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Sometimes, Heart of Lion Isn’t Enough

There are certain places in history I’d just as soon not be. The deck of the Titanic, riding shotgun for Custer, the tower of London, married to Henry VIII, in the ring with Mike Tyson or on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens.

And, high among these is in the on-deck circle just after Kirk Gibson has hit a home run.

Gibson’s high-fives are just this side of Dempsey’s left hooks or the billy-clubs of an angry cop. The poor guy who reaches up to exchange slaps with Gibson is in for a backbone-shattering experience, a cross between banging into a door in the dark and getting hit by a moving truck. A mugging would be tame by comparison.

To say that Kirk Gibson is “intense” is like saying Greta Garbo is quiet or Wilt Chamberlain is tall. Gibson plays the game like a cop breaking up a crap game or a guy chasing someone who just snatched his wallet. There’s a take-no-prisoners quality to the way he goes about it.

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There’s also a feral quality to Gibson, a suggestion of the stalking, hunting animal, tawny eyes seeming to peer out of the underbrush waiting for an animal dumb enough to show up at his watering hole. All he needs is a mane and claws.

He’s the reason the Dodgers are in this post-season tournament in the first place and going into the seventh game of it in the second place. He’s the Dodgers’ and probably the league’s MVP this season.

But the lion would seem to have a thorn in its paw as this playoff is winding down. Kirk Gibson, ordinarily, doesn’t walk. He kind of hulks. He carries a don’t-mess-with-me look the minute he steps on a ballfield. Or in a subway car for all of that. They spoiled a good receiver when they made him a baseball player to give you an example.

But, he had a terrible idea in Inning 1 of Game 6 Tuesday night when he came to bat with runners on first and second and no one out. He decided to give himself up for the good of the team.

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Now, ordinarily, this is a laudable enterprise. But, Kirk Gibson bunting is like Mike Tyson clinching or Johnny Unitas falling on the ball. His stock-in-trade is the 3-run homer. Eddie Stanky bunts. Kirk Gibson goes for the bundle.

So, it was not the best idea Kirk Gibson ever had. Unless he knows something about Kirk Gibson that pitchers don’t.

It wasn’t a decision lightly arrived at. “I decided to give myself a strike to (try to) drive the ball. Then, I got a pitch I couldn’t drive, I made the decision to bring the guys over (by bunting). I felt like if I got a good bunt down, I could beat it out. I’ve given myself up many times before. I make these decisions. And I get paid to. This time, I didn’t do it. I can say I blew the play.”

Gibson popped the bunt up to the pitcher. And, it was almost the only real chance for a rally the Dodgers were to get for the rest of the night. “Give (David) Cone credit,” suggested Kirk Gibson.

The episode begs the question as to whether the Dodgers’ lion in summer is in full fine cry. In 4 at-bats, he never got the ball out of the infield Tuesday, in fact, in fair territory only once. Pitcher Cone, who took a 3-hitter into the ninth inning, is good. But so were a lot of pitchers Kirk Gibson has larruped for 3-run homers.

From the time Gibson showed up in a Dodger uniform this spring, the character of the team changed. A 73-89 team last season seemed to go from lurking to prowling.

A lot of people thought a Kirk Gibson might not fit the Dodger image, whatever that is. Gibson seemed a strange choice for the Hollywood atmosphere of a ballclub that has nightclub comics on the walls instead of bubblegum-card silhouettes. Which features Robert Wagner, not Honus.

Kirk Gibson seemed to come more from the no-nonsense deer-hunting precincts of Michigan rather than the lunch-and-limo setting of laid-back L.A.

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But, Gibson, of all people, became the biggest buddy on the club of the show-biz manager. And the accepted leader in the clubhouse. The liaison. He did everything in-house that Pedro Guerrero, the club’s resident Big Guy when he came, did not.

Manager Tom Lasorda could not believe his good luck. All this and a booming bat, too. Surprisingly (to the manager), there was no resentment. “The club loved him. He set the tone,” Lasorda marvels. “Marshall (who had widely publicized passages-at-arms with Guerrero) loved him. The club was glad to have him on our side.”

Do they still have him? The tournament has come down to sudden death and a (needless, as it turned out) stolen base has brought dubious battle to the team lion.

Gibson was testy answering questions about his ability to drive a ball. “Look, I don’t think the Mets care. I wouldn’t expect any get-well cards, but it’s a do-or-die game.”

Even wounded, a lion is dangerous. “I made my best pitches against him,” the Mets’ Cone admitted. “You have to make your best pitches against Gibson.”

The problem for Los Angeles is whether Gibson can make his best swings. If he swings, it’s the Christians against the lions. If he bunts, it’s just another endangered species. Like watching the king of the jungle in a net--or swiping his paw futilely at a trainer in a cage in a circus.


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