Not to worry, he says. Kirk Gibson grew up here, became a star here, and if he has to leave here to earn a living, he can handle it. A lot of people figured this guy was untouchable. He’d never have to play anywhere else. Gibson wasn’t one of them.
“I’m a professional,” he said Friday, sitting behind a desk at the Jim Saros Real Estate Agency in Grosse Pointe. “My first choice is to be here. I’ve always been a Detroit Tiger. But baseball is a business. . . . “
Nothing had happened. He was still a Tiger. But rumors were flying, and his private phone number was ringing off the hook. Three times recently the Tigers had made gestures of trading him — to Seattle, to New York, to Los Angeles — and while the deals had all fallen through, the buzz among Tigers fans had grown louder: “What does Gibson think of all of this?”
Here is the answer:
Que sera sera.
That’s Spanish for: No big deal.
“When it came up this week, I told my wife, ‘It’s just a matter of time now’,”
said Gibson, who has been with the team for eight seasons. “Look at Dan Petry. They were talking about trading him for months, and eventually they did. I think the same thing will happen with me. It might take a day. It might take a year — but eventually.”
Whoa. Was this really Kirk Gibson talking? The same Kirk Gibson who symbolized the Tigers with that roaring leap in the final game of the 1984 World Series? The same aggressive outfielder? The same time bomb of a hitter? The same whiskered man whose abrasive style was both repelling and arresting? Some people swooned over him, and some wanted to put a brick through his window. But few ever thought of him as gone.
“Oh, at first, I was a little p—-d off,” said Gibson of the trade talk, which he has discussed at length with general manager Bill Lajoie. “But that’s a natural reaction. I’m not mad now. I don’t go home and yell at my family. I work out. I go about my business. And if the phone rings, I’ll answer it. . . .
“I’m not going to berate the Tigers if I’m traded. They’ve been great about this. I see both sides of the coin here. I understand what the Tigers are doing.”
Which is this: trying to beef up their lineup with right- handed hitters. You want a good one, you have to give one up. Gibson, a lefty, is one of the few “market value” Tigers the organization can afford to trade.
“Hey, they’re not going to get rid of Alan Trammell or Lou Whitaker,” said Gibson. “You don’t break that combination up, you don’t trade a real good catcher — outfielders are more expendable. . . .”
Just the same, trying to deal Gibson has not been easy, because of an unusual cloud hanging over the negotiations. Gibson was a free agent in 1985. A court recently declared that free agents in that year were victims of collusion by the owners. Gibson may therefore be entitled to compensation — perhaps the right to be a free agent again. Thus, he becomes a hot potato; whoever holds him must absorb the consequences.
“Like if they traded me to Los Angeles, and then the judge ruled I should become a free agent, Los Angeles has given up a top player and I can just walk out on them,” Gibson said.
This gives the 30-year-old Tiger some leverage. Teams that seek him may want him to sign something saying that he won’t disappear should he win that ruling. Gibson replies: Fine. Let’s talk contract. Somebody extends his deal
— which is due to run out after 1988 — and hey, he may sign anything. “Let’s just say, it can be worked out,” he admitted, grinning.
A weird situation? These are weird times. Gibson nixed the Seattle deal
(for Phil Bradley) when he decided not to talk to the Mariners. The New York deal (for Dave Winfield) collapsed under the weight of Winfield’s contract. Gibson would have talked to the Dodgers (who offered Pedro Guerrero), but Lajoie axed that one, after the Dodgers took so damn long with details — then apparently leaked the story.
“I wouldn’t say the LA deal is completely dead yet,” said Gibson, who said that he would already be a Dodger if he had spoken with their people.
But then, Gibson doesn’t make the decision to trade. Lajoie does.
Whatever. This is all shop talk. When and if Kirk Gibson gets traded, the fine print will matter little to people here. The hot debates will be — as they are now — whether Gibson showed Detroit all he could be, whether he was too injury- prone, whether he was too streaky.
“Hey, the only thing I’ve ever been guilty of in Detroit is not living up to everybody else’s expectations,” Gibson said, putting his sneakered feet up against the desk. “. . .I’m damn proud of what I’ve accomplished. A lot of people like to blame me for things, say I wasn’t durable, I’m too streaky. . .
He leaned forward. “I got news for ya. You take a hundred people for a team and pick up sides — and you want me on your team. I know that, and so does everybody else. ‘Cause I’m a winner. And I have impact.”
Love him or hate him. The man has a point. Gibson’s value to the Tigers can only partly be measured by numbers (.277, 24 HRs, 79 RBIs last season). Several of 1987’s biggest hits still came off his bat (recall the ninth-inning
home run that salvaged the final game in the next-to-last Toronto series, a blast that seemed to jolt the Tigers all the way to the American League East title). He is confident, brash, sometimes a pain in the butt and sometimes remarkably reflective. But he grew up on this baseball team. Winning doesn’t scare him.
So if he comes back as a Tiger next season? “No big deal. I’ll be in as good a shape as ever.” And if he’s traded? “Michigan will still be my home. I’ll always live here.” The Tigers are not mad at him. They need something. He is worth something. That’s the way business is done.
Not too many people can call a press conference over trade rumors. But Kirk Gibson has always been Big Time News here, and if you expected a tantrum, a tongue-lashing, well, here’s the story: Kirk Gibson is a grownup. “Hey,” he said, “If I play baseball five more years, then I got what? Thirty or 40 years to live? This is a pretty small part of life we’re talking about. . . .”
He stood up and tugged on his white sweat suit.
“What will you do now?” he was asked, his future still up in the air.
“Go home and clean the barn,” he said. CUTLINE Kirk Gibson