By: Kurt Snyder
Kirk Gibson was my favorite Tiger. He was the heart and soul of the 1984 World Champion Tigers, the team that I knew so well.
Sparky Anderson once compared Gibson to Mickey Mantle, which was completely unfair. Sure, Kirk possessed great speed and power, but comparing him to Mantle, well, I guess that was just Sparky.
In 1979, when Sparky became manager, he said the Tigers would win a title within 5 years. And he delivered. But he knew what he had. And by 1983, you could see the Tigers were ready to explode. And Gibson brought all the intangibles needed to lead a team primed to win.
The home runs he hit in the final game of the ’84 World Series were majestic blows, the second one ultimately clinching the Series victory.
Who can forget Gibson rounding the bases, crossing the plate, thrusting his fists in the air as he headed to the dugout? It was pure pandemonium.
Unfortunately, Gibson would eventually leave for the Dodgers in 1988. It was tough for me to see him leave, because he was the engine that made the Tigers go. A lot of air left the balloon when Gibby boarded the plane for L.A.
But all that drive and zest for winning didn’t leave him when he left Detroit. In his first season, Gibson won the National League MVP, leading the Dodgers to a World Title. Gibson entered the World Series with a badly injured leg and was not in the lineup for Game 1 of the Series. In fact, his prospects for playing at all in the Series were quite bleak.
As it turned out, Gibson would only have one at bat in the entire series. But it was an at bat for the ages. In Game 1, Gibson, after letting Tommy Lasorda know he could hit if he needed him, hobbled to the plate with 2 outs in the ninth. He looked miserable, swinging wildly, almost flailing at every pitch Dennis Eckersley had to offer.
But he continued to battle, getting to a full count with a runner on and the Dodgers trailing by a run. Gibson was their last hope. But he didn’t belong at the plate. He didn’t belong in that game. He was too wounded, it seemed.
But the most clutch hitters in the game possess the same characteristics. They persevere. They never give up. And they love the big stage. But what Gibson did on that great October night in L.A. is forget. He put all the bad swings behind him, kept himself alive in the count and anticipated what pitch Eck would throw next. And with the count full, Gibson guessed right; he got the backup slider, and made Eckersley pay.
It was one of the greatest and most improbable home runs of all time. Vin Scully, the long-time radio voice of the Dodgers emphatically proclaimed, “the impossible has happened!” It was magical. And Gibson rounded those bases again, wounded but victorious.
So, why have I chosen to rehash all of this? Well, it’s important to remember what made Gibson so successful on the field, as a ball player; a man who competed, who knew he could beat you, who knew he was tougher.
His competitive fire was often unmatched. Rich Gossage couldn’t defeat him in ’84 and neither could Eckersley in ’88: two moments in time that helped define the legacy of Kirk Gibson.
Sadly, this week, we learned that Kirk has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. And I have to admit, I felt a little sick to my stomach when I heard.
But Gibby possesses all the intangibles to challenge more than what he faced on the field. You can’t be passive in life. If you want something, you go after it. If you are experiencing something that causes you pain, don’t run from it. Meet it head on. That’s what we can expect from Gibby going forward.
He has the biggest challenge of his life in front of him; one far bigger than any World Series at bat against Goose Gossage or Dennis Eckersley.
There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. But if there is anyone who can stare menacingly into the face of this disease, it’s Gibby. And I am certain he will give it all he’s got, like he always did on the diamond.
Since the very first time he stepped on the field in 1979, I have been pulling for Kirk Gibson. And now, I will be praying for him. And I would hope all Tiger and Dodger fans will do the same.