LOS ANGELES — The new blue and white uniform was hanging on the podium, where everyone could see it. The new cap nestled close to the microphones. Kirk Gibson, the guest of honor at this luncheon, had a Dodgers schedule in his pocket, and an appointment with the real estate people, and he leaned back in his chair as the waiter brought the Caesar salad. Glasses clinked. Conversation buzzed.
“This is a happy day . . . ” began Dodgers general manager Fred Claire.
The dining room in the Stadium Club of Dodger Stadium was filled with reporters and Dodgers personnel. They had come to see the team’s newest acquisition. Tommy Lasorda, the manager, said he was thrilled to have a player like Gibson. Claire praised his “speed and power.” A PR guy directed the crowd’s attention to two giant TV screens in the corners and suddenly music swelled, and a video flashed: Here was Gibson, smacking home runs in Tiger Stadium, racing around left field, circling the bases, slapping high-fives, yelping, screaming. It was a spirited, up-tempo piece, and it ended with the image of a whiskered player on a baseball card, above the superimposed words “LA Dodgers.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the PR guy, “may I introduce to you, our newest Dodger. . . . “
Out of our lives. Kirk Gibson created a lot of baseball magic in his years as a Detroit Tiger, a lot of news, a lot of glory, a lot of snarling, barking sports moments, but he is officially Dodger blue now, a newly signed free agent with a $4.5 million, three-year contract.
Why did he leave? Really? He had grown up in Detroit. He had always been a Tiger. True, he was suddenly freed from his contract by a bizarre and historic occurrence — a judge ruling that owners’ collusion in 1985 had kept Gibson and others from a true free-market opportunity — but he stated numerous times he wished to stay in Detroit.
Yet today, he is gone.
“Look, these guys are happy to have me here,” said Gibson, 30, after the luncheon crowd had dispersed. “They really wanted me. They make me feel wanted. I can’t say I always felt wanted in Detroit. And I’m not saying they were wrong for not always wanting me.
“But there were things that were said (during the negotiating process) and believe me, they were substantial. . . . I’m not crying about anything. Please understand that. I respect the Tigers. But let’s just say there was not a lot of negotiating going on. . . .
“They pretty much said, ‘This is our offer. If you don’t like it, well, that’s the way it is. Sorry.’ “
He shrugged. Here the Dodgers people had just fawned over him like a newborn child, but Gibson, dressed in a black shirt and pants, looking rugged as usual, was emphasizing how he “bent over backwards” to stay in Detroit. He claims he offered to consider a two-year contract (instead of three years he got with LA) for the $2.6 million the Tigers were offering (instead of $4.5 million offered by LA) if only the Tigers would restructure the payments, so that he earned more in 1988 than in 1989. “And they said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘We don’t renegotiate contracts. We never have. We never will.’
“I probably would have stayed if they’d done that. I might have, anyhow. But everything was always no, no, no. . . . “
Digging into contract negotiations is an ugly and usually fruitless endeavor. Both sides will tell you what they want you to hear, and rarely do you hear it all, anyhow. So Gibson claims he told Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie, “This is it, this is your final chance” as early as Wednesday of last week, and Lajoie claims he “never knew about a three-year offer” until after it was accepted. And Gibson says sure he did, and Lajoie says no, and on it goes. What’s the point?
This much seems undeniable: The Tigers thought Gibson was worth only a certain amount, and the Dodgers were willing to offer more. And finally, the gap between Tigers highball and Gibson lowball was too great.
He called his agent. The deal was made.
“It’s not for me to say the Tigers are wrong in the way they treat their people,” Gibson said, “because they field some pretty damn good ball teams.
“But they want guys like Alan Trammell, who makes $650,000 and deserves a million and a half. That’s their clone.
“Steve Kemp, Lance Parrish, me, we’re not yes people. And you see what happens. . . . “
There is a sentence you hear among Tigers players when they’re talking privately and honestly. It’s a critical imitation of management: “Kaline, Cobb and Kell didn’t care; why should you?”
It means the Tigers are old-fashioned, they take a hard line in their negotiating. They do not bend rules, they rarely make concessions, and they invoke tradition when asked why. Kaline, Cobb and Kell didn’t care; why should you? You can admire this. You can disdain it. As Gibson said, they field some pretty good ball teams.
But it was hard to hear Gibson talk Monday and not recall similar words from Parrish last season. Both players had grown up as Tigers, had never played for anyone else. Both felt they deserved better, and both left because of it — and the Tigers received virtually no compensation for either.
“In my case, I felt some of their disappointment in me all during last year — even before they talked about trading me (in December). Just things that were said, or done. Then I saw a Seattle scout in the stands one day, and I knew he was there to look at me.”
“Do you think the Tigers lost patience with your injuries over the years?” he was asked.
“Yeah, I think so. But if you look back, even though I was injured and out of the lineup, when I was there we were a pretty damn good team. And any way they want to cut it, I was an integral part of a winning ball club.”
Gone now. When Gibson spoke with the LA media Monday, he was vocal about forgetting his old club and focusing on the new. He talked his usually sassy talk, made off-the-cuff remarks, and said he hadn’t spoken with the Tigers since this happened. “Why should I do that? So they could tell me to get bleeped?”
That is classic Gibby. So is his intensity, his lust for winning, his disgust for losing, and his ability, now and then, to churn those things into amazing baseball.
And now he will do all that for the Dodgers. In the National League. Early Monday morning, he worked out on the Dodger Stadium field. He was given a locker next to that of pitcher Orel Hershiser (who should see his clean-cut vocabulary grow by a few words). He ordered new bats. He tried on the uniform.
“I’m loyal to this organization from now on,” he said.
And that is that. Why did he leave? Money, obviously. And, he said, the perception that the Tigers really didn’t want him that badly, and for years they had done little things, prickly things, to him and to others, that made him think he was not dealing with the most giving of front offices. “It all adds up, and finally, you say, ‘That’s it.’ Maybe they thought I wouldn’t go because Michigan was my home. But I did. And I’m gonna make this work.”
Perhaps Gibson is right. Perhaps the Tigers’ front office is right. And what does it matter to the fans? “Tell them it’s unfortunate this all happened,” Gibson said, getting ready to leave, “that I truly wish it hadn’t.”
There is a photo of Gibson (his favorite, he admits) after he crushed that home run in the final game of the 1984 World Series in Tiger Stadium. He is leaping, his arms over his head, his face in a glorious howl. It has become a famous picture, a real symbol around Detroit — you find it on restaurant walls and in poster shops — and Gibson was asked as a final question what he thinks when he sees that shot today.
“What I remember most is that night, for that time, for that moment, we became one. Nobody gave a bleep about who worked where, who made what, what your problems were, what my problems were. We were just all happy. It’s funny how that happens.
“It doesn’t happen very often.”
Out of our lives. Business is business. Gibson left to meet more of his new bosses. The PR man carried his blue and white uniform. The real estate people talked about houses in Pasadena and Pacific Palisades.
In Detroit, the weather was cold. In LA, it was sunny and clear. In the men’s room outside the Stadium Club, two Dodgers business-types were washing their hands following the luncheon.
“He seems like he’ll be quite a character, doesn’t he?” said one.
“Uh-huh,” said the other, and they headed out the door.