by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Well, if I were Kirk Gibson, I would duck. Certain fans get dangerously upset when he doesn’t play great, and this year, overall, Gibson is playing
“terrible.” That’s his word for it anyhow. Terrible.

Then again, he has nights like Wednesday, when he hit two home runs, one of them halfway to downtown. On nights like that, certain fans want to jump out of their seats and hug him to death.

So either way, I would duck. But then, I am not Kirk Gibson, and neither are you. And besides, 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. But mostly it is a season of change. Gibson is not the same wild man whose grubby image was immortalized here in the 1984 World Series.

He knows it.

He doesn’t duck.

“I really don’t think anything about this season has 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 playing with pain and outside distractions. Then he has a night like Wednesday, and who knows?

The cheers have turned to boos and back to cheers.

But what are they booing? What are they cheering? As usual, most fans don’t understand the whole picture of Kirk Gibson. And he couldn’t care less about enlightening them. So let’s get a few things straight by ourselves. 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 — despite the home runs Wednesday night. A ball player’s body is a machine dependent on all parts. If one is subpar, all the others are affected.

But he has injured his body before. He has always come around. What is more confusing are the changes within.

Lots of changes.

“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 in more time in past 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 I could get by doing both things. But it made it harder for me to perform. I should have handled it better.

“It’s been a big adjustment period for me. Really big. I guess it’s just part of growing up.”

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, regardless of babies, houses, or his cherished flying lessons.

You are correct. And 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. There is a new home, a new way of life, new responsibilities.

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. Besides, he knows fans see the money, the glory, the “easy life” of a pro baseball star — and they have no sympathy.

“But 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. “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 always his aggressiveness. He needs to learn how to keep that between the white lines
— like he did Wednesday night — 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. Gibson, as everyone knows, signed a three-year, $4.1 million contract in the off-season. And 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. He was supposed to deliver the big hits, be the spark plug, the catalyst. Not with the numbers he’s put up.

“Do you think they feel they gave you a big contract and boom, your output 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. You either already love him or hate him. He has his glorious nights at the ballpark. But he has also carved an ugly niche at times, 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. Either way, 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 it is not always an easy transition. Maybe this is Gibson’s time.

This is not an excuse. A great ball player excels no matter what the distractions. This is simply an explanation of a guy who won’t tell you what’s wrong himself. If he went on a tear, if every night was suddenly like Wednesday night, 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 where 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 the priorities in harmony. Be committed to both his family and his occupation. And be productive. Is that what you’re waiting to hear? It is true.

I don’t think anyone knows that better than Kirk Gibson.

“I’ve been very inconsistent, that’s the whole thing,” he said, reaching for his glove and slapping it hard a few times. “I haven’t done what I’m capable of doing. What more can I say?”

“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.”

Terrible? His word. His evaluation. These are up and down times for Kirk Gibson, and they are rarely easy. But he doesn’t duck.

At least give him credit for that.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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