WHAT GAME? ALL DETROIT SAW WAS GIBSON’S PAIN

BOSTON — He went down on the simplest of plays, a scurry back to first base. But there was a twist to his leg that was unnatural. And the way he hit the ground, like a ribbon wiggling into the dirt. That was unnatural. And the look on his face when he rolled over and grabbed his ankle. That was unnatural too.

That was agony. That was pain. And everyone knows Kirk Gibson doesn’t show pain unless it’s absolutely killing him.

“Uh-oh,” someone said.

“Wooh, boy,” someone added.

Kirk Gibson was down. Down? His eyes were squeezed closed, his mouth was contorted. He was yelling something to Dick Tracewski, the first base coach. Something about the pain. This is a guy who played major college football, a guy who once said, “I dived into the line expecting the worst licks,” a guy who knows his body, takes joy in its strength, and sure as hell knows when it’s hurt.

This was unnatural. This was hurt.

“That’s the season lying there,” someone said.

“Wooh, boy,” added someone else.

Manager Sparky Anderson ran out of the dugout and across the field. So did trainer Pio DiSalvo. Every player warrants this kind of attention. But Kirk Gibson is the fire in the belly of these Detroit Tigers, perhaps the single most essential ingredient for the team’s success. The right fielder. A catalyst. A power hitter. A clutch performer. And there he was, lying in the dirt, his left ankle bent up very unnaturally.

Anderson and DiSalvo ran a little faster.

“Maybe it’s broken,” someone said.

“Wooh, boy,” someone added. Little events become big How did it happen? It was the simplest of plays. It should have been a shoestring catch, or a crash into the wall, or a double-flip into the right field seats while catching a foul ball with his teeth. That’s what should have felled Kirk Gibson. But this is what did it: He led off the second inning with a walk, took a dancing lead off first base, Boston pitcher Roger Clemens threw over and Gibson scooted back to the bag. Only this time his left foot seemed to hit the bag wrong and his ankle gave way and down he went.

The simplest of plays.

Suddenly questions spit out like watermelon seeds. “How many times did Clemens throw over?” a reporter asked. “What was the count when it happened?” a reporter asked. Suddenly the most mundane facts were important. Suddenly all the nooks and crannies of the moment had to be recorded. Suddenly it all mattered, because no one knew what this might mean for the future. They knew only the present: Kirk Gibson was being helped off the field with his arms around other people and his left leg dangling gingerly, not touching the ground.

Very unnatural.

“Doesn’t look good,” someone said, as Anderson and Tracewski helped Gibson slowly down the dugout steps.

“Wooh, boy,” someone added.

The news came in a half hour later. The voice interrupted in the press box. The place went silent. The pencils were poised.

“The report on Kirk Gibson: The X-rays showed there is no fracture. The ligaments on the lateral side of his left ankle are sprained. His ankle is in a plastic splint. Preliminary reports say Gibson will be out four to six weeks. . . . “

The room exhaled. Four to six weeks. There it was. On the simplest of plays. He has two new friends In the clubhouse afterward, Kirk Gibson leaned against the wall near the showers. Alongside him were his new companions: left crutch and right crutch.

How did it happen?

“I was just going back to the base. I was going to run (steal) on the play. My foot slipped on the bag, I don’t know. It was weird. Nothing like that’s ever happened to me before.

“I heard it pop. It popped several times. I knew it was bad the second it happened. I just yelled, ‘Get me out of here.’ I knew I was out of the game.”

His left foot was bandaged. Swollen. He fingered the crutches. Very unnatural.

“I’m just happy it’s not broken. If it was broken it would be surgery tomorrow and out for the season. They say four to six weeks. But I don’t think so. I just think I can heal faster than that.”

The crutches went under his arms. Left crutch, right crutch. He took a few steps.

“We’ll see what the team is made of now, that’s for sure,” he said. “They can do without me. I know it.”

He hobbled away to change clothes. He had another examination in the morning. But for now, for everyone with Detroit tags on his luggage, these images remained: Kirk Gibson lying there. Kirk Gibson in pain. Kirk Gibson out.

“Gonna be a tough road now,” someone said.

“Wooh, boy,” someone added.

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