A year ago, he wouldn’t have had time for this. Talking? In an office? During baseball season? Kirk Gibson was too busy becoming a god. He had tumbled into Los Angeles rich, raw and ready to show those Dodger boys a thing or two.
“This,” he seemed to say, the moment he pulled on an LA cap, “is how you play baseball.”
He dived. He crashed. He ran like a banshee, like a wounded animal, as if six seconds remained in the Rose Bowl and the pigskin was under his arm. He loved to run, always has. And now he can’t.
Last season, before the All-Star break, he felt something give. The knee. He did what a lot of athletes do. He took a shot of cortisone and kept playing.
It would flare up again, and he would take another shot. There was, after all, a pennant to be won. The Dodgers reached the National League championship series. Thanks largely to Gibson. In the fifth game, he was stealing second, full throttle, and it happened again. This time the back of his leg. Hamstring. “I didn’t feel that one pop,” he recalled. “I heard it.”
He came out of the game — which in itself is the most hateful thing that could happen to Gibson — and he took a shot in order to play the next two.
In the finale, he injured his knee. Again. But the Dodgers had a World Series to play. Hobbled and in pain, he took one more shot, just hours before his last at-bat of the season — a bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out home run that won Game 1 of the World Series and turned him into a legend.
“Unbelievable!” America screamed, as he limped around the bases to an earthquake of applause. Nobody knew that he was done for the season. Nobody knew how many needles he had taken.
‘I’ve taken my last injection’
This should not shock anyone. Athletes, particularly football players — and Gibson was a pretty good one of those, remember? — have long responded to injury with injection. It deadens the pain, softens the scar tissue, allows you to continue your job. It is a chemical boost to get you where you need to be, to carry you until you can rehabilitate in the off-season. Still, the risk is high, and now Gibson wonders how much damage he might have done.
“Some of what’s happened to me is definitely a result of taking too many shots,” Gibson said last week, sitting in his Detroit office, as he awaited the surgery that will come Tuesday in LA. “I sacrificed myself last year. I sold out. I’m a winner and I got hungry for a championship, so I went for it.
“No more. I’m done with them. I’ve taken my last injection. They have a way of healing one part of you and causing problems somewhere else. I’m stopping. Maybe a tad too late. But I’m stopping.”
The words seem strange coming from Gibson. Those who know him, and that means most people in Michigan, see him as the ultimate warrior; shoot him, he gets back up, shoot him again, he gets up madder. Yet he is 32 and right now, he cannot run without pain. He never really recovered from last year. He hasn’t played in five weeks and won’t play again in 1989. The doctors will cut him open Tuesday and try to unscramble whatever is going on between his hamstrings and his tendons.
“You know, you take one, then another, and after a while, they don’t do what they used to,” he said. “So you end up taking a higher dosage. . . .
“I don’t regret what I did. I’m an athlete. It’s part of being an athlete.”
He was asked about the prospect of being a 50-year-old man who uses a cane.
“That” he said, with a sigh of resignation, “is part of being an athlete, too.”
Flip side of heroism
What’s that Latin phrase about “all fame is fleeting”? Last year, Gibson was all anyone could talk about. The Dodgers themselves pointed to his gritty presence and said, “See that guy? That is the reason we’re going places.”
And now, just last week, several Dodgers popped off to a newspaper, wondering if Gibson didn’t “abandon ship” in this losing Dodger season.
“Hey,” Gibson said, bothered but not surprised, “I’m in the condition I am this year because of what I did last year for the Dodgers. I would give anything to be out on the field. You think I wouldn’t rather be playing baseball than going under the knife on some operating table? Come on!”
This is the other side of heroism. This is the payback for that brief and shining moment. Gibson swears he will play again, but he is not sure if he’ll ever run with the same wildman style. And that would be sad. Like him or hate him, you cannot deny that Gibson on a baseball diamond was a force to be reckoned with. He played with a growl, a sneer, a lust for competition. When you love it like that, you do things, you take needles in your leg. It may seem foreign to you — it does to me — but teams wink at it and suggest it and it goes on and on.
Funny, no? The headlines last week were all about Pete Rose being expelled from baseball for what he tried to take from it. And here is a man paying for what he put into it.
“Running has always been a big part of my game,” Gibson said, when asked about his future. “I guess now I may have to put on 20 pounds and jack the ball out of the stadium.”
He laughed, but it was a painful laugh, the kind of laugh only an athlete would understand.
Mitch Albom’s sports talk show “The Sunday Sports Albom” airs tonight, 9-11, on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Guest: Bo Schembechler.