enough and never could be good enough.”
Which is why Gibson has been criticized--even by the Tigers’ owner, for everything from his unshaven face to his defensive deficiencies.
“Like I’ve said before, the only thing I was ever guilty of was not living up to other people’s expectations,” Gibson said. “Let’s leave it at that.”
Gibson, however, has been a 3-season, $4.5-million promise fulfilled for the Dodgers this season.
“This whole thing has been a culture shock for me,” Gibson said. “I’ve enjoyed it. I like the (West) Coast. It’s different. But I couldn’t live here all year. I can’t stand to wake up and see it 70 degrees and a clear blue sky every day.”
It is certain, however, that Gibson has adjusted to playing for the Dodgers as much as the Dodgers have adjusted to his fiery style.
He has learned, it seems, to sometimes laugh at himself. During batting practice one recent night, Lasorda launched a surprise attack on Gibson. He pointed a toy gun at his slugger, pulled the trigger and out came a stream of silly string that clung to Gibson’s batting helmet, jersey, even his mustache.
Feigning anger, Gibson stared at Lasorda and said: “That’s it. I’m not playing tonight.”
Then, he laughed.