LOS ANGELES — I never really missed Kirk Gibson before Saturday night. He was someone else’s story. Sure, we had gotten along well when he was in Detroit — despite his nasty reputation — but when he chose to leave to join the Dodgers, I figured that was business and I wished him luck. A few months later I bumped into him on a Northwest flight from LA, where I had been covering the Lakers-Pistons NBA championship. Curious as to his allegiance, I asked if he had watched the Pistons’ heartbreaking seventh-game defeat.
“I saw it,” he said, shaking his head. “They played good. But hey. The bottom line is, you do it or you don’t. They didn’t do it.”
It was typical Gibson: crude and raw and honest. I never minded that. But I never missed it — that is, as I say, until Saturday night, when he hobbled to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of World Series Game 1. The Dodgers were trailing, 4-3. They were down to their final out. Gibson could barely walk — his knee and hamstring were injured. But he was out there as a pinch-hitter, a lonely swordsman against the dragon. At the very sight of him, the LA crowd rose to its feet.
I was watching in an Iowa barroom, one of those giant, 10- foot television screens. As I recall, Gibson had no problem filling the screen. And when he hit that 3-2 pitch from Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley with one man on, lifted it up and out of the park — home run! Dodgers win! — and he limped around the bases as the City of Angels showered him with love noise, well, it seemed like a giant screen might not be big enough to hold him.
Fans shrieked as he made a fist and pumped his arms. I gushed air and smiled. “Whooeee,” I heard myself whisper as he was mobbed at home plate by his teammates. Yet suddenly I felt empty, as if someone had stolen my private notes and printed a best-seller.
I had seen this Gibson before, laughed at him, criticized him, shaken my head at him, enjoyed him. In Detroit. But now the uniform was strange. I was 2,000 miles away.
And the memory was not mine anymore. Our annoyance, our joy
It is one thing to see your hometown sports heroes traded or cut. It is another to see them swat one for history in front of the world — for some other team. Unlike some athletes who simply pass through our transom, dirty a few uniforms, then leave, Kirk Gibson was homespun. Our state. Our university. Our baseball team. Perhaps that is why he was always our annoyance as well as our joy. What do you want? We knew him since he was a kid.
Wish you were here? Wish he were there? Why not? For most of us in Detroit, Gibson, for all his filthy shenanigans, is forever framed by an heroic photo that an art critic might call “Tiger Yell” — arms over his head, mouth open in mid-roar, pure ecstasy after hitting the final home run of the 1984 World Series.
As I flew to LA Sunday morning, I picked up newspapers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Denver, and the LA airport. And I did a double take. Each of them had a photo on their front sports page from Saturday night; it was the same picture as 1984! Different city, different team — but same face, same fists, same roar.
The effect was surprising. I felt almost . . . cheated. That is foolish, of course, because we don’t own Gibson, we never did. There are many in Michigan who said “good riddance” when he finally took his unshaven face and saucy vocabulary and headed west.
But I never held with that. I had come to know him as a Tiger, and always felt he made a huge difference to the team. Lately Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, a man who prefers antique chairs to baseball players, has been making noise about Gibson, saying on a radio show that he was rooting against the Dodgers because they signed him, that Gibson’s departure made the Tigers better, that Gibson never was and isn’t still an MVP-caliber player.
And I feel like slapping Monaghan’s baby-cheek face. Who’s kidding whom? The Tigers might well be taking part in 1988’s post-season play had they not lost Gibson. They can hardly be called better without him. And, shaven or unshaven, there was never a doubt that Gibson was the ultimate clutch player. Just ask LA what they think of his MVP chances.
Being stuck with Monaghan while Gibson struts his stuff for LA is downright depressing. Monaghan vows to never sign a big- name free agent; he lambastes Gibson’s style and dress. Yet here is a man who brags of how he decided to own a baseball team after he was cut from one in junior high school. No wonder Monaghan criticizes; Gibson can do what the owner never could.
But then, that is true for most of us. Was there anyone in Detroit who didn’t feel something — excitement? deja vu? nausea? — when Gibson cracked that winning homer Saturday? Love him or hate him, he does more than look pressure dead in the eye. He punches it in the stomach and steals its wallet.
That kind of style will always have appeal. Let’s face it. Most of us wish we could hit that kind of home run just once in our lives. Gibson is on his second time around.
And he’s doing it miles from home, miles from Tiger Stadium, miles from us. They’re already comparing him here to Robert Redford in “The Natural,” although if there’s anything natural about a Michigander in Tinseltown I’ve yet to find it. I was with Gibson the January day in Chavez Ravine when he signed his lucrative new contract. Afterward, sitting alone at a table inside Dodger Stadium, we talked about what a different experience this would be. At the time, he still sounded like he would miss Detroit.
When I got here Sunday, I went to the field to find Gibson and congratulate him. “He’s in the clubhouse,” someone said. “You can’t go in.”
In the old days, I would have gone in anyhow, greeted him, questioned him, listened to him bark or grumble or joke around. But this time I waited a few minutes, saw all these unfamiliar Dodgers jogging out to the field, and felt a warm breeze that in October can only mean California, not Detroit. And I went back upstairs and found my seat.