It sucks that this article can’t be entirely about baseball. It sucks that from now on any time we talk about Kirk Gibson we’ll have another topic on our mind, even if it’s just in the back of our mind. It sucks that after everything the man has done in baseball, Gibson will also be known for his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease.
On Tuesday Gibson issued a short statement announcing the diagnosis. Soon after, the Detroit Tigers issued their own statement wishing him well in this new challenge. It’s shocking news for Detroit sports fans who saw Gibson as a larger-than-life, almost Greek God-like icon.
It’s been a tough year for the ’84 Tigers. Two months ago, Dave Bergman, a first baseman on that World Series-winning team, died after a prolonged illness at the age of 61. Now Gibson, just 57 years old, faces an uncertain future with this diagnosis. The ’84 season wasn’t that long ago. It seems unfathomable that members of that team are leaving us and growing older and getting sick. They were giants in this city, and like all champions, they are legends who remain forever frozen in time. When we think of Jack Morris we see the lean, long-legged ace. When we think of Sweet Lou Whitaker he’s a trim-waisted pixy with a rocket attached to his right shoulder. When we close our eyes and think of 1984 Kirk Gibson we see an absolute beast of an athlete with broad shoulders, powerful legs, a long mane of hair and that perpetual five o’clock shadow. He’s always 27 in our mind’s eye.
The ’84 Tigers are one of the most famous teams in baseball history. Mention them to a fan of another team and you’ll find that out. I recently spoke with a Cubs’ fan who when I mentioned the ’84 Tigers he was able to name 6-7 players on the Detroit team. He admitted that the Tigers would have beaten the ’84 Cubs easily in the World Series that year if Chicago had won the NL flag instead of the Padres. The ’84 Tigers were, for a singular season, as dominant as almost any team in the history of baseball. When we think of them we think 35-5. We think of the Morris no-hitter, the 1-2 punch of Whitaker and Alan Trammell at the top of the lineup. We think of the brilliance and near perfection of Willie Hernandez. We think of a team that led the league in runs scored and in fewest runs allowed. Gibson was a key part of that club.
Trammell was the best natural baseball player on that team. Morris was the cockiest. Catcher Lance Parrish was the most respected. Larry Herndon was the most professional. Whitaker was the smoothest. Flychaser Chet Lemon was the happiest, Darrell Evans was the goofiest, and Dave Rozema was the craziest.
Then there was Kirk Gibson. He was the most intense. And it wasn’t even close.
“Gibby was the intense piece. He was the guy who demanded that everyone play hard,” said Morris on Tuesday during a broadcast of the Tigers game from Minnesota.
At every stage of his career, at every stop, no matter where he played, Gibson showed that intensity. As a rookie under pressure to fulfill the promise of being “the next Mickey Mantle,” Gibby shattered bats and batting helmets after his frequent strikeouts. As a young starter learning how to play the outfield, he kicked and screamed in right field after making a miscue, disappointed himself for letting down his Dad’s idol, Al Kaline. In the World Series after his epic home run off Goose Gossage, he practically broke Parrish’s hand with a high-five and bounced and pounced his way across the field as he celebrated what we all knew was going to be a championship. Three years later, late in the 1987 season, he smacked a dramatic home run against the Blue Jays in Toronto on the next-to-the-last Sunday of the season to bring the Tigers back for a crucial win. Following the homer he went to every one of his teammates on the bench and shoved his finger in their chest: “We’re going to win this f__ing game!!”
In spring training with the Dodgers in 1988 one of Gibby’s new teammates put eye black in the liner of his cap. Gibson was furious. The Dodgers didn’t know what a Gibson temper tantrum was like. They found out that afternoon as Gibson went into a locker room tirade: “No wonder this team hasn’t won anything in years,” Gibby barked, “you’re a bunch of losers, a bunch of guys just having fun instead of battling to win every day!” The Dodgers won the World Series and Gibson was named MVP.
Since leaving Detroit, Gibson has come back to his hometown several times, first as a veteran player, then as a broadcaster, coach, and now as a broadcaster again. He joined the Fox Sports Detroit team this spring in part so he could be back home and near the Michigan State campus to watch his son Cam play baseball.
In February at Dave Bergman’s memorial service, Steve Thomas (owner and operator of Detroit Athletic Co. and this website) saw Gibson. “The man is chiseled,” Thomas told me in a conversation a few weeks ago, “he looks like he could play right now.”
Gibson’s playing days are over, but he’s far from being done fighting. “I’ve never had a teammate like him, because he wanted to win so bad,” Morris said. Don’t be surprised if Gibby has another dramatic triumph in his future.