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 as raw as they came. He struck out frequently, seemed lost in the outfield, and brooded when he failed to deliver key hits. 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 to Mickey Mantle, which while it was a little unfair, wasn’t too far off the mark. Gibson could run like a deer, hit the ball like a monster, and run over opposing catchers like a linebacker. He 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 post-season 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 to help the Tigers come from behind for a victory, launching the team toward a historic division-winning speep of Toronto the next weekend. In one game, Gibson scored from second base on a passed ball.
After the ’87 season, Gibson was one of the free agents who were colluded against by the owners. He signed a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and was only there for a few days at 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 their commitment to winning. The outburst may have had an effect – the Dodgers won the division title, upset the New York Mets in the playoffs (Gibson delivering crucial home runs in Game four and Game Five wins) and earned the right to face the Oakland A’s in the Fall Classic.
Enter drama. Injured and not expected to play in the Series, Gibson was called on to pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth 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 MVP in 1988 and spent two more seasons in Los Angeles, suffering injuries that kept him shelved at times. 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 under longtime teammate Alan Trammell.
In 2010, Gibson was brought in to manage the Arizona Diamondbacks in the second-half of the season. The following year he led a young D-Backs club to 94 wins and a division title. For his efforts he was named National League Manager of the Year.
Gibson hit 255 home runs and stole 284 bases in his 17 seasons, 195 of those homers coming with the Detroit Tigers.