LAKELAND, Fla. — The subject was fear, and Kirk Gibson was coming up empty.

“Heights?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.

“The dark?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.

“Fast cars?”

He just laughed at that one.

“Snakes? Scorpions?”

He paused for a second. “Well, I don’t like snakes,” he said, “but if I saw one, I’d just . . . kill it.”

His voice went a little high on the “kill it” part, as if it were so obvious he really needn’t bother saying it. And hey, what are you going to do with a snake, really? Rehabilitate it? You could run or scream. You could hide in the closet. Or you could kill it. And I think, right here, you have a big chunk of Kirk Gibson’s approach to life.

If there is any fear in this guy, no one seems to be able to find it. And that is what makes him different. He is not, at 28, what you’d call a pure hero — he’s probably screamed at one too many sports writers and told one too many fans to get the hell away from him. But he has hero potential. It’s on him like an ink stain. And it’s there in people’s minds — in a picture of Gibson leaping high after the home run he hit to clinch the 1984 World Series. How many of us, after all, could have done that?

But now it is spring, the Tigers are here, warming up the engines, and, as usual, there are a lot of questions about Gibson, the team’s top hitter (.287) and base stealer (30) last season. Is he different? Is he bitter over his new contract? Is he remorseful? The answer is, he is being easier and more accommodating than everyone else expected. And everyone else is about the same as usual. Last week a Detroit newspaper ran a big story claiming the first full day of Tigers spring training was all Gibson — so much so that the other players might as well have been “invisible.”

That wasn’t true. It wasn’t even close to true. But it happens all the time. Gibson is liquid headline. There is a compelling attraction that can make him the center of focus even when he is yawning.

Why is this? I’m not sure. I remember once hearing a safari hunter say,
“You can’t take your eyes off of a tiger. Not even if you want to. The danger is too fascinating.” I suspect that kind of thing has something to do with it.

Anyhow, the tiger is back — in right field, wearing old No. 23 — after an awkward tango with free agency in the off-season. It ended with a midnight phone call to his agent from a restaurant in New Zealand, where Gibson was honeymooning.

Although months of negotiations had passed, Gibson says he “had no idea” he was going to accept the Tigers’ offer when he placed that call minutes before the signing deadline.

“Something just came over me,” he said. “I realized there was no place else for me to play, really. I didn’t want to be in some place I didn’t like on some bleep team. Winning means too much.”

The conversation was brief.

GIBSON: “Listen. Call them up, get what you can, and take it.”

AGENT: “Whaaa? Wait. Let’s talk about it.”

GIBSON: “Bleep it. I’ve made my decision. I’m through talking about it. Call.” (Click.)

He returned to his table, ordered four bottles of Dom Perignon — for he and new wife, JoAnn, and their co- honeymooners, Dave and Sandy Rozema — and toasted the future.

Now, it takes a certain type of cool to decide a career over a restaurant telephone. Especially when others are waiting to use it. But see the snake and

kill it. Things are that black and white. And it is here that a lot of us lose Kirk Gibson, because most of us are afraid of something, afraid of making the wrong decision, of missing a key fact, of offending or disappointing someone, and he apparently is afraid of nothing.

That means sports writers, autograph hounds, his reputation, disappointment, regret, and, most notably, opposing pitchers. Last season Gibson took a fastball in the mouth — he needed 17 stitches to hold the flesh together — and the next day he homered in his first at-bat. Not everyone can do that.

Nor is it everyone who will say: “If my best friend was the shortstop and I had to break up a double play, I’d hit him as hard as I could.” You can admire this or disdain it. Gibson, now in his seventh major league season, simply cannot stand to lose. It is a pebble in his shoe, an itch in the middle of his back, a high-pitched ringing in his ear that won’t go away. All things annoying and aggravating.

“You have never, ever, ever met anyone who hates losing as much as me,” Kirk Gibson says. And I am inclined to believe him.

Especially when he looks you in the eye. Say what you will about Gibson. The man has presence. I doubt there would be as much fuss over him if he were short and squat and had acne and a head like Kojak’s. But he doesn’t. Looks are a part of the deal and Gibson was blessed with ferociously good ones: blond hair, a surfer’s countenance, deep-set eyes that can dance or snarl, and a grin just made for getting in and out of trouble. All this on top of your standard issue 6-foot-3 hunk of athletic body. You want to kill him.

