Kirk Gibson was yelling like a banshee. His teammates froze. I still remember that scene, even though I can’t tell you the day, can’t tell you the opposing team. I can tell you the Tigers had lost several games in a row, during a pennant race, and that was enough to boil Gibson’s blood. He was screaming, calling them — and himself — names I can’t repeat here, pacing like a caged beast, swearing they would never lose again or he’d kill somebody.
The other players — older and younger — looked up the way children look at a raging parent.
They won their next three games.
If for no other reason than that, the Tigers should sign Gibson again before the deadline tonight because he is still that way. At 37, he still wants to win more than he wants to breathe. What’s more important, he has the ability to transfer that will to other people — even if he has to scare it into them.
Believe me, there are plenty of Tigers who need the transfusion.
I called Gibson on Thursday to see how his contract talks were going, to see whether Detroit had even made an offer for the guy who had one of the best seasons of any Tiger last year, including 23 home runs, only five fewer than Cecil Fielder — who was making fives times the money.
“At this point,” Gibson admitted, “they haven’t even given us a number to think about. That’s where we’re at.”
He paused, knowing this might be the end of his playing days. What a thing to have to admit, over the phone, to a journalist.
“Hey, whatever happens, I’m prepared for it.”
And then, instead of whining, he began to talk about what he would do if he ran the Tigers’ minor league system.
I got chills. Sign him to play now — to teach later
“First of all, I’d have my coaches come in two weeks before the players got there, and we’d be meeting every day. And when the kids showed up, there’d be one way of doing things, all the way through the organization. Not one guy saying something at A ball and someone saying something else at Double-A. One way.
“I’d be out there every day with them, teaching them, running the bases, fielding the balls. We’d meet, we’d practice, we’d meet again to go over what we were doing the next day.
“I’d have them so sound fundamentally that the only thing that could throw them would be a bad hop or a funny bounce.
“I’d have them visualize everything correct, over and over.
“And when they were finished, they’d be crawling home to bed — crawling!
— not just because they were tired physically, but because they were exhausted mentally.”
What makes you think today’s pampered athlete would respond to such tactics, I asked.
“Because,” he said, “I’ve got the credibility.”
That he does. Fans don’t need reminding that Gibson is a winner, but maybe the Tigers’ front office does. Gibson was a big part of the only two worthwhile baseball seasons Detroit has had since Sparky Anderson took over. One was a division crown, the other a World Series victory. When the Tigers lost Gibson to the Dodgers in 1988, he went there and won a World Series for them.
Over the years, he has gone from hairy hellcat to balding family man, but the whiskers still grow and so does his grizzled spirit.
How can the Tigers think about ignoring him?
Do you remember when Gibson went on that tear last year to start the season, hitting over .300? Remember what he did? He didn’t boast or ask to renegotiate. He kept his mouth shut.
“I’m not gonna talk about individual numbers,” he said, “when the team isn’t winning.”
Compare that to the average ballplayer today.
Come on, Tigers. Sign him up. He has a philosophy for success
Take a stroll down the aisles of any bookstore. You see hundreds of
“success” books, written by managers, lawyers, gurus. All of them contain helpful philosophies. They sound like this:
“Winning is an attitude that becomes a habit.” . . . “You’re a slave of what you say, a master of what you don’t.” . . . “I set my goals so high that even if I fail, I outperform most people.”
You know which genius said all that? Kirk Gibson, Thursday, over the phone. If those authors can do well with their philosophies, why can’t Gibson do it teaching baseball? I bet none of those guys ever hit a home run in the World Series.
Gibson says he “will listen to” other clubs if the Tigers don’t make him an offer. But they should. First to play — and then to stay with the club in player development. Gibson, who has been working out with Alan Trammell, says he is swinging the bat well, is running “plenty fast” and is “in great shape.”
Time has proven he knows his body.
So come on, Tigers. Get creative in accounting, make an incentive-oriented deal. But make sure, when he’s done playing, that he stays here, and transfers his thirst for success to someone else.
As someone once did for him. Gibson tells the story about his first day in the minor leagues. He flew to Florida. The manager of the Lakeland club picked him up at the airport. They got in the car, and the guy rolled up the windows and began to yell.
“Gibson, you bleep! I don’t care how much they’re bleeping paying you! You’re gonna be at the park at 8:30 every morning, ready to work!”
And a scared Gibson went, 8:30 every day, and the manger was there, waiting. Ran with him. Worked with him.
“Boy did I respect that,” Gibson says. “He taught me the game.”
That manager was Jim Leyland, who is now one of the best in the business. The fire in his belly now burns inside Gibson.
If the Tigers can’t see the value in keeping that, they might as well forget the future.