This was where Kirk Gibson belonged. Up in the clouds, 18,000 feet high, looking out through an airplane window at the land masses below.

“That’s Niagara Falls, I bet,” he said, leaning over for a better view.
“Yeah. And out there. See that shoreline? That’s Lake Ontario. I’ll betcha it is.”

His eyes were alive, his voice had that high pitch to it — he gets that way when something interests him — and all told, it was a pretty happy moment, except that his left leg was propped up against the bulkhead wall, straight out, and his left foot was swallowed by a cast and a flesh-colored bandage. It was the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. “Oooh,” he would say occasionally, when the ankle started throbbing. And then he’d close his eyes for a second, he’d swallow, and then he’d look out the window again and identify Buffalo.

He was flying home, back to Detroit. He was out of it. The night before he had gone down trying to scurry back to first base in a game between the Tigers and the Red Sox, and his foot seemed to catch on the bag, and the rest of him twisted horribly, and a second later he was writhing in pain and cameras were snapping. The star of the team. Hobbling off the field. Ugly.

“You could hear the thing pop,” he said, staring at his toes sticking out of the cast in front of him. “The Red Sox’s doctor came running out. Did you see him? He said he could hear the ligaments pop from the dugout.”

Gibson sighed. A middle-age woman across the aisle had been staring at him, as had most of the people in the first-class cabin. The woman leaned over.

“It was terrible,” she said, as if Gibson didn’t know. “We were there last night. We saw it.”

“Yep,” said Gibson.

“We saw it,” the woman repeated. Everybody saw it. Fans in the stadium watched from their seats. Fans at home watched on TV. The radio broadcasted it. The late news reran it. Maybe it shouldn’t be such big stuff, but in a baseball-crazy town in April, it is. Everybody saw it.

But nobody saw this.

Nobody saw Kirk Gibson, alone, slouched in an airport chair, his injured foot propped up on crutches, his hand over his eyes. This was early Wednesday morning at Logan Airport in Boston, and Gibson’s plane was late by two hours.

He tried to lose himself in a newspaper. But the ankle was throbbing. The doctors said he’d be out three to six weeks with a “severe sprain.” An examination today will prove if that’s all it really is.

Gibson shifted in his seat. He’d been up most of the night. He didn’t take the painkillers. “I don’t like codeine,” he said. His blue sweatshirt dangled loosely. He needed a shave. To his right was his briefcase. To his left was a wheelchair.

A wheelchair?

It was an unsettling picture. Kirk Gibson in a wheelchair is like Superman hailing a cab. Better Gibson should be out in right field, chasing a line drive, or at the plate, whacking the hell out of the ball. Leading the Tigers. Slapping high-fives. Hitting home runs. He is 28. A wheelchair? No.

But this is the flip side of sports. And nobody saw it, except the people at the airport, who mostly gaped and madeCC18p9 comments as he wheeled past.

“You with a baseball team?” one old man asked.

“Yes,” Gibson said.

“Which one?” said the old man.

A young woman brought up her 10-year-old son.

“Mr. Gibson broke his foot,” the woman said.

“He did?” the kid said.

“No, I sprained it,” Gibson said.

“Oh,” the woman said. “That’s worse.”

It went on like this for the more than two hours. Autographs. Handshakes. Quips. Autographs. Anyone who thinks celebrity is some big thrill should sit in an airport coffee shop with Kirk Gibson sometime. How many little girls did he have to pinch? How many businessmen made small talk? This isn’t his job. His job is baseball, battling pitchers and racing across the outfield.

How much would he rather have been out at a ballpark, taking batting practice? Instead of sitting there, listening to the same tired questions.
“How’d you do it?” “Is it bad?”

Is it bad? The guy was in a wheelchair, with crutches across his lap. Well. Could it be any other way for Kirk Gibson? Everything he does is magnified. There is no peace. When he hits two home runs on Opening Day, he is virtually canonized. And when he tells some nagging fan to get lost, it’s liable to end up in the gossip columns. The baseball field is Gibson’s sanctuary from all that. Only now, as he made his way onto the plane, left crutch, right crutch, he knew the sanctuary had been taken away. Three to six weeks.

“The next few days are really critical,” he said, settling into his seat.
“I have to stay inactive. I’ll go home. Try not to walk around too much. Tomorrow’s an off-day. Before this happened, I was planning to ride my horse.”

He wiggled his bare toes. “I don’t know. Maybe I can ride it anyhow. Maybe I will.”

Ride a horse? With a sprained ankle? Well. Such is the spirit of Gibson, the same stuff that lets him smack a home run when it’s most needed, or tell a stranger to bleep off without hesitation.

“Will you go to the games while you’re on the disabled list?” someone asked.

“Oh, yeah, I’ll go to the park for treatment,” he said. “If I can get a seat where I can stretch out my leg I’ll stay for the game. I’ll be out there.”

