“How you feeling?” someone asks.

“Ah . . . OK,” Kirk Gibson mumbles.

He limps through the doorway. His left ankle is in a plastic cast as big as a ski boot. He plops down near the whirlpool and undoes the straps. It is 9 a.m. It is the Henry Ford Hospital, Center for Athletic Medicine. Kirk Gibson is the first patient. As usual. Every morning. An hour and a half. At least. And more in the afternoon.

There are no bat boys here. No pine tar. No tossing jock straps at each other. This is therapy. This is dull. This is boring, and it hurts.

“This is my job now,” Kirk Gibson says.

And the cast comes off.

The flesh around the ankle is swollen. Streaks of red run up and down his shins.

“Blood,” the therapist says.

“You should have seen it a few weeks ago,” Gibson says. “It was all black. Even my toes.”

He leans back and drops an arm over his forehead. The roar of that dark night has faded. The photos of him hobbling off the Fenway Park field, his face twisted in pain. They have been put away.

He is now just another name on the disabled list. The Tigers have lost 10 of 17 games (through Monday) since Gibson, their right fielder, went out. There have been rumblings of “no leadership” without him, there has been no one to replace his speed and his power, and all he can do is watch the Tigers on TV, his severely sprained ankle propped up on pillows.

“Do you watch often?” he is asked.

“Every game,” he says.

“What do you think?” he is asked.

“What do I think?’ he says. He lowers his foot into the swirling water, as the therapist tosses in ice. “I think . . . things aren’t going so well.”

Send a dock worker home at full pay and he’s liable to kiss you. Send a hairdresser home at full pay and the scissors will go rusty. Send a ball player home and he wakes up the next day twitching. He wants to go back.

So it was that Kirk Gibson dragged himself back to Tiger Stadium one week after his injury, during a game against the Kansas City Royals. Few people knew he was there. That’s the way he wanted it. He stood in the tunnel looking out at the field, his crutches by his side.

“I saw all the colors, all the fans,” he says. “I realized how much I love this game. I said to myself, ‘How lucky are you to go out there?’ “

Then he realized he wasn’t going out there.

He hasn’t gone back since. Tonight the Tigers return from a nine-day day trip. Gibson says he will go to the park, say hello, get some treatment. But he won’t sit in the dugout. He’ll probably just go home.

“I really thought I’d heal quicker,” he says, toweling off from the whirlpool. “But Dr. (David) Collon has called it pretty close (four to six weeks out). He doesn’t want me even near a field before Monday. I’m listening to him. I know the worst thing I could possibly do right now is injure this again. Then I’d be in real trouble.”

He hobbles across the room. “I know what’s going on with the team,” he says. “I’ve heard about what Sparky said (complaints over the lack of leadership). Let’s just say Sparky says a lot of things with an ulterior motive. Maybe he’s just trying to make something happen.”

He knows that’s not it. Not completely. In the Tigers’ recipe, Gibson is an essential ingredient, like flour to bread. What can he do? He is still most likely two or three weeks away from playing.

He stares at the ankle, the demon that betrayed him on the simplest of plays; a scurry back to first base. Such a big man. Such a little move.

“I wish I was back in the lineup today,” he says, eyeing the swelling and the blood marks. “But this is the real thing. I can barely walk.”

For the first 10 days after his injury, Gibson mostly lay in bed with his leg elevated. He read. Watched television. The ankle was swollen and ugly and discolored. Whenever he stood up the blood rushed down and the leg throbbed like an elephant’s heartbeat.

But he took therapy. Even that first week. Simple exercises. Stationary bicycles. Whirlpools. Kneading and twisting. And the killer . . .

“Cybex machine,” the therapist says.

“Oh, man,” Gibson says. “Here we go.”

He lies face-down on a long blue table. He slips his left foot into a steel contraption that looks as if it came off the Starship Enterprise.

“How many?” Gibson asks.

“Repetitions of 10,” the therapist says.

She presses a button. A humming begins. Gibson pushes his foot against the machine’s resistance, then pulls it in, then out, then in. It seems the most basic of moves. Wiggling a foot. But soon Gibson’s face is buried in a towel, his broad frame is tensing, his eyes are squeezed shut, and he’s mumbling, “Ohh, this is killing me.”

“Another 10,” the therapist says.

“Ahhhh,” Gibson moans.

Such a big man. Such a little move. Somewhere in Kansas City, his teammates are just rolling out of bed. Meeting for breakfast. Reading their box scores from the night before.

“Ten more,” the therapist says.

“No . . . way,” Gibson says, panting.

But he does them.

Heal, damn it.

Get me back.

For an hour and a half, it is Gibson, the therapist and the walls. And this morning, even as you read this, it is Gibson, the therapist and the walls. And tomorrow. And the next day. None of this shows up on his bubble gum card. No hits for his career total. No RBIs for the weekly statistics. No one cheers. No one watches.

Hail the convalescing hero.

Rehab stinks.

“I’m gonna be sore tomorrow,” Gibson says, as he slowly slips on the plastic cast.

“Yeah,” says the therapist, “but I bet you anything you’ll feel better by the weekend.”

“You think so?” Gibson says quickly. And in the rise of his voice — even his voice, which can rumble with the best — is every athlete’s nightmare and every athlete’s salvation.

Let me heal. Get me back.

Please.

“Yeah, I think so,” the therapist says.

“Good,” Gibson says.

He makes his way down the hall, big step, little step, the bad foot following the good foot like a child trying to keep up with his father. In five hours he’ll be back for more.

A custodian is standing near the door. He spots Gibson.

“The team needs you, Kirk,” he says.

“Yeah, I’m coming,” Gibson says.

And out he goes, his dilemma strapped to his body. The team needs him. He wants to be playing. But his ankle could care less. He limps down the steps, and gets in his car, heading for the road back, which is never fast enough.

Before Gibson’s injury AL EAST W L GB New York 8 4 — Detroit 7 5 1 Cleveland 6 5 1 1/2 Baltimore 7 6 1 1/2 Boston 7 6 1 1/2 Toronto 6 7 2 1/2 Milwaukee 5 6 2 1/2 today AL EAST W L GB New York 21 11 — Boston 20 11 1/2 Cleveland 17 12 2 1/2 Baltimore 16 14 4 Milwaukee 16 14 4 Detroit 14 16 6 Toronto 14 18 7

CUTLINE Kirk Gibson

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