NEW YORK — Whiskers look good on a soldier. They suggest a mind locked on battle, on the hunt, not on such trivial matters as keeping a face clean. Like dirt stains and bloody knees, the beginnings of a beard somehow say to us:
“effort.” They look nasty, raw, not to be trifled with.
It is therefore fitting that Kirk Gibson is at his grubby- faced usual these days, looking like he just washed up on the beach. The Tigers are in their most critical stretch of the season to date — a 10-day, seven-game tango with the first- place Yankees. And after the first two games, Gibson’s stats read thus: nine at-bats, four hits, three runs, three RBIs.
“Are you getting started on something?” he was asked before the Tigers stomped on New York Saturday, 10-5.
“I hope so,” he said, sounding as if he doesn’t just hope it, he’s counting on it. “This . . . would be a good time.”
Let’s modify that. This would be a perfect time. For one thing, young players such as Matt Nokes and Mike Henneman, who have been excellent for the Tigers so far, may be ripe for those mini-slumps that inevitably strike rookies. For another thing, Gibson, quite simply, is overdue. He has played pretty well. But that is not enough. He knows it. He gets paid to play better.
“This season has been hard and easy,” he admitted, “easy because we’re playing well, we’re right in there, but hard because I haven’t hit a groove yet. I usually find a groove by now. I just have to stay relaxed until it comes.”
Gibson — as most Tigers fans know — is the kind of player who is embraced with one arm and pushed away with the other. People find him at once charismatic and annoying, exciting yet crude. His contract negotiation in 1985 brought him critics, as has his good-but-not-great performance since he signed.
But, like him or not, when the going gets competitive, a fire flares inside of Gibson. You walk by him, you smell smoke.
Before Friday’s game he said: “I’m psyched for this series.” He hit a home run and two singles. Before Saturday’s game he said: “I’m pumped.” He knocked in two runs, including the game- winning RBI, and gave the day its most exciting baserunning.
You smell something?
‘We’re the better team’
“I think we’re the better team,” he said when asked about the Tigers and the Yankees. “They’re good, but I think we’re better. We just have to play hard and prove it.”
Hard? Well. That’s an appropriate word. Gibson knocked in the Tigers first run Saturday by singling hard off of Dennis Rasmussen — and we mean that literally. The lefty’s pitch was heading back at his kneecap before he finished the follow- through; it whacked off his leg and rolled away as if in pain. Gibson safe at first. One run in.
That was in the first inning. In the sixth, Gibson chopped a ball that Don Mattingly threw home in a failed attempt to catch Tom Brookens. Gibson safe at first. Another run in.
And in between he had the most fun of all. Fifth inning. A wild pitch by Pat Clements that ricocheted high into the air. Gibson was on second base. You don’t often score on a wild pitch when you are on second base. By as Gibson rounded third, the ex- football player took over, no stopping, no halting, gimme a linebacker to run into. (“Did you wait for a sign by Alex Grammas?” Gibson was asked afterwards. “I didn’t even look at him,” he said.)
Why bother? He chugged towards home and slid in safely, as the ball smacked off his body. It hardly seemed like enough pain. He bounded up in a cough of dirt, shook a fist and yelled. As he ran into the dugout his hat flew off and he fell into a sea of high-fives. Hey, boys! It’s Mister Whisker. Ready to hammer them
“We want to hammer them,” he said afterward. “The way we’ve been hitting the ball, we’re ready to hammer them every day.”
He grinned. He loves this time of year. Fight it out. Get tough. “I think it’ll be us, New York and Toronto, right down to the finish. I was talking to Don Mattingly when I was on first base (Friday) night, and I said to him,
‘Man, this is gonna be fun.’ “
His eyes narrowed.
“Now, I admire Don Mattingly. But I enjoy beating him. And I bet he enjoys beating me. I said to him ‘You guys ain’t going anywhere. We’re all gonna be right here.
“Hey, they believe they’re gonna win it, we believe we’re gonna win it. That’s what so damn great about this division.
“People say “Aw, if we were in the West we’d be in first place. Bleep, we don’t want to be in the bleeping west! This is where it’s at, this is where the competition is!”
He paused. He smiled. He looked like a man inhaling the pleasant fumes of a growing fire.
“You gonna shave now?” someone asked him.
“What for?” he said.