“The Tigers will miss you,” someone said.

“Well, yeah, but this happens,” he said. “Now we’ll see the character of the team.” “What will you do until you’re well?” someone asked.

He shrugged and opened a bag of salted peanuts. “I’ve got a lot of things to read, you know? I’m about a month behind in my business stuff. And I’m studying for my pilot’s license. I hope to buy a plane after the season. So I’ll study. I’ll read the manual.”

It seemed odd to think of Kirk Gibson reading in April and May. Odd to think the baseball season will unfold without him — even for three to six weeks. But the whole injury was odd. Very odd. Everybody saw it.

“I still can’t figure out what happened,” Gibson said. “I spoke to my wife, and she said, ‘It was really bad. It was worse than when you got hit in the mouth by that pitch. I wish I was there with you.’ “

He laughed off her concern. And you can be sure if he could have laughed this injury off, he would have. This is a guy who once played a college football game with a separated shoulder and refused to be helped off the field when it happened because the other team was taunting him.

But Tuesday night in Fenway Park, he had to be helped off. By two people. That’s how you know it was bad. He let them help him off. Three to six weeks. The words stung.

As the plane soared over Massachusetts and New York, Gibson shifted the angle of his leg. He was in pain.

“Will there be a wheelchair waiting for me in Detroit?” he asked a flight attendant.

“Do you have one of your own?” she said.

“No,” he said, laughing. “I don’t have my own wheelchair. I’m young. I’m healthy.”

He paused for a second.

“Most of the time.” Maybe it was the hour. Or the quiet hum of the plane engine. But for that entire flight it was a different Kirk Gibson than what most people expect. A reflective person. An easygoing person. Bad luck often brings out a sour side of a man. But up there, tucked safely in the clouds, away from the phones and the minicams, Kirk Gibson seemed, well, at peace. Bum ankle and all. He told stories: about surprising his wife’s daughter with a horse for her birthday; about listening to flight instruction tapes in his Sony Walkman; about the baby he and his wife are expecting in September. He watched the window. He identified four types of clouds. And Lake Huron. And Lake Erie. The skies agree with him.

Toward the end of the flight he was laughing, even at himself. When a stewardess came over with a Detroit newspaper and asked for his autograph, he looked at the front page and found a photo of him writhing in pain. He thought for a second, and then he wrote beside the picture: “OUCH! Kirk Gibson.”

Nice.

“Can’t do anything about it,” he said, when someone remarked on his pleasant disposition. “The injury happened when I was playing hard. I can’t be sorry about that. I’ll be back soon enough. I’m a fast healer.”

At one point, as the plane descended, he was squirming from side to side, the future pilot, talking loud enough for the whole cabin to hear. “That’s St. Clair Shores,” he said, pointing out one window, “And that’s Belle Isle. Right there. And over there, that’s . . . “

He was in control again. A brief moment. Way up high. The passengers smiled at their geography lesson.

For a man who can barely walk, Kirk Gibson was taking things remarkably in stride. The plane landed. A wheelchair was waiting in the corridor that connects to the terminal. Someone handed him his briefcase.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No problem,” came the answer.

“No, really, ‘ he said. “Thanks a lot.”

Two flight attendants began to wheel him down the corridor. From 20 feet away you could see the first poking of a TV camera lens through the terminal door. Then another. And another.

“Here we go,” one flight attendant said.

“Oh, my,” said the other.

Through the door they came, and it was insanity. A crowd three-deep of photographers, reporters, TV people, onlookers. All of them pushing around this man in a wheelchair, fighting for a better angle. At first Gibson said nothing. Then he said quietly, “Come on, let me get by.” Then he said it a little louder. The swarm followed him, sticking like wet cotton. A TV man asked how he felt.

“Fine, until you guys showed up,” he said.

And, you know, that may be the one comment the crowd will remember. An ornery answer. And they’ll return to their offices and tell a few people who’ll tell a few people. And the “annoyed athlete” side of Kirk Gibson will be rehashed. And they’ll never know the other side.

More’s the pity. Because there is a lot there.

Eventually the crowd grew so that Gibson stopped his wheelchair, got on his crutches and did some TV interviews, as the camera lights and the midday sunshine combined to leave him half-blind as well as half-crippled.

It is the price he pays for who he is. And he is paid well. But it was hard, watching Gibson, not to think that he is better suited to 18,000 feet, his thoughts on the clouds, his sight line nothing but blue-and-white carefree sky.

Not today. Not for a while. For now it’s rehab. It’s waiting. It’s X-rays. It’s a cast and a cast of thousands. And it’s pretty clear the time will pass slowly for Kirk Gibson, back here on earth. CUTLINE Kirk Gibson Tigers right fielder Kirk Gibson returns on crutches Wednesday at Metro Airport.

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