NEW YORK — Whiskers look good on a soldier. They suggest a mind locked on battle, on the hunt, not on trivial matters such as keeping a face clean. Like dirt stains and bloody knees, the beginnings of a beard somehow say to us:
“effort.” Nasty. Raw. Not to be trifled with.
It is therefore fitting that Kirk Gibson is at his grubby- faced best these days, looking like he just washed up on the beach. The Tigers are in a crucial stretch of the season — a 10-day, seven-game tango with the first-place Yankees. And after two of those games, Gibson’s stats read: nine at-bats, four hits, three runs, three RBIs.
“Are you getting started on something?” he was asked Saturday before the Tigers stomped on New York, 10-5.
“I hope so,” he said, sounding as if he doesn’t just hope it, he’s counting on it. “This . . . would be a good time.”
Let’s modify that. This would be a perfect time. For one thing, the Tigers will need everybody to win the AL East. For another thing, such young players as Matt Nokes and Mike Henneman, who have been excellent so far, may be ripe for those mini-slumps that inevitably strike rookies. And besides, Gibson, quite simply, is overdue. He has played pretty well so far. That is not enough. He knows it. He gets paid to play better.
“This season has been hard and easy,” he admitted. “Easy because we’re playing well, we’re right in there, but hard because I haven’t hit a groove yet. I usually find a groove by now. I just have to stay relaxed until it comes.”
Tigers fans would love to see that happen. True, Gibson is the kind of player you embrace with one arm and push away with the other. He can be charismatic, annoying, exciting, crude. His contract negotiations in 1985 brought him new critics, as has his good-but-not-great performance since he signed.
But like him or not, this is undeniable: when the going gets competitive, a fire is lit inside Kirk Gibson’s belly. You walk by him, you smell smoke. That smell isn’t after-shave Before Friday’s game he said: “I’m psyched for this series.” He hit a home run and two singles. Before Saturday’s game he said: “I’m pumped.” He knocked in two runs, including the game-winning RBI, and gave the day its most exciting baserunning. You smell something?
“Hey, I think we’re the better team,” he said when asked about the Yankees, who now lead Detroit by two games. “We just have to play hard and prove it.”
Hard? Well. That’s an appropriate word. Gibson knocked in the Tigers’ first run Saturday by singling hard off of Dennis Rasmussen; and we mean that literally. The pitch was heading back at Rasmussen’s kneecap before he finished the follow- through. Smack! Ouch! It bounced off and away. Gibson safe at first. One run in.
That was in the first inning. In the sixth, Gibson would chop a ball that Don Mattingly would throw home in a failed attempt to catch Tom Brookens. Gibson safe at first. Another run in.
But it was in between that Gibby had the most fun of all. Fifth inning. A wild pitch by Pat Clements that ricocheted high into the air. The bases were loaded and Gibson was on second, and you don’t often score from there on a wild pitch — but what the hell? As Gibson rounded third, the ex-football player seemed to take over. No stopping, no halting, give him a linebacker to run into. (“Did you wait for a sign by third base coach Alex Grammas?” Gibson was asked afterward. “I didn’t even look at him,” he admitted.)
Why bother? He charged toward home and slid in safely, as the ball smacked off his body. He bounded up in a cough of dirt, shook a fist and yelled. As he
ran into the dugout his hat flew off and he fell into a sea of high-fives.
Hello, boys! It’s Mister Whisker!
‘This is gonna be fun’ “Hey, we want to hammer these guys!” Gibson said in the clubhouse afterward. “We want to put it to them. I want to put it to them. My adrenaline gets pumping. . . . What can I say?”
He grinned. Other players were showered, changing. He remained inside the soiled socks and sweaty undershirt. Dirt? Fine. Get a bucket and cover him.
“I love this kind of competition. This whole team does. That’s why I think it’ll be us, New York and Toronto, right down to the finish.
“I was talking to Don Mattingly when I was on first base (Friday) night, and I said to him, ‘Man, this is gonna be fun.’ I said to him, ‘You guys ain’t going anywhere. We’re all gonna be right here.
“Hey, they believe they’re gonna win it, we believe we’re gonna, Toronto believes they’re gonna. That’s what’s so great about this division.
“People say, ‘Aw, if we were in the West we’d be in first place.’ Bleep! We don’t want to be in the bleeping West! This is where it’s at, this is where the competition is! Right here. We all know we’ve got talent. Now we’ll see who’s got the heart.”
He paused, grinned, and took a deep breath, like a man enjoying the smell of a distant fire.
“You gonna shave now?” someone asked.
“What for?” he answered.