A player who combines both power and speed is rare, and few, if any Tigers ever displayed that mix like Kirk Gibson. The Michigan State flanker turned baseball player brought his blazing speed, rugged toughness, and bat-breaking strength to the diamond. Though it took a few years for him to hone his craft as a ballplayer, Gibson always brought his intensity to the field. An amazing play in May of 1983 against the Blue Jays in Toronto illustrated his unique talent.
Early in 1983 Gibson was still an unknown commodity as a ballplayer. Though he had enjoyed a marvelous second-half in 1981, nearly driving the Tigers to the playoffs, Gibson was still a raw talent. In the outfield he would occasionally misplay routine fly balls, often making up for it with his foot speed, but he was far from a good major league outfielder. At the plate, the left-handed hitter had trouble with southpaws, struggled to handle breaking pitches, and struck out too frequently, often slamming his bat in disgust.
Manager Sparky Anderson had famously compared Gibson to Mickey Mantle, a statement that seemed to hang around Gibby’s neck like an anvil. Though he was easily the fastest player on the team and one of the fastest in the league, Gibson was a novice on the base paths. He’d stole 33 bases in his four seasons in the big leagues, but also been caught stealing 22 times. He’d suffered numerous injuries, in part due to his aggressive football-style approach to the game.
Gibson was 25 as the 1983 season began and determined to prove himself. Wary of his defensive ability, Sparky inserted Gibson into his lineup as a designated hitter in late April. By May he was playing almost every day as a DH and occasionally as a center fielder. But as he adjusted to playing every day, Gibson struggled at the plate: his average dipping as low as .164. By late May he had yet to hit a home run.
In a game against the Blue Jays on May 25, Sparky had Gibson batting second in his order. Hard throwing right-hander Jim Gott was on the mound for the Blue Jays, who under Bobby Cox, were off to their best start in franchise history.
Lou Whitaker led off against Gott and drew a walk. There was a strong breeze blowing in toward the plate at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium as Sweet Lou danced off first base and Gibby dug in to face Gott. Gibson made contact with a Gott fastball waist high and sent it soaring into the wind and to the left of Blue Jay center fielder Lloyd Moseby. Right fielder Jesse Barfield also made his way toward the ball but it split the defenders, landing deep in right-center field on the warning track. It was hit so hard that neither outfielder could converge on it. Whitaker got a slow jump off first base as the ball caromed around the wall some 390 feet from home plate. Gibson charged around first base, his helmet flying from his head. His blonde mane was waving in the wind as Gibson attacked the base paths as if they were linebackers on the gridiron. By the time Whitaker reached third base, Gibson was one stride behind him.
Meanwhile, Moseby retrieved the ball and fired it to the infield. Tiger third base coach Alex Grammas tried to stop Gibby from proceeding, flailing his arms wildly, but to no avail: Gibson was determined to score. Whitaker was just a step in front of his teammate as the relay throw was fired in to catcher Ernie Whitt. Whitaker performed a perfect hook slide to the third base side of home, eluding Whitt’s swipe tag. Whitt seemed shocked that a second runner—the 215-pound blazing fast Gibson—was also upon him. Before he could swing his mitt back to apply a tag, Gibson flew into the catcher with his upper body, delivering a shoulder that sent all his force into Whitt. The ball fell from Whitt’s grip, and Gibson stomped on home plate with an inside-the-park home run. Shrugging off his violent collision with Whitt, Gibby helped Whitaker to his feet and celebrated as they both advanced to the dugout.
The record shows that there were about 18,000 fans at that game, and it’s safe to say few of them had ever seen a more exciting or shocking play on a baseball diamond. Gibson had launched a line drive over the outfield, rocketed his way around the bases, caught up with his teammate, slowed down to make sure he didn’t pass him, and still scored an inside-the-park homer after plowing the catcher over and dislodging the baseball. The score was 2-0, Tigers.
Detroit went on to win that game 6-2, and they won 92 games in 1983, finishing in second place. Gibson struggled at the plate, still missing too many breaking pitches, but he was maturing. In 1984 he hit third in Sparky’s lineup and a special season would unfold.