Of course, Gibson admits, sometimes the feeling is mutual. He’d like to kill you back. There is a nastiness in him that, as with other emotions, he is not afraid to unleash. Anytime. Anywhere. Above his locker, next to his name plate, is a sticker of an orange cat with a sour expression. “I’m Ornery,” it reads. Consider that fair warning.

“Right now I’m pretty easy to get along with,” he said, drying off from a shower. “But once I get my mind on certain things, well, there are times I think you guys (the media) should respect me. It’s like, I don’t sign autographs until I get out of here. Not before. I respect the fans’ right to an autograph, but they have to respect my time, too.

“When I first come in every day, I’ve thought over the day before, and what

I got to do today. It’s on my mind. Sometimes I just want to think about that, and I’ll say to someone, ‘Just leave me be, OK?’ If they can’t respect that, I can really be an S.O.B.”

He slipped on a T-shirt and blue jeans — although as the nation now knows, he could afford cashmere underwear if he wanted it. “If I make $1.5 million a year,” he said, “it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean I’m not human. I’m gonna make mistakes. All my money isn’t gonna buy me out of making mistakes. But my mistakes are going to be aggressive ones. And if people don’t like it, tough. When I make a play, they love it. I know that.”

On went the sneakers, a jacket, a cap. He kept talking. “A lot of people who don’t like me don’t know me. But I choose to have it that way. It’s fine. It’s intentional at times.

“A lot of people get on me for one reason or another, but I’ll tell you what” — the eyes danced now — “I hope they have half as much fun as I do . .
. because I’m having a riot.” What can you say to that? I suppose half of us would like to slap Kirk Gibson and the other half trade places with him. This, by the way, is the trouble with headlines, which Gibson makes as often as President Reagan in Detroit. Headlines, if they are lucky, contain one thought. And Gibson cannot be summed up so simply.

Here is a guy who drips macho, who barks unforgivingly at female sports writers, and yet the other day he stood along the outfield fence in a friendly arm-in-arm with Tigers trainer Pio DiSalvo. Arm in arm? Two men? Yeah. What about it? Here is a guy who will tell a heckler — in no uncertain terms — where he can stick his advice. Loudly. Yet on Friday I saw him leaning over trying to sign an autograph on a kid’s back, and the kid kept moving and moving and Gibson stuck with it, trying to get the thing right.

“I don’t feel like talking,” he might say at one moment, and the next he’ll be telling you a story about not eating beets as a kid. This is probably part of his appeal. He is an odd concoction, a dash of Brando, a dash of Dick Butkus, a dash of Joe Party Animal at your favorite college campus.

But he is a force. Pitcher Dave LaPoint, a newcomer to the Tigers’ clubhouse, noticed it quickly: “You can sort of tell that a lot of guys wait for Kirk or Darrell (Evans) to laugh and then they know it’s OK to laugh.”
“I bring it on myself,” Gibson said of the attention he gets. “I’m flamboyant, abrasive, I have a different personality. It draws attention.”

It will continue to do so, no matter how loudly people said they had sworn off Gibson during the whole contract deal. There will be Gibson stories. Gibson headlines. He knows it. “Just tell people I’m very happy to be back,” he said.

Yes, he is married now, and he hinted a child may already be on the way.
(“If I wanted to tell you definitely I would tell you,” he said. But he was smiling.) Certain people may mistake that for mellowing, I guess — although mellowing is something that happens to cantaloupes, not ball players — but anyhow, they’ve got the wrong guy.

“We lost a lot last year,” he said, “and losing hurts me. I don’t go out there to say, ‘Well, we lost, but we played a helluva game.’ Who gives a bleep? It’s like a pitcher who pitches a no-hitter for 8 2/3 innings and loses. Who gives a bleep? You lost. I go out for one reason. To win.”

And there it is. I don’t know whether there’s a heart of gold underneath his bravado. All I can tell you is there is something on fire down there, and it doesn’t lose any heartbeats over nervousness or regret, and that is why some of us will never fully understand Kirk Gibson. And that’s OK.

He says his only goal this year is a world championship. Detroit fans will buy that. And you can dance to this: They’ll be watching him. Like that safari

guy said, you can’t take your eyes off a tiger. And there is one on the prowl down here again, and it ain’t scared of nothin’. Not even snakes. CUTLINE: Kirk Gibson talks shop with a top Tiger hitter of the past, Al Kaline.

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