If I were Kirk Gibson, I would duck. Certain fans tend to boil dangerously hot when he doesn’t play great, and this year Gibson is playing “terrible.” That’s his word. Terrible. And he’s getting paid more than ever.
So I would duck. But I am not him, and neither are you. Kirk Gibson doesn’t duck. This might be his season of discontent, of confusion, of numbers
(.262, 22 homers, 69 RBIs) too low for his talent. And of change. Gibson is not the same wild man whose grubby image was immortalized here in the 1984 World Series.
But he knows it.
He doesn’t duck.
“I really don’t think anything about this season been pleasurable,” he said, sitting alone in the Tiger Stadium dugout. “The only thing that’s really good for me has been the situation with my wife expecting a child (due next week). But as far as the baseball field goes, I’m not at all happy; I’m not at all satisfied.”
He looked out at the bleachers, which on this cool September evening were almost empty.
“I’ve failed more than is like me in this game,” he said. “I’m the one who led people to believe I could do the job in pressure situations. But there have been a lot of times this year that I haven’t. . . . It’s not like me. I know it.”
He ran a fist through his mussed blond hair. If nothing else, this has been the most unusual of Gibson’s seven full seasons as a Tiger. He started out red hot, with two thunderclap home runs on Opening Day. He was the team’s leading power hitter when he disappeared in May with an ankle injury. Six weeks later, he returned to a new role: slumping hero. His batting average dropped like lead, and he’s played with pain and outside distractions that still exist.
The cheers have turned to boos.
But what are they booing? What are the reasons? As usual, most fans don’t understand the whole picture of Gibson. And he couldn’t care less about enlightening them. Let’s get a few things straight. Is Kirk Gibson the reason the Tigers won’t win the pennant this year? No. Could he have made a difference? Some. All the difference? Uh-uh. Not unless he took up pitching.
He will not admit it — “I refuse to make excuses” — but he is still feeling the effects of that injury in Boston back in May. The ankle is not 100 percent. You can see it in his play. The base-running, the push-off when he throws, even his batting. A ball player’s body is a machine dependent on all parts. If one is subpar, all the others are affected.
What about the contract, you ask? Observers figured Gibson’s three-year,
$4.1 million deal would have one of two effects this season; he’d be rich and content, and play better than ever, or he’d be rich and content, and not play as hard as he used to.
Both were foolish conclusions. Signing a big contract is not like spraying yourself with some anti-everything repellent. You can still have slumps, you can still experience bad times, you can still go through changes.
And that is what is happening to Kirk Gibson.
“It’s hard to explain,” Gibson said, passing his glove between his hands.
“I’ve taken on a lot more responsibility outside the park this year. That’s what I chose to do. To be honest, yes, I put more time in here in other years
— coming to the park early, extra batting practice, extra fielding, that kind of stuff.
“This year, with my wife being pregnant, I chose to spend more time with her, you know, to take up her workload. We’ve been moving all summer. I guess I thought hopefully I could get by doing both things. But it made it harder for me to perform. I should have handled it better.” Now, you may be the type who — put off by Gibson’s image as a crude, bleep-the-consequences type of person — quickly notes that he is paid very well for playing baseball, and that should be his top priority.
He would not dispute that.
But understand this. This is not “Gibby” of 1984. What we have now is the sports equivalent of an aging party animal, who, on the threshold of 30, realizes that life, like some guests, doesn’t always pick up after itself.
And he has decided to do something about it.
Baseball has forever been his bash, and he played as if the guy with the dirtiest uniform wins. But now he is married, and there are days when he hears the phone ring and wonders if he just became a father. He wonders about the health of his wife. He wonders about the health of the baby.
It is not exaggeration to say the distractions have cut into his baseball attention, as they would for most of us in our jobs. Gibson will not use it as an excuse. He would rip up this column for even suggesting it. But he knows fans see the money, the glory, the “easy life” of a pro baseball star — and they have no sympathy.
He ignores them.
