Kirk Gibson called it quits last week. Virtually anybody who knows me knows that I disliked Kirk Gibson intensely, that I found him vindictive and vulgar, misogynistic and mean. Because I am a columnist, I do not need to be objective about this in print, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
But dammit, the devil must be given his due, if for no other reasons but two. One, we lost Mickey Mantle a couple of days ago, so certain parallels in their careers--World Series heroism, career-hindering ailments--ran true right until the end. And two, Kirk Gibson, no one can deny, was as amazing a performer under pressure as these eyes have ever seen.
He hit the greatest homers I ever saw. I am not old enough to have been there for Bobby Thomson’s. I saw Bill Mazeroski’s on black-and-white TV. Reggie Jackson’s three-for-the-price-of-one night? Sorry, I wasn’t there.
But on my bathroom wall hangs a poster, a souvenir newspaper front page from Detroit with a wild-eyed (wasn’t he always?) and grubby Kirk Gibson, knees of his britches torn to shreds, arms raised in triumph as he celebrates the second of two home runs in the final game of the 1984 World Series, with my story beside it.
And on a T-shirt in my closet is imprinted another keepsake front page, this one from Los Angeles, chronicling the improbable home run struck by a game-legged, stubbly Gibson in his only at-bat of the 1988 World Series, with my story beside it.
Grantland Rice got to write about the Four Horsemen. Al Stump got to write about Ty Cobb. Me, I get to write about Kirk Gibson.
But that’s all right. Reader’s Digest ran articles about “My most unforgettable character,” so maybe this guy is mine. I wish Gibson peace in retirement and possibly he has mellowed, because I haven’t enjoyed (endured) his company in years. Some people I know like him quite a lot. Others I know who hate his guts--among them teammates and announcers--might astonish you.
The Gibson I remember bullied people, pushed them around. The things he said to women, I wouldn’t say to a convict. Yet he had moods for everybody, so perhaps others saw a kinder side to his nature. In Detroit, my memories were of a man saying Gibson slapped him in a bar, of a woman saying he yelled at her son, of kids at spring training in Lakeland, Fla., waiting for autographs, watching Gibson vault the outfield fence to get away.
But as a ballplayer, he was something to see. And perhaps that’s all he ever cared about, playing ball, playing hard.
Sparky Anderson stuck that “next Mickey Mantle” tag on him the minute Gibson emerged from Michigan State, a husky football receiver with speed, Detroit Lion coach Darryl Rogers once told me, that was like an Olympic sprinter’s. Not long after he entered pro baseball, Gibson ended up with a screw in his wrist, and pretty soon that physique of his was indeed like Mantle’s, breaking apart, bit by bit.
His physical feats, however, enthralled me. I saw him homer at Tiger Stadium onto the roof of a lumber company . . . across the street. I swear to you, that ball went 550 feet, minimally.
During Game 5 of the ’84 World Series, he homered twice. Goose Gossage was on the mound for San Diego late in the game, the Padres down, 5-4, and the manager, Dick Williams, wanted to remove him. Goose talked him out of it. In the dugout, Gibson was offered a wager by his manager, Anderson. “I’ll bet you $10 they walk you,” Sparky said.
A chant began in the stands. “Who you gonna call?” one fan would ask. “Goosebusters!” would come the reply. Gossage did not walk Gibson. He threw one over the plate that ended up over the fence, and Gibson circled the bases, blowing kisses.
For that one, I sat in the press box. Four years later, I stood by the Dodger Stadium elevator, trying to beat the rush to the clubhouse. Gibson was pinch-hitting and Dennis Eckersley was pitching in Game 1 of the ’88 Series, and I craned my neck to watch the hobbling Gibson strike out. Instead, he one-handed a homer, a hobbling Roy Hobbs job that you had to see to disbelieve. Gibson circled the bases, pumping his fist.
Now one more, then no more about him.
At a game in Detroit, a fast man, Lou Whitaker, led off from second base. Gibson hit one over the center fielder’s head. Whitaker waited to see if it would be caught. It touched down, short of the fence.
Whitaker was out at home, Gibson was safe.
Not only had he caught up to Whitaker on the base paths, but after the first runner was tagged out at the plate, Gibson knocked down the catcher and the umpire. The ball came loose and he scored. I don’t know if Mickey Mantle ever did this, but Gibson sure looked like Mickey Mantle to me.