Gibby traveled long road to become celebrated big league manager

Kirk Gibson Arizona Diamondbacks

In his first full season as a manager, former Tiger Kirk Gibson has been named Manager of the Year.

To borrow a tired (and grammatically incorrect) phrase: “Who’d a thunk it?”

On Wednesday, Kirk Gibson of the Arizona Diamondbacks was named National League Manager of the Year. Given where he started out, that has to rank among the most unlikely honors in recent baseball history.

It’s not that Gibson, in his first full season at the helm of the Diamondbacks, isn’t a smart baseball man. It’s not that he doesn’t know how the game is played. It’s certainly not that he isn’t capable of handling the heat – he produced a few of the most legendary clutch home runs in baseball history.

It’s just that when he arrived on the scene off the campus of Michigan State University in the late 1970s, he seemed like a meat-headed football player turned baseball wannabe.

Now look at him. Sparky, your boy is all grown up!

Anyone who saw Gibson in his first few seasons in a Tiger uniform recall how raw he was. He was like a stallion on the diamond, but he played the game with reckless abandon. He was also short on fundamentals. Hall of Famer Al Kaline was brought in to teach him the finer points of playing the outfield. In his first professional stop, at Class-A Lakeland in 1978, his manager was none other than Jim Leyland, who helped tutor him on base stealing. Gibby was a quick runner, but also a quick learner – he swiped 13 bases in 14 tries.

In 1979 he vaulted to AAA at Evansville, along with Leyland. Gibson continued to flash his power at the plate, but even more often he flailed away at pitches, especially those thrown by left-handers. It wasn’t so much how many times he failed at the plate that was troubling – he was a young player who hadn’t played baseball in college until his senior year at MSU. It was how Gibson reacted to his many strikeouts – by breaking bats and tossing his helmet in disgust – that troubled the Tigers.

Several Tiger coaches tried to calm his fiery nature. But it was his first big league manger who found the secret to dealing with Gibby. In 1980, after just 502 minor league at-bats in two seasons, the Tigers promoted Gibson to the majors. Awaiting him was Sparky Anderson, a grey-haired veteran of the dugout. Their relationship would be complicated over the years, but the meeting would change the life of Kirk Gibson forever.

“Sparky taught [me] how to be a man, not just a baseball player,” Gibson would say later in his autobiography.

Gibson learned on the job in the big leagues, and he had his share of embarrassing moments: misplaying balls in the outfield, throwing to the wrong base, and looking silly at the plate when a pitcher folled him, usually on a breaking pitch.

But by 1981 he was showing flashes of his brilliance, hitting .328 and practically carrying the Tigers on his back as they contended for a playoff spot for the first time in a decade. Three years later he was hitting a majestic homer into the right field upper deck at Tiger Stadium to seal the Tigers ’84 World Series title.

For many Tiger fans, including this one, that transformation still didn’t hint at the depth of Gibson’s understanding of the game. We never could have imagined Gibson leading a team, let alone one to the playoffs. His ego was big, his personality was abrasive, and his patience was paper-thin.

But that’s just what has happened. After learning at the knee of Sparky for years, and paying his dues as a coach, first for the Tigers and then the Diamondbacks, Gibson got his shot to manage last season after Arizona let their skipper go. He was brought back to serve as their full-time manager for the 2011 season. His fiery personality and no-nonsense approach, along with his credibility (his players know he’s “been there, done that:) make him a perfect fit for his clubhouse. The young D-Backs responded with 94 wins – a 29-game improvement over 2010 – and an NL West title.

Along with World Series champion and Most Valuable Player, Gibson know has “Manager of the Year” to go on his impressive resume.

Who would have thunk it?