It was a tense moment during the National League playoffs and Kirk Gibson was making his way slowly from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box.
He was moving in a half swagger, half stagger, like Popeye with a pulled hamstring.
Up in the Dodger Stadium press box, a writer said, “Here comes the only player in history who will win the MVP award for the way he walks to the plate.”
The writer was being facetious, of course. It is true, especially so in the playoffs and World Series, that every Gibson at-bat was a theatrical event. But a flair for the dramatic in approaching the plate isn’t going to win you an MVP.
No, what swung the vote for Gibson was the way he didn’t shave. The stubble factor definitely doomed Kirk’s worthy yet wimpy MVP rivals.
Simply put, Gibson won because of the feeling among the voters that he turned the Dodgers around by infusing the team with his caveman spirit.
He certainly didn’t win the award with his statistics. Darryl Strawberry had 14 more homers than Gibson and 25 more runs batted in, huge gaps. Kevin McReynolds had 23 more RBIs, was a quiet leader, and played circles around Gibson in the outfield.
For Gibson to overcome those numbers, the voters had to be convinced that he had performed some heavy attitude adjusting in the Dodger clubhouse.
As the season progressed, a lot of the Dodger players came to resent that growing theory, that they had been a bunch of lazy sun-baked prima donnas until Gibson arrived with his menacing glare.
But the players didn’t resent Gibson. It wasn’t his theory, it was something the media invented and grew increasingly fond of.
And even the proudest Dodgers couldn’t deny that Gibson had brought an interesting level of intensity with him when he signed on as a free agent.
In spring training, he almost had to be sedated and caged after a teammate put some eye-black in his cap-band as a prank. Gibson didn’t find out who had done it until the next day, when he had cooled down. Otherwise he would have set a league record for the Jesse Orosco toss.
That wasn’t the only early demonstration of Gibson’s attitude. I turned on one televised spring training game just in time to see Gibson steal third base with a headfirst slide, all but uprooting the bag with his chin. Meaningless game? Gibson obviously didn’t know the meaning of that term.
He plays the game with a distinctive style. First there is the look--the tough-guy stubble, stiff enough to catch stray hot-dog wrappers; the Dodger cap pulled down tight on his head, as if he’s about to drive some bumpy road.
The Dodger fans tuned into Gibson’s energy level right off. I got a letter from one fan who said he got seats a few rows behind the Dodger dugout one Sunday.
Gibson struck out. A few innings later, he struck out again. Striking out is not something that puts Gibson in a particularly pleasant frame of mind.
The second time Gibson struck out, the fan behind the dugout decided he would try to buck up the big guy’s spirits with a little friendly encouragement, so the fan called out, “You’ll get ‘em next time, Kirk!”
Gibson, about to disappear into the dugout, looked up at the fan and screamed something like, “Eat dirt, very bad person!”
How could the fans help but love a ballplayer who isn’t afraid to interact with them, to share his innermost feelings?
Ballplayers tend to put up a stoic front, hiding emotions behind a cool facade. But with Gibson around, when the Dodgers are playing lousy, the fans know somebody is as teed off and frustrated as they are.
He cares. Not that other Dodgers don’t, but you won’t see Gibson strike out and return his bat to the rack as if he were sorting mail. When he kicks his helmet or assaults a bat rack, he conveys to the fans the impression that he takes the game as seriously as they do.
So he not only won the MVP for the way he walked to the plate and the way he didn’t shave, he also won for the way he struck out.
Paul Desmond, the legendary saxophonist, has said that when he plays, he hopes to sound like a dry martini.
When Gibson plays, he hopes to play like a wet six-pack. Not that light stuff, either, but the extra-foamy, industrial-strength brine that real men drink after a hard day of riveting steel girders.
Maybe Gibson just got lucky this season. It could be that he just happened to show up when the Dodgers started playing with a little more zip and spirit.
Had they flopped, as they’d done the 2 previous seasons, Gibson’s flashes of temper and intensity would have been seen as infantile, rather than heroic.
But the Dodgers won when they had no business winning, and we have to blame someone.
Tuesday, in a conference call with reporters after the MVP award was announced, Gibson was polite but not very expansive.
Kirk had just returned from a hunting trip and he probably was eager to unpack his gear and clean his club.
Dodgers who have been selected Most Valuable Player:
Year Player 1913 Jake Daubert 1924 Dazzy Vance 1941 Dolph Camilli 1949 Jackie Robinson 1951 Roy Campanella 1953 Roy Campanella 1955 Roy Campanella 1956 Don Newcombe 1962 Maury Wills 1963 Sandy Koufax 1974 Steve Garvey 1988 Kirk Gibson