Kirk Gibson: The Wild Hoss of Waterford

July 2, 2010 Headline:  “Gibson Named Diamondbacks Skipper”
Kirk Gibson, manager?

Kirk Gibson, manager.

The words would have clanged badly in these parts not too long ago.  There’s nothing quite so testing of a person’s character than the challenge of growing up in public, maturing under the hot spotlight of mass public attention … particularly in these days of overwhelming and constant publicity served up by the media machine.  And few local sports stars stood in a glare as intense and uncomfortably hot as Gibson, the two-sports star who came out of Waterford by way of Michigan State, and had to live up to an advance billing as a can’t-miss prospect in the game of his choice. 
Drew Henson, onetime (and I mean one time) quarterback at the University of Michigan and certain third-base future fixture for the New York Yankees comes to mind as having wrestled with (and been defeated by) similar pressures nearly a generation after Gibson.  Henson lost in a tag-team career death match to the unified forces of expectant Wolverine football fanatics and Yankee airplane spins as applied by the nefarious Gorgeous George Steinbrenner and his own Manhattan subway alums.   By all accounts a bright lad and fluid force on the gridiron and diamond, Henson slipped, flipped, foundered and floundered in his attempts to manipulate the can’t-miss single-spotlight glare.
Gibby, of course, mis-managed his own debut in front of almost literally everyone in southeastern Michigan in the early ’80s.  (And I say ‘of course’ because the pressures of being 22 and hailed as “the next Mickey Mantle” by a manager who shall go nameless here presage certain doom for anyone not born in Bethlehem, and not the one in Pennsylvania.)  Some on-field failings — the 1983 Tigers home opener comes to mind — combined with a steady diet of trashy gossip yarns to put the young Gibson’s future at risk before he ever got to display the power and dash promised to local fans. 
But that’s where “Kirk Gibson, manager?” … dramatically displayed the smarts, drive, courage and maturity that were to make “Kirk Gibson, manager” a self-fulfilling projection for 2010.  Because Gibson grabbed the challenge of his talent by the nape of the neck and molded a successful future from the already-cynical expectations of local observers.  He turned that usually destructive media glare inside out; he literally forged his own image in defiance of his professional and personal challenges.  He became almost a bigger-than-life baseball hero, standing athwart his chosen sport first here in Detroit and then in Los Angeles, reducing the complexities and difficulties of baseball to fit HIS desires, twice making himself  a hero of almost comic-book proportion.  (How many have done it even once?)
And along with those defining sports accomplishments he worked to adjust his personal life, making a responsible family man and father of the crazed kid he had been only a short time before. 
It’s an inspiring tale of nearly epic transition.  And the single image he projected here on an October night in 1984, the most brilliant moment of over 100 years of striving and drama upon the most beautiful and meaningful ball-field in all of America …  provided the stimulus and sight this city needed like it needed life blood in its troubled and tempestuous modern era.  Like a human King Kong he grabbed baseball by the throat and for one transcendent moment made it sing to the tune of this hardtime town.  As the old Motown song said, he may not have been the boy we were dreaming of, but he proved to be the boy we loved.
So here’s a hope that he does well as Kirk Gibson, manager.  For everything he’s done, and what he’s meant … he surely deserves another milestone success in his most unusual life.