In 2013, many articles were written upon the 25th anniversary of one of baseball’s most historic home runs: Kirk Gibson’s blast off Dennis Eckersley to win Game One of the 1988 World Series. But before Gibby could do his Roy Hobbs impersonation that October night in the Fall Classic, he first had to don the Dodger blues, which meant he abandoned the navy blues of his hometown Detroit Tigers. His departure from Detroit in the off-season of 1987-1988 was a shocking blow to the team that had just posted the best record in baseball.
Gibson had first been a free agent after the 1985 season, just a year removed from hitting two big home runs in the clinching game of the ’84 World Series at Tiger Stadium. But despite his being one of the best combinations of power and speed in the game, few offers came his way. He ended up resigning with Detroit, and in ’87, Gibby was instrumental in helping Detroit to 98 wins and the AL East division title. It was a magical summer in Detroit, as the Bengals overtook the Toronto Blue Jays in the final weekend to capture first place.
“I was never more proud of a team I managed,” Sparky Anderson said. “With Gibby and Tram and our pitching staff and a deep bench, we were a real team [that season].”
In many ways, Gibson was the heart of that team, providing home run power, daring baserunning, and gritty go-for-it-all aggressiveness on the diamond. It was expected that the Tigers would keep the homegrown Gibson, but an arbitrator ruled that there had been collusion among baseball’s owners in 1985-1986, and he made more than 40 players immediate free agents, including Gibson. Gaining his freedom in November, Gibson immediately drew attention from several clubs, with Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City among the strongest suitors. The Tigers made a grave mistake when they announced they would not negotiate with Gibson until after the winter meetings in December. Gibson, always proud, felt slighted, and by the time the Tiger front office sent an offer (for only three years and at lower than market value), his attention was elsewhere.
Few places seemed less “Gibson-like” than LA. Gibby is a midwestern man, a hunter, an outdoorsman, a no-nonsense guy. But a series of meetings with Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda and a few of his coaches sealed the deal for Kirk. Lasorda made it clear that he would be the central part of a rebuilding effort to get the Dodgers to the post-season as soon as possible. He impressed Gibson with his positive attitude and he reminded Gibby a bit of his former manager, Sparky Anderson. Both were larger than life characters whose force of personality projected an atmosphere of winning. Gibson inked a three-year deal for $4.5 million with a $1 million signing bonus and an option for a fourth season at $1.1 million. It was more money than he’d ever made and it was far more than the Tigers had offered. In that era, Detroit had a reputation for not being aggressive in the free agent market, and they held firmly to the idea that their own players should resign at a “hometown discount.” Gibby refused to go along.
Detroit owner Tom Monaghan didn’t help the situation, having made comments in previous seasons that Gibson’s unshaven face and gruff demeanor were not professional.
The reaction from Tiger fans was mostly negative. Gibson was a turncoat, and some fans argued that he’d never hit .300, been an All-Star or driven in 100 runs. They felt betrayed that he would demand more money and then bolt Motown. But Gibson was a superstar, whether the raw numbers showed it or not. He proved it in Los Angeles in his first season.
It didn’t take long for Gibson to make his presence known in Hollywood. During spring training at Vero Beach, Florida, Gibson returned from a workout to find someone had smeared eye black all over the brim of his Dodgers’ cap. He exploded. In an infamous tirade, Gibson sought to find the prankster. He was going to tear him apart. The perpetrator (who turned out to be reliever Jesse Orosco) and his teammates were soon treated to Gibby’s patented temper. He laid into his new teammates, calling them losers and challenging them to change the attitude in the clubhouse. If they wanted to win, Gibson said, they needed to stop playing around and start taking winning seriously. The message was delivered: Kirk Gibson was a leader on this team.
During the regular season, Gibson played inspired baseball, taking the extra base, hitting balls in the gaps, hitting home runs. He batted over .300 most of the season, settling in at .290 with 25 homers and 106 runs scored. He swiped 31 bases in 35 tries, and he stayed healthy, playing in 150 games. To a man, his teammates recognized that he was the most important player on their team. He made the Dodgers go. The team won 13 of their first 20, took control of the NL West in May, and won the division by seven games. In the NLCS, Gibson hit a homer against the Mets in the 12th inning of Game Four that turned that series around. He was hurt in that series, but came back and delivered his pinch-hit homer in Game One of the World Series, setting the tone for an incredible victory by the Dodgers over the heavily favored Athletics.
Monaghan popped up again unfortunately, re-opening wounds of Gibby leaving Detroit. In an interview with a Detroit radio station days after Gibson hit two homers against the Mets in the playoffs, the Tiger owner was asked if it had been a mistake to let the slugger go.
“We weren’t hurt by Gibson’s leaving,” Monaghan insisted, “we were helped defensively … The Tigers were better off without Gibson, especially in the clubhouse.”
After the Dodgers clinched the title, Lasorda found Gibson in the jubilant clubhouse and gave him a long hug. Gibson told Lasorda, “This is why I came here.” Lasorda repled simply, “This is why we got you.”
Several years later, Gibby returned home to Detroit via free agency after a few stops elsewhere. But his success in LA (he was named NL Most Valuable Player in 1988) is a large part of his legacy as one of the best clutch performers and grittiest players of the 1980s. It doesn’t subtract from his status as a Detroit legend, it only makes us more proud to call him one of our own.