They come for money, they go for money. If you’re lucky you get a few memories in between. Kirk Gibson always played baseball with the cold glint of opportunity in his eyes — he saw a chance, he took it — and today, for those same reasons, he heads west, no longer a Tiger but a Los Angeles Dodger. Like it, hate it, gone is gone. You have something to say, you can yell it at his airplane.
Wave goodby to a native son. There is no way the Detroit clubhouse will be the same without Gibson, no replacing his harsh but contagious air of winning, or his joyous home run dashes. He grew up in Michigan, a cagey, whiskered, time bomb of a player, but always a guy you wanted on your side.
“I wanted to stay in the worst way,” he said Saturday. Instead, he chose to leave in the richest: a three-year, free-agent contract worth $4.5 million
— more than half of which he will earn by the end of this season.
The numbers, as they say, weigh heavily in his favor.
His departure is historic: the first time a player has been freed from a contract for the sins of the owners. Do you care? Probably not. Detroit fans this morning feel only deprived, as if someone left the back door open and the cat ran away.
“It’s kind of sad,” someone said to Gibson, “Lance Parrish, Dan Petry — now you. The homegrown Tigers seem to be slowly disappearing.”
“Hey,” he said, “that’s modern baseball.”
Man, is that a mouthful. IT WAS SIMPLY BASEBALL
Here is the game, America. A man gets one contract offer, he signs it, his union sues because he didn’t get any others, the court agrees, the man is freed from his deal, and he signs with a different team — which didn’t offer him anything the first time around — for lots more money.
The feeling is that there should be someone to blame. Were the Tigers too cheap? Was it Gibson’s greed? The Dodgers? Gibson’s agent?
The truth is, it was simply baseball — which is so top- heavy with dollar signs and legal mumbo jumbo you almost can’t recognize it. Little wonder that the final holdups on Gibson’s new contract had to do with drug clauses and payment in case of a strike. Once upon a time contracts dealt with home runs and strikeouts.
But that was a long time ago. Gibson was sprung by a judge from the shackles of a $1.3 million Detroit salary — not such a horrible prison — because the owners had colluded in 1985. Gibson was unwanted then, but being a smart shopper, he checked around, and this time — although he is 30, with two unspectacular seasons behind him — he found there were takers.
“It happened real quick,” he admitted. He said he gave the Tigers “every opportunity” to match the offer. The Tigers — who had offered a one-year extension with a no-trade clause — say the last they heard, LA was offering only a two-year deal. No matter. Detroit would not have matched the final Dodger offer.
“Hey, there’s gotta be a top line for the Tigers and a bottom line for me,” Gibson said. “In the end that gap was just too big. . . .
“I’m not resentful. I’m not vengeful. I respect the way the Tigers handled it and I hope they respect me.
“I’m not gonna tell you I won’t miss Detroit, the team, the people. I know I’m going to. But when I considered the whole picture, this was what was best for me.” GIBSON PUT IN RARE POSITION
What was the “whole picture”? Here was a player raised in the Tiger organization, whom a few months ago the Tigers were ready to trade. Bill Lajoie, the Tiger general manager, maintains he never shopped Gibson, but rather “other teams asked for him” when he was looking for right-handed hitters. Gibson admits that the trading idea stung him at first.
“I’ll go so far as to say (the trade talk) happened,” he said. “And leave it at that.”
So what? Should the Tigers have not tried to trade Gibson (a career .276 hitter) out of fear for hurting his feelings? Come on. Baseball has never worked that way. It just so happens that, in this case, Gibson was suddenly put in a rare position: puppeteer of his own fate. With the Dodgers, he’ll earn $2.5 million this season in salary and bonus — $1.2 million more than he would have gotten as a Tiger.
Would you turn that down?
“If I could rewrite the script none of this would have happened,” he said. But none of us can rewrite scripts. Gibson will go to La-La Land, where he could become an endorsement-ad star — and the Tigers are left with a hole in their lineup in the crucial No. 3 spot. It’s amazing to think had the Tigers completed that deal with LA last year, Gibson would be free from the Dodgers now, without ever having played a game. He could have even signed back with the Tigers.
Modern baseball. EMPTY LOCKER REMAINS
So wave goodby. Many people hated Gibson, but many more swooned over him. He was almost perversely charismatic, crass, boorish, fiercely independent. But there was always something about that grizzled face, a nagging belief that as long as he was on the team, it could never really sink too far from winning. He’d beat everybody up, right?
Gone now. Just an empty locker.
“Where do you think your departure leaves the Tigers?” he was asked.
“I don’t think that’s a concern of mine,” he said, an outsider now. “That question is better suited to Bill Lajoie.”
At the Free Press, we have photo files of all the Tiger players, pictures from when they had more hair and less mileage: Lance Parrish, with his almost hippie-ish young looks, Dan Petry in his fresh-scrubbed early 20s, Gibson when he was a campus monster back at Michigan State, his eyes wide, his hair a Prince Valiant wild. They are thick files. We label them under other cities now.
They come for money, they go for money. Gibson’s nine years in Detroit, his home runs, his World Series leap, his antics with Dave Rozema, his impish grin, his churlish behavior — “the total package,” as he might put it — will be stored away in the cabinet of our memories. Sunday will turn to Monday, winter to spring, and everybody will survive, a little bit colder. Money has a way of spitting on passion.
“I may be gone, but I’m not forgotten,” Gibson joked about himself Saturday.
Give it time, Kirk. CUTLINE: Kirk Gibson talks with the news media Saturday about his new contract.
“I wanted to stay in the worst way,” said Kirk Gibson at a news conference Saturday.