Today’s Random Player From The Baseball Project That May Or May Not Amount To Anything is Kirk Gibson. Gibson was drafted in the first round of the 1978 June Draft by the Detroit Tigers after playing just one year of collegiate baseball. That one year he hit .390 with 16 homeruns in 48 games at Michigan State where he also excelled in football as a wide receiver. The following year the then-St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the seventh round.
He elected to play baseball and after racking up 44 extra base hits in 143 games at A and AAA ball, he came up to the big leagues in 1979, playing part time for three and a half seasons. In 1983 he became a regular outfielder and by 1984 he had found a home in right field. That year the Tigers famously got off to a red hot start, sitting eight and a half games ahead of the pack at 35-5 on the morning of May 25. Gibson had hit .281/.361/.500 during that same stretch. He kept that pace pretty much all year, finishing at .282/.363/.516 with 27 homers, 10 triples, 23 doubles, and 29 stolen bases. The Tigers won 104 games and swept the Royals in the ALCS. Gibson was 5 for 12 with a homer in the series and won the series MVP. The World Series was about as competitive as the Tigers took out the Padres in five games. Though Alan Trammell won the series MVP award, the decisive blow was delivered by Gibson. In Game 5 the Tigers took an early 3-0 lead but by the eighth the Padres had clawed back to make the game 5-4 going into the bottom half of the inning. With future Hall of Famer Goose Gossage on the hill and the Padres defense failing them, Gibson came to the plate with runners on second and third and one out. Dick Williams had originally decided to walk Gibson and load the bases, but Gossage didn’t want anything to do with that idea. Gibson made the idea moot by blasting a 1-0 pitch into the upper deck in right field for a three run homerun and an 8-4 lead. The Tigers finished off the game to win their first World Series since 1968.
The next season Gibson was one homerun short of being the first Tiger ever to have 30 homers and 30 stolen bases. Along with the 30 steals he was only caught four times. After the 1985 season Gibson was a free agent but strangely did not receive any significant offers. He eventually did resign with the Tigers for a nice raise (nearly double his previous year’s salary), but eventually everyone realized why the offers weren’t coming along (nor did they come along for other stars like Tim Raines or Andre Dawson).
Owners – at the suggestion of commissioner Peter Ueberoth – had colluded and kept salaries suppressed. The settlements from the three grievances eventually cost the owners more than if they had just gone about business as usual. In 2005 former commissioner Fay Vincent claimed that the four expansion teams formed in the 1990’s were created to cover damages from the settlements.
Collusion led to several players leaving their teams for greener pastures. In January of 1988 arbitrator Thomas Roberts gave his ruling on first grievance. By then only 14 of the 35 free agents were still in baseball, but seven of those 14 were given a second chance at free agency. Just 11 days after the ruling Gibson signed a three year deal with the Dodgers. The Dodgers were coming off of back-to-back 73-89 seasons after winning the NL West in 1985, and Gibson brought a fire to the club. After blasting the club for their lack of professionalism following a spring training prank, the Dodgers went out and somehow won the NL West. And I mean SOMEHOW. Mike Scioscia put up an 87 OPS+. Franklin Stubbs – the regular first baseman – put up a .376 slugging percentage. Alfredo Griffin put up a 50 OPS+. And so on. This team basically rode the backs of two players. Gibson hit 25 homers, stole 31 bases, and put up a .290/.377/.483 line. Orel Hershiser posted a 2.26 ERA and struck out 178 hitters in 267 innings while breaking Don Drysdale’s record for consecutive scoreless innings. Gibson won the MVP that season and Hershiser won the Cy Young.
Gibson’s style of play, while contagious, was also rough on his body. During the NLCS Gibson managed to injure both legs. Riding Hershiser (24.2 innings, 1.09 ERA and a save), the Dodgers managed to beat the Mets in seven games despite losing 10 out of 11 games against them during the season. Gibson was in such bad shape that it was all but a given that he would miss the entire World Series.
Awaiting the Dodgers were the Oakland Athletics. The A’s were 104-58 that season and had just swept the Red Sox in the ALCS. They were also the prohibited favorites to win the series. This wasn’t supposed to be much of a series.
But in Game 1 it was the Dodgers taking the early lead on a Mickey Hatcher two-run homerun (like I said, SOMEHOW this team won their division) in the bottom of the first. The lead didn’t last long, though, as a Jose Canseco grand slam the next inning gave the A’s the lead. The Dodgers added a run in the sixth, but it looked to be it as Dennis Eckersley was coming on in the ninth.
This was Eckersley’s second season as a reliever and he had reinvented his career. He led the league with 45 saves, finished second in the Cy Young voting and fifth in the MVP voting. The Dodgers were putting a AA lineup out to face him. This was not going to end well.
Eckersley got Scioscia to pop up and struck out Jeff Hamilton looking. Then pinch hitter Mike Davis drew a two out walk. That led to Tommy Lasorda doing what he always did best. With pitcher Alejandro Pena due up Lasorda sent the hobbled Kirk Gibson to the plate.
The Dodger faithful rose to their feet as Gibson hobbled on his. Even his warm up swings looked weak. As he dug in they displayed an ominous fact that Eckersley hadn’t given up a homerun since August 24. Gibson fouled off the first two pitches and after a couple of throws to first he hit a weak roller foul down the first base line. Gibson was clearly in pain as he attempted to run up the line. He worked the count full as Davis stole second. Then came history . . .
“HIGH FLY BALL INTO RIGHT FIELD SHE IS GONE!!!”
That was Vin Scully’s call as the NBC camera’s caught the taillights going off from those that had left early but were listening to the ending in their cars. In Gibson’s only at bat of the 1988 World Series he provided its most famous moment. The homerun did not win them the World Series, but the homerun is the lasting image. The next night Hershiser pitched a complete game shutout and went 3 for 3 with a couple of doubles to take a 2-0 series lead. Mickey Hatcher was 7 for 19 with a couple of homers and Mike Davis added an improbable homerun of his own in the clincher and the Dodgers won one of the most improbable World Series titles of all time.
Injuries didn’t leave Gibson, though, as he managed only 160 games over the next two years. He spent the 1991 season in Kansas City then played only 16 games in Pittsburgh in 1992. In 1993 he returned for one last run in Detroit. By then, though he was 36 and basically done.
A couple of years after his retirement he reappeared in the Tigers dugout as bench coach for his former teammate Alan Trammell. He eventually moved to hitting coach, then went to Arizona to become the bench coach of the Diamondbacks. In 2010 Gibson replaced A.J. Hinch midway through and went 34-49. The following year the Diamondbacks surprised everyone with a 94-68 record, winning the NL West. They lost the NLDS in five games to the Milwaukee Brewers, but Gibson was named NL Manager of the Year collecting 28 of the 32 first place votes. After two .500 seasons the bottom fell out. On September 25 Dave Stewart was hired as GM of the Diamondbacks. On September 26 Kirk Gibson was fired. He has since returned to Detroit (he’s a Pontiac native) to do color commentary with his former teammate Jack Morris. In 2017 he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. In April of 2015 Gibson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. For his 17 year career he hit .268/.352/.463 with a 123 OPS+ with 255 homers and 284 stolen bases. His 1988 MVP Award is the only MVP Award won by a player who never played in an All-Star Game. That’s odd, because he played at an All-Star level from 1984 through 1988. His Hall of Fame Rating of 48.18 falls short, but one can’t help but wonder what could’ve been if not for the injury bug. He was putting together a Hall of Fame resume but just couldn’t keep it up long enough.