Thursday, September 11, 2014

Card #105: Kirk Gibson

Who Can It Be Now?
Kirk Harold Gibson was born on May 28, 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan, and he was raised in the Detroit area (Waterford -- Oakland County). Gibson was the son of two high school teachers -- a mother who thought theater and speech and a father who was a math teacher. Though his father was a math-minded type, he pushed his son Kirk not in academics but in sports; as Gibson is quoted as saying in his SABR biography:
My parents never made me work. When I grew up, all we did was screw around with motorcycles and water-skiing. I had it pretty easy. My dad pushed me hard in athletics. He built me a home plate and mound in the backyard and a hoop over the garage, and he made me practice.
The practice paid off, as Gibson became one of the best athletes of his era -- no lie. He played football, baseball, basketball, and ran track at Waterford-Kettering High (where his father taught) and in the summer played American Legion baseball. He earned a football scholarship to Michigan State University, where he played flanker. He started as a freshman, and helped lead his team to a 7-4 record. But then, the team was put on probation for three years, receiving both a TV and a bowl ban, meaning that Gibson never got the opportunity to play in the postseason.  

After his junior season of football, Michigan State baseball coach Danny Litwhiler asked Gibson about playing baseball. His football coach okayed it, and he played incredibly well despite having been away from the game for two years -- in 48 games, he hit .390, 16 HR, 52 RBI, stole 21 bases, and was named an All-American. When the baseball draft came around that June of 1978, Gibson had convinced the 11 teams selecting ahead of Detroit that he was going to play football professionally, so Gibson was available with the 12th pick overall for Detroit to select him. 

Shocking everyone, Gibson signed a large contract with the Tigers and immediately reported to Lakeland, Florida, to play baseball. Had he not done that, it is very likely that he would have been a high round draft pick for an NFL team; instead, the then-St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the 7th round (out of 12 total) of the 1979 NFL draft.

Hype followed Gibson wherever he went.  Superman in Cleats bleated on article about his time in Lakeland. But, it was hard to ignore Gibson's athletic credentials -- for instance, a hand-timed 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and scouts rating Gibson as the first prospect to be scored 80 out of 80 in both power hitting and speed since Mickey Mantle. Gibson struggled to hit well in the Florida State League, though, and his manager that year -- Jim Leyland -- covered for Gibson's seeming underachievement by saying, "We don't expect him to tear the league apart. We just want him to get his feet wet and play every day."

The Tigers were less patient with their wunderkind than Leyland would have led people to believe. Indeed, despite the .240/.328/.451 slash line in Lakeland (in fairness, the league overall slashed at .249/.330/.321 so .451 SLG is pretty impressive), Gibson spent just 89 games in 1979 in Triple-A Evansville -- a season shortened by a knee issue caused by a collision with another outfielder -- before getting a September call-up to the Motor City. 

In 1980, Gibson started the year as the centerfielder for the Tigers. Indeed, the Tigers traded Ron LeFlore to Montreal specifically to open a spot up for Gibson in center. However, in mid-June and in what would become a recurring theme for Gibson's career, he hit the disabled list for what was thought to be a sprained wrist. It turned out to be a developmental flaw in the bones in his wrist that led to surgery to have his ulna shortened and a steel plate inserted. He was still bothered by the wrist in 1981, and reinjured it in May of that year.  And, in 1982, he struggled with mysterious weight loss that turned out to be an intestinal parasite -- and he missed time otherwise with knee, wrist, and calf problems.

Coming in to 1983, then, he was hopeful that that would be his year. But, as his SABR biography points out, his arrogant and egotistical attitude needed some adjusting and Sparky Anderson took it on himself to do that adjusting. Anderson told his team -- and the media afterward -- that the team needed to be polite, to sign autographs, to be appreciative of the fans, and to be grateful for their position in life. Gibson was the intended recipient for these words, yet the words apparently fell on deaf ears. Anderson named Chet Lemon as his starting centerfielder and told Gibson that Gibson would be DH-ing. Gibson went into a rage and screamed at Anderson. Anderson let him rage on until Gibson was done. When that happened, Anderson told Gibson "open the door and get your ass outta here."

 Perhaps all those issues combined, because Gibson was not a very good ballplayer in 1983 -- .227/.320/.414 with 15 HR and 14 SB. But, at least he stayed healthy. Then, in 1984 and 1985, Gibson had both health and good seasons. His 1984 season helped lead the Tigers to one of the best starts to a season in history -- 35-5 in their first 40 games -- and to a World Series Championship that felt at the time like a fait accompli.  Gibson was the ALCS MVP for his .417/.500/.750 hitting in the 3-game sweep of the Royals.

After the 1985 season, Gibson became a free agent. He did not want to accept the Tigers offer of a 3-year, $3.6 million contract because he felt he deserved a longer contract similar to that which other players got. He didn't get anything more, though, because the owners were colluding at the time. So, he re-signed with the Tigers for the three years. He also got married in a double-wedding ceremony, as he and his former teammate Dave Rozema married two sisters in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Rozema married Sandra Sklarski and Gibson married JoAnn.  As one would expect, newspapers combined the contract with the marriage and thought that Gibson would be happier, more mature, and more settled.

In 1986, though, it was back to the disabled list -- this time for sprained ligaments in his ankle. If he had stayed healthy that year, his numbers might have been otherworldly. In 119 games, he hit 28 HR, stole 34 bases, and hit .268/.371/.492. The same is true for 1987 -- once again, hitting the DL (for a pulled muscle in his rib cage) and once again putting up very good numbers despite the shortened season.  Yet, as the old saw goes, if "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas.

