The author of one of baseball’s most dramatic home runs, Kirk Gibson made it a habit to deliver clutch hits in his 17-year career. He played 12 of those years for his hometown team – the Detroit Tigers. Gibson was a star athlete as a prep standout in the affluent suburbs of Detroit before going on to become an All-American flanker at Michigan State University. He was drafted into the NFL by the St. Louis Cardinals, but he opted to sign with the Tigers instead. It proved wise.
As a young player, Gibson was as raw as they came. He struck out frequently, seemed lost in the outfield, and brooded when he failed to succeed. But given time and tutelage, and with maturity, Gibson became a thrilling performer on the diamond. He had a rare combination of blazing speed and tremendous power. Sparky Anderson compared him the young Gibson to He and George Brett appeared in 1,914 games together from 1973 to 1990, setting a record for games by teammates that was later surpassed by Mickey Mantle, which while it was unfair, wasn’t that terribly far off the mark. Gibson could run like a deer, hit the ball as far as almost anyone, and bowl over opposing catchers like a linebacker. While he wasn’t as talented as Mantle, Gibby was an unbridled†force on the field.
He finally started to put things together in 1981 when he almost single-handedly carried the Tigers to the post-season in the second-half of the split season. In 1983 he went to see a sports psychologist to help him with his concentration and focus. One of the first baseball players to do so, Gibson benefited greatly. By 1984 he was the #3 hitter on the powerful Tiger club that roared to a 35-5 start and ran away with the pennant.
He gave the first hint at his dramatic flair in that postseason when he belted two homers in Game Five at Tiger Stadium, the last one off Goose Gossage to cement the World Series clincher. In 1987 he hit a clutch ninth inning homer against the Blue Jays late in September to help the Tigers come from behind for a victory, launching the team toward a historic division-winning sweep of Toronto on the final weekend of the season. In one game during that battle for the division title, Gibson scored from second base on a passed ball.
After the ’87 season, Gibson left his hometown Tigers after owner Tom Monaghan insulted him in the newspapers. He signed a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and was only there for a few days in spring training when he realized the team needed leadership. When a teammate (Jesse Orosco) put shaving cream on his cap, Gibby flipped. He called out his new teammates, challenging their commitment to winning. The outburst may have had an effect – the Dodgers won the division title and upset the New York Mets in the playoffs (Gibson delivered crucial home runs in Game Four and Game Five wins). As a result, the Dodgers earned the right to face the Oakland A’s in the Fall Classic.
Enter drama. Injured and not expected to play in the World Series, Gibson was called on to pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game One. Trailing by one run, he lofted a pitch from Dennis Eckersley into the right field bleachers and limped on his injured leg around the bases. It was a real-life Roy Hobbs moment. The Dodgers went on to sweep the favored A’s in four games.
Gibson was named National League Most Valuable Player in 1988 and spent two more seasons in Los Angeles though he suffered injuries that kept him shelved for long stretches. He played briefly for the Royals and Pirates before signing a free agent deal to return to the Tigers in 1993. He had some of his best seasons after coming back, hitting 23 homers in just 98 games at the age of 37, and helping revitalize interest in the aging team. He retired following the 1995 season, and later went on to coach for the Tigers, serving as bench manager under longtime teammate and friend Alan Trammell.
In 2010, Gibson was brought in to manage the Arizona Diamondbacks for the second-half of the season. The following year he led a young D-Backs to 94 wins and the division title. For his efforts he was named National League Manager of the Year. Gibson managed the Diamondbacks for four full seasons before he was fired after posting a career .485 mark.
In April of 2015, shortly after rejoining the Detorit Tigers as a broadcaster, Gibson announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.