Kirk Gibson Succeeds as a Major League Manager

Kirk Gibson takes competition seriously. In his first spring training with the Dodgers in 1988, Gibson famously erupted when teammate Jesse Orosco painted eye black in the band of his cap. Gibson’s intensity drove the Dodgers to an improbable World Series championship that season. This year, in his first full season as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Gibson once again brought his trademark no-nonsense attitude with him to spring training. His players have responded.

“When teams play us, I want them to know they’re in for a fight,” Gibson said in March. The D-Backs have been much more than just a pesky team, they’re leading the National League West into late August, ahead of the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

When he came up through the Detroit Tiger organization, Gibson was a bit of a wild stallion. Blessed with amazing raw talent, Gibby could run like a deer and hit the ball a mile. He wasn’t a baseball player yet, though.

“I learned the game of baseball from the Tigers,” Gibson said last season. His only manager in Detroit was Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson, who placed a lot of pressure on the young prospect, comparing him to Mickey Mantle. But Gibson acknowledges that Sparky was critical to his success on the diamond.

“Sparky taught [me] to be a man.”

Gibson starred in two stints with the Tigers, helping them to the World Series title in 1984, an AL East division crown in 1987, and a resurgence in the mid-1990s when many of the Detroit stars were long in the tooth. Gibson’s penchant for dramatic home runs and eye-popping baserunning was legendary at The Corner of Michigan and Trumbull. A blast he hit out of Tiger Stadium in 1983 landed across the street in Brook’s lumber yard, estimated to have travelled close to 550 feet.

Tiger fans will remember both his clutch home runs and daring, but also his fiery eruptions aimed at umpires, the opposition and even his own teammates. When Gibby found his way into a job as a bench manager under friend Alan Trammell in Detroit in the early 2000s, it caused a lot of head scratching. How could the volatile Gibson channel that famous temper toward teaching young players and handling in-game strategy? Last season he was promoted to skipper of the D-Backs in mid-season, and when he earned the full-time job for the 2011 season, he brought Trammell back to be his bench coach.

Now as a manager, Gibson not only has to handle a pitching staff, the egos of his multi-millionaire players, and the strategic chess match that is National League baseball, but he also has to interface with the media. As a player, one thing was very consistent about Gibson – he was one of the gruffest interviews in the game. He had little patience for reporters or fans. When he was on the field, his face was covered in a three-day beard and a scowl.

But as manager, Gibson has been praised by many for his ability to relate to his players, to inspire them, and to tap into their competitive nature.

“[He] brings out competitiveness in some guys who didn’t know they had that,” Trammell has said.

The two former Tigers are carrying on the legacy of Sparky Anderson and the valuable lessons they learned in a Detroit uniform. So far in 2011, Gibby’s Gang in the Desert has the National League in a fight for their lives.