After that 1987 season, Gibson finally got the opportunity to get out of his hometown that he had apparently been craving. I mean, in that 1985 story about how he was going to grow up thanks to the contract and settling down, it said that he went to the Tigers at one point (and yes, it was the "trigger-tempered" Gibson who said this) that they should traded him away from Michigan.  It didn't help that then-Tigers Owner -- Domino's Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan -- called Gibson "a disgrace to the Tiger uniform with his half-beard, half-stubble." Come on Tom -- it was the late 1980s and all that Miami Vice crap was big! 

In any case, Gibson signed with the Dodgers for 3-years at $4.5 million total and getting a $1 million signing bonus. His first season in Los Angeles was, of course, the storybook season that many fans recall when they think of Kirk Gibson. He was named the National League MVP -- it wasn't a terrible selection, but his teammate Orel Hershiser probably deserved to win the MVP with his Cy Young for that season. But everyone remembers that 3-2, 2 out shot off Dennis Eckersley -- and the fist-pumps and hobbling that went with it -- in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. That was Gibson's only at-bat in the series due to an injured knee suffered in the NLCS. Orel Hershiser was the Series MVP.

In 1989 and 1990, Gibson's injury woes continued. A hamstring problem in 1989 led to surgery in August of that year, and that issue carried over into the 1990 season. The Dodgers decided not to re-sign Gibson, and he ended up inking a two-year contract with the Royals. He only made it through year one of that contract before he got upset about being a backup. So, in spring training in 1992, the Royals traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Neal Heaton. I guess it is telling about Gibson that the Pirates released him on May 5. 

He spent the rest of 1992 out of baseball before the Tigers signed him up to a series of one year contracts starting in 1993. He was still pretty good, but by 1995, he was done. He sent a statement to the team in August of 1995 saying that he was retiring immediately and that he had been "traded to his family."

Mustache Check: Kirk Gibson never looked right without looking like he hadn't shaved for three days. Thankfully, he's got nearly a fu manchu going on here.

Trivial Pursuit
Though he was selected to the All-Star Game in both 1985 and 1988, Gibson declined both invitations. As a result, he is still the still the only player in major league history to be named Most Valuable Player of either the AL, the NL, or the overall Major Leagues who never appeared in an All-Star Game.

The World According to Garp
Kirk Gibson is the attributed author on one book: Bottom of the Ninth. It was ghostwritten by Lynn Henning and was released in 1997.

Family Ties
Gibson is still married to JoAnn (or Joanne) Sklarski. They have four children -- Colleen, Kirk, Kevin, and Cameron. Kevin is a rising senior defenseman on the University of Wisconsin-Stephens Point Hockey team, while Cameron (Cam) is an outfielder for his dad's alma mater, Michigan State. No word on what Kirk (not Junior since his middle name is Robert) or Colleen are doing these days.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I really never liked Kirk Gibson. He came off as, well...let me use his words when, in 1986, he was trying to describe how he had changed his life priorities: "My change is from a self-centered egotistical jerk to somebody who thinks and cares about what's going on around him."

If you're reading this blog, you're probably aware that Gibson is the current manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. While the GM of the Diamondbacks has made trades to get rid of players to an extent -- and found himself fired as a result -- Gibson has presided over the Snakes being run into the ground. This occurred after Tony La Russa came into town. Many writers believe, though, that Gibson wasn't responsible for the poor play or the giving away of young talent or the injuries that the team suffered.

What's bothersome as a fan is that Kirk Gibson is one of those egotistical self-appointed "protectors of the unwritten rules of baseball." I believe that either Brian McCann or Gerrit Cole may have copywritten that clause with their general overreactions to Carlos Gomez in the past couple of seasons, but Gibson is worse. This SB Nation writer lays it out and says it clearly: "Make no mistake, Kirk Gibson is bad for baseball."

Why? Because Gibson believes that it's important to hit a player on the opposite team if your best guy -- or any guy -- is hit by the other team's pitcher. I mean, the local newspaper said that the Diamondbacks now have the reputation of being "the Dirtiest team in baseball." Gibson is as involved as anyone in this reputation building. I understand why he hates Ryan Braun -- there's a lot about Braun to hate -- but Gibson fist-bumped his pitcher when the pitcher (Evan Marshall) plunked Braun. 

Sure, Braun used steroids -- but so did Gibson. Regularly. I can say that unequivocally because Gibson was injected with cortisone regularly. That's not an anabolic steroid, but, as Dan Le Batard pointed out 10 years ago, Gibson was using that steroid when he hit that 1988 home run. 

I know this section has rambled, but Gibson generally rubs me the wrong way. 

One thing I will say in his favor, though -- if he could have ever found a way to stay healthy throughout his career, he could have easily been a Hall of Famer. 

But on the career he had he's not one, and he is not close.

And, in a total nonsequitur, if you're a hunter, maybe you should go hunt with Gibson, David Wells, and Jake Peavy in Michigan.


  1. I'm not a Gibson fan. Between him and Kevin Towers they have set the Dbacks back at least 3 years because of stupid trades and the "grit mentality."

  2. I think I have an error card of this where it's like a back with Rusty Kuntz. Anyway, cool blog, I added you to my blogroll: