HIS SEASON’S NOT COMPLETE, BUT METAMORPHOSIS IS

Once upon a time, when Kirk Gibson went out socially, you locked up the women and children. He was a serious party animal, a whole frat house rolled into one reckless body.

Now Kirk Gibson goes out socially to his son’s elementary school, with the other fathers, leaning against the bulletin boards, and when the teacher asks them to write something in their children’s journals, Gibson takes the pencil and writes his name and the date and the usual stuff. Then he adds a message to his boy. The message reads, “You never know unless you try again.”

Gibson tried again. He came back to baseball, he came back to the Tigers, trusting that his 36-year-old body and howl- like-a-teenager mind had enough juice for one more season. He was still young by every standard except sports and MTV. And he started his second life as Tiger as if these were the old days
— you remember, when he had all his hair? He pounded the ball. He hit up near
.400. He ran bases aggressively.

He did something smart then, in April and May. He didn’t talk about his success. He demurred when everyone wanted to make him their next feature story. When ESPN kept calling for an interview, a “Sunday Night Conversation” piece, ostensibly telling him he was one of the most interesting athletes in the country, he politely declined.

“I don’t want to take anything away from my teammates,” he said for the record.

Privately, something told him his success might not last.

And it didn’t. Like the team he plays for, Gibson began a steady slide during the summer, and has leveled off near an unhappy bottom, a .264 average with 13 home runs. He is mad at himself and is going through his personal matrix of what-I-did, what-I-shoulda-done, what-I-have-to-do-next.

“I don’t care about numbers,” he said the other day. “The one thing I care about — the one thing that bothers me that I didn’t do this year — is performing when the game was on the line. I didn’t have the late inning at-bats. I didn’t knock in the runs when we needed them at the end.

“I just didn’t do my job.”

* * *

Of course, Gibson sets his job standards higher than most. He sets them against his past. He sets them against the two home runs in the 1984 World Series finale, and the home run in Toronto late in the 1987 division-championship run, and, of course, the home run that is so famous, they’ve put music to it, the 1988 World Series, bottom of the ninth, two out, Gibson on his gimpy leg, crouching low for the pitch that he’ll whack to the stars . . .

It’s hard to match those expectations. Gibson didn’t. Not this year. His amazing early-season production turned more and more into nights like the pinch-hit night last week, in Chicago, ninth inning, two out, runners on — but instead of smacking the ball over the wall, he lines out.

End of game.

“I don’t think it’s ability,” he says. “Physically, I feel as good as I ever did. But in this game, you have to pool all your resources to get the job done. That means ability and concentration.

“And there’s no question there are other things in my life now. It’s not like the old days. It’s hard for me to just turn on a switch and forget about my family and my home and make that transition to aggressive baseball in 30 seconds.”

Once upon a time, when he had a spare moment, Gibson was out carousing with pitcher Dave Rozema, attacking the social scene the way he attacked the baseball field.

These days, when Gibson has a spare moment, he takes his kids out to the duck marsh he owns in Canada, or maybe fishing on a lake, or to the woods on his property in Lapeer, and they sit quietly together. “The other day, we caughtbutterflies, looked at caterpillars, we talked about how our air gets clean, how important water is.” This is Kirk Gibson? Catching butterflies? Sitting in duck blinds? Teaching kids about the ecosystem? He has three children, plus a stepdaughter, plus another baby on the way. He says his dream now would be a brood of “six or seven kids, all around the table.” He has gone from grubby to fuzzy, a happy family man, at least in his personal life.

But what does it do to the fire inside?Family changed McEnroe, too

John McEnroe, who always fueled his tennis with a personal furnace, woke up one day as a married man with children. He began to see that tennis was not everything in life. He took time off to be with his family. And when he came back, he was not the same, and never would be. The physical skill was there. The mental edge was not. He was too smart now, smart enough to put things in perspective, and he just couldn’t fool himself into thinking the world would explode if he didn’t make the final backhand winner. Gibson, like McEnroe, lived off his own fire in baseball. But he now sees the bigger picture of life. In the thick of a pennant race, bottom of the ninth inning, it is easy to stay focused; but when you’re an also-ran team, playing out the string, it’s against human nature to keep your mind from wandering now and then. Especially if it has other places to go. Maybe some clean-living, scripture- quoting singles hitter can be the same in his first year as he is in his last, the same before a family and after it. But the spit-and-snarl guys, like Gibson, they give you everything they have, and eventually they don’t have anymore to give. They burn their fuel. It’s an occupational hazard. “At this point, I can still can compete,” Gibson said, acknowledging the distractions. “I still think there’s a role for me here, but whether I’ll be back next year I don’t know. I’ve been told they want me, but there’s no piece of paper with a signature on it. “If I did come back, it would only be because I believed I could be the guy who gets it done in the clutch. I have to perform with the game on the line. That’s my job. I don’t care what anybody says. That’s my job.” That’s his identity. Or one of them, I should say. A lot of people have knocked Kirk Gibson through the years, a lot of journalists who had one run-in with him and wrote him off forever. I think the best lesson of Kirk Gibson is how people change, how they go from Canadian beer joints to Canadian duck marshes, from rambling curse words to rambling philosophy, from making crude jokes with a buddy to telling your son that he can’t keep the big fish he just caught “because we have to give something back to nature.” You never know unless you try again. Whether Kirk Gibson returns to the Tigers is an unanswered question. Whether he needs to has been settled. He still throws himself into the game. That, he does out of habit. But all the years he was growling and stealing bases and smacking homers and slapping hands, Gibson always knew how well he could live with baseball. Now he knows he can live without it. As life goes on, believe it or not, the latter will prove far more valuable.

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