Kirk Gibson Conjures Up Precious Memories of Tiger Stadium
The idea popped into my head the moment I heard that Kirk Gibson would be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Detroit Tigers 2016 home opener at Comerica Park Friday.
The most famous photograph in Detroit sports history has a hatless Kirk Gibson prancing around the bases, arms above his head in triumph, after drilling a three-run, eighth inning home run off San Diego Padres closer Goose Gossage to seal the 1984 World Series – the last world championship the Tigers have won.
Gossage, like Kirk Gibson, is still around. A few weeks ago the hall of fame reliever made headlines by calling out Jose Bautista for his defiant “bat flip”, executed as he watched his home run carry the fence at the Rogers Centre to give the Toronto Blue Jays a ticket to the American League Championship series last October.
So it seemed natural for me to ask Gibson’s take on Gossage labelling Bautista “an f-ing disgrace to the game” for allegedly taunting the opposition, in this case the Texas Rangers, with the bat flip seen around the baseball world.
I put it to Kirk prior to the Tigers’ 4-0 shutout of the New York Yankees, the Detroiters’ third win in a row. He acknowledged he had heard about the Gossage/Bautista controversy, but he wanted none of it.
“I don’t get involved in that kind of negative stuff,” he said politely, noting that his focus is on the positives in life and baseball. Gibson, at 58, and saddled with Parkinson’s disease, is a shadow of the great physical specimen who bested Gossage 32 years ago. But he carries bravely on.
I quickly dropped the Gossage-Bautista issue and asked him about the questionable Tiger base-running. Detroit manager Brad Ausmus asked him to do some coaching in spring training, and Gibson worked with young players such as Anthony Gose and Jose Iglesias, two guys with speed who are underachieving as major league base stealers and, like veteran Ian Kinsler, sometimes prone to attention lapses on the basepaths.
“It’s a process,” Gibby said. “You don’t learn the game overnight.” He went on to spin a tale of his own learning process after he joined the Tigers as a rookie in 1979. Manager Sparky Anderson told him to get a glove and go out to right field.
“I told him I had never played right field in my life, and he told me to get out there (and shag some flies),” Gibson chuckled. Right field was the sun field at old Tiger Stadium with a quirky third-deck overhang.
“I lost the first fly ball in the sun and it bounced off my head,” said Gibson. “The second one bounced off my shoulder.”
The Fledgling quickly decided to speak to “hall of famer Al Kaline, who mastered Tiger Stadium’s right field in the 50s and 60s. “I didn’t know how to use sun glasses, so Mr. Kaline gave me a pair with no glare.”
Suffice to say that Gibson learned how to play a serviceable right field.
It was Gibson, manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks for four years (2010-2014), who provided some sage counsel to Ausmus last year when the Tiger manager was on the bubble as his team collapsed and plummeted to a last place finish in the Central Division.
Brad powered through the negatives in his second year at the helm in Detroit and was able to retain the support of his players, said Gibson. The third-year manager needs to keep in mind that “even great managers like Jim Leland and Joe Torre faced criticism” (in their successful tenures) as big league skippers.
I spoke to Gibson on the field, as did other media, at about 10:30 a.m. Friday, almost three hours before he delivered the ceremonial pitch, significantly to former catcher Ausmus. Gibby was awake that morning at 4:15 a.m., nervous about the prospect of getting the ball up to the plate with his left throwing arm that has been weakened by the deterioration caused by his disease.
He was diagnosed with the debilitating disease shortly after opening day last year. “A guy in the press box looked at me and said: ‘what’s wrong Gibby, you look like a ghost.’”
Gibson took that as a cue to see a doctor the next day and his fate was soon determined. “I try to do my part in fighting the disease,” he said, admitting to feelings of despair when he first learned of his lifetime affliction. “You have to pick yourself up off the ground.”
While baseball is only a game, that is what the 3-0 Tigers are trying to do in 2016. The key, says Gibson, is to learn last year’s lessons and not peak too early. The part-time Fox 2 Sports broadcaster sees the positives in this year’s team. “They have a good owner, good players and good leadership,” he said.
Just after 1 p.m. on a frigid and blustery Friday afternoon, Gibson walked resolutely to the mound and without a windup threw a feeble one hopper to Ausmus, who greeted him in front of home plate, gave him the souvenir ball, and more poignantly, a hug.
Feature photo b Tim Jarrold