“What am I supposed to do?” he said, his voice rising to a squeak. “Doubt everything? You’ve got to believe in yourself. You’ve got to know the things you are doing are right.
“Let’s put it this way. Say I sat here and told you, ‘Look, you’re right. My wife and my family are my No. 1 priority and baseball has fallen back a bit.’ Am I wrong for that?”
He paused, his eyes searching for an answer.
“In my mind, I’m not wrong,” he said, “so bleep it. That’s the way I choose to live my life. . . . ” There was a night not too long ago when Gibson returned home early after a particularly disappointing game. His wife, JoAnn, and her daughter, Colleen, heard him come in and were braced for the worst. “They figured I was going to throw stuff around, be all bummed out,” Gibson said.
Maybe the old Gibson would have. This one did not. He greeted his family calmly, normally. “You’re in a lot better mood than I thought,” his wife observed.
“I’m not gonna take my disappointment out on you,” he said. “You guys are what get me pumped up.”
What can you say to that? He should have trashed some furniture? That way he’d play better? Face it. You can’t hold growing up against Kirk Gibson, any more than he can use it as a foil for his baseball woes.
That’s what makes this all so tough. Gibson’s edge on the field was his aggressiveness. He needs to learn how to keep that between the white lines, while harnessing it elsewhere.
“Are you more mature now, is that it?” I asked.
“I don’t know about that,” Gibson said. “Maybe I’m matur- ing.”
Which, to be honest, is a fairly mature answer.
“Look,” Gibson said, “the reason I can’t make any excuses, really, is because there are other players in the league whose wives are having babies. Other players who are moving. Other players who have sprained an ankle and been out six weeks. So who the hell cares? I haven’t done my job. That’s all that matters. The rest is immaterial.
“In this game, if you don’t perform consistently, there’ll be somebody to replace you. I can’t control that. I’m gonna have my ups and my downs, when I’m down they’re gonna jump on top of me, when I’m up they’re gonna jump on the bandwagon. That’s the way it works. I know that by now.”
He leaned forward.
“And that,” he said, “goes for fans as well as management.” Ah, management. There have been grumblings there, too. Like the guy whose expensive new sports car won’t start in cold weather, the Tigers brass — particularly Bill Lajoie — has not shied from stating its disappointment with Gibson at critical stages of this season.
“Do you think they feel they gave you this big contract and immediately your performance dropped?” I asked Gibson.
“That’s their problem,” he said. “They made their decision just like I made my decision. But I mean, it’s not like I’m jaking them (claiming an injury is worse than it is). That’s one thing they can never say about me. I’ve never jaked them. I’ve played hard and hurt. When I couldn’t walk on the ankle, I pushed it as hard. . . . “
He stopped and shook his head. “I’m not jaking them,” he said. Chances are you have little empathy for Gibson. He has carved an ugly niche at times in Detroit, and it seems almost everyone you meet has a story about how he refused a friend of theirs an autograph, or got rude in a bar with his old party buddy, Dave Rozema.
Fine. But past is past and present is present. If you want to understand what is going on with Gibson, you can start by realizing that almost everybody grows up sooner or later. And anyone can be surprised by how tough it is.
If he went on a tear today, a home run every game, and the Tigers made a mad dash at the Red Sox, the cheers would not widen Gibson’s smile one centimeter. He has reached the point that influence comes only from within, and for now, he is getting mixed signals — in a body that is less than 100 percent.
He needs to get that in order by next season. Reshuffle his priorities. He must play better, much better, to justify his contract and his status. I don’t think anybody knows that better than Kirk Gibson.
“Just say I’m not happy with the season, and the team isn’t happy with the
season,” he said, in conclusion. “We failed to do what we set out to do.”
“What about next year?” I asked.
“Next year?” he said, his eyes rising as if the answer was obvious.
“Well, I’m gonna figure out what went wrong and fix it. I mean, I’m not going to be content with being terrible.”
His word. His evaluation. Times are not easy now for Kirk Gibson. But he doesn’t duck.
At least give him credit for that.