The last time I saw Kirk Gibson, he was wearing black- and-green camouflage clothes. His beard was wild and unkempt. He had a plate of ribs in front of him and was chomping like a happy man. He and a few friends were on their way hunting, somewhere up north, and he had stopped to do a radio interview. This was November, just three months ago, and while I cannot remember every detail, I can tell you this: The last thing on his mind was baseball.
“Nah, I’m through with that part of my life,” he said. “There are other things. I’ve got my business affairs, my family. I got lots of things I’ve always wanted to do. And besides, if I can’t play the game at the level I’m used to, I don’t think I’d want to play.
He finished his ribs. He did the interview. Then he jumped in his wheels, laughing with his buddies, and for all I knew, as of Wednesday, he was still up in a tree somewhere, taking aim at his new life.
Whoops. Now they tell us Kirk Gibson is a Tiger again. Not a coach. Not an adviser. A player. An active baseball player, this same Kirk Gibson who hasn’t played the sport since early last season in Pittsburgh, where he lasted about as long as a nap, this same Kirk Gibson who hasn’t really played up to his standards since that unforgettable World Series swing in 1988, when the ball left Dodger Stadium and he limped around the bases as stars fell from the sky. A guy gets a moment like that in life, he really doesn’t need much else. And I don’t believe Kirk Gibson needs to return to baseball.
So why is he doing it? My guess is the Tigers made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. My guess is the marketing minds of the new Mike Ilitch regime saw Gibson out there, cleaning his guns, and figured: Why not? Everybody liked to watch this guy. Even when he was wicked and abusive and foulmouthed and unshaven, they liked to watch him. Kirk Gibson grabbed your eyes and held them hostage, he was arresting, he always had that over Jack Morris and Alan Trammell and even Cecil Fielder, guys who actually have won more games for the Tigers than Gibson has. This is a simple fact of the entertainment business: A draw is a draw.
Gibson is a draw.
Ilitch and company know it.
Admit it. You’re intrigued, right? No injury can take away his attitude
And let’s be honest here: What can it hurt? The Tigers were not exactly kicking down the door last year. True, unless Gibson learned how to throw a fastball out in the woods, he is not filling the biggest void on this pitching-poor team. But what’s he gonna hurt? If he takes the 23rd spot on the roster instead of some other journeyman from God-knows-where, hey, whom would you rather have?
Gibson, 35, is a winner: I say that meaning he knows how to win, he loathes losing, and every time his team loses, he kicks it in the shins. Managers love this. It makes their job easier. So you can understand why manager Sparky Anderson was a happy guy when reached Wednesday:
“I talked to (Gibson) early in the winter and told him I wanted him back,” Anderson gushed. “He gives you that something extra.”
Well. He gives it to you if he’s healthy. We can only hope he is. Gibson was never the same after messing up his legs in LA. He took painkillers and shots over the years when he knew it was the wrong thing to do — he was that kind of player — and it cost him. The speed is not there. Not the way it once was. The power is not there. He’ll need a lot of hours in the weight room to sing that tune again.
What is there, you figure, is the attitude. The old attitude, with a little bit of new sensibility. Gibson has changed since he last played in a Tiger uniform. He is no longer the wild man, leaving a path of flames and stunned faces in his wake. He’s been married for some time now, he’s got kids, he owns more real estate in downtown Detroit than a lot of developers, he travels with a briefcase full of calculators and investment reports. In short: He had his fun, sowed his oats, made his memories, and was smart with the money. He’s told me many times, “I’m set for life.”
So why is he coming back? Hope springs eternal for aging athletes
Well. We’ll find out more at his press conference this morning (Gibson was reportedly at Harsens Island Wednesday night and unavailable for comment.) It’s a gamble, yes. But a low-stakes one for both sides. I doubt Gibson will stick it out if he’s no more than a pinch-hit player. That’s not his style. But the money was probably there, and Gibson sees guys like Dave Winfield in his 40s, being reborn, winning championships, and maybe he figures, what the heck?
I’ll tell you this much: He wouldn’t be coming back if Tom Monaghan was still running the club.
But Monaghan isn’t. And Gibson, for all the hunting and desktop plans he had, was suddenly looking at his first spring without a baseball team since before he could shave. I always remember what Muhammad Ali said when asked why he kept fighting, after his prime, when the fights were flabby and slow and not worthy of him. “I’m a boxer,” he said. “A boxer boxes.”
And a baseball player plays baseball. The last time any of us spoke to Gibson, he said he would be at Opening Day “sitting in the Tiger Den seats.” The most we can hope for now is that he doesn’t actually belong there.