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His number and name—23 GIBSON—are over his locker just like those of the other 45 players who dress in the Detroit Tigers' spring training clubhouse in Lakeland, Fla. Kirk Gibson's locker is readily identifiable for another reason as well. It's the one crammed with bats—thick handles, thin handles, hollow ends, powered ends. The Tiger manager, Les Moss, may call him "another Mickey Mantle," but for now the transition from great all-round athlete to major league baseball player is more complex than Gibson ever foresaw. Hence, the bats.
Until he signed, put his $120,000 bonus into the bank and reported for minor league duty last June, Gibson, a left-hand-hitting centerfielder, had never swung anything but an aluminum bat. "It sounds silly," Gibson tells his college friends from Michigan State when they drop by, "but that's the first and most basic adjustment you make. Like everything else, it's not as easy as you figure. I'm still trying to find the right wood bat."
As far as the National Football League is concerned, it will be all right if Gibson never finds a bat. In the eyes of many scouts, he is the "best athlete available" in the upcoming draft, a 6'3", 225-pound wide receiver the Patriots' Bucko Kilroy says is the "first legitimate 4.2/40 white man we've timed." The Seattle Seahawks scouting staff says that on a l-to-8 rating scale, Gibson rates a 9.
If the NFL wants someone to blame for this guy trying to hit and throw balls instead of catching them, blame Darryl Rogers. He was Gibson's football coach at Michigan State. "A year ago Rogers suggested I go out for baseball so that I might have some bargaining power when the NFL draft came along," says Gibson. "I hadn't played since high school and really didn't do very well at first. Then I hit nine homers in four games, looked up in the stands and saw 25 scouts and suddenly realized what was happening." But Gibson made it clear that if a baseball team wanted to sign him, it would have to spend a lot of money and he would have to be allowed to return to East Lansing so that he could play football his senior year.
As a result, the teams with the first picks in the 1978 baseball draft didn't dare take Gibson. The Tigers, who picked 12th, did and promptly signed him to a contract. They also took out an insurance policy protecting them should Gibson get hurt in football.
Gibson survived the football season, leading the Spartans to a tie for the Big Ten title, setting school and conference receiving records, starring in the Hula and Senior Bowls and making most All-America teams. Michigan State was on probation, however, and Gibson got no national television exposure, so people in East Lansing like to tell you that Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys said Kirk Gibson should have won the Heisman.
"I have football scouts tell me I'm crazy," Gibson says, "but they could offer me a million dollars and I wouldn't regret my decision. The average career in pro football is five to seven years. In baseball, it's 12 to 15. There are some things I don't like about pro football. I love contact, but there are guys in that league who instead of just playing the game are going for each other's heads."
Gibson found out in a hurry that it is a lot easier to hit .390 in the Big Ten than even in the Florida State League. "I started out something like 0 for 20," he says, referring to his first exposure to organized baseball last summer. "Making an error or striking out with the bases loaded is the same as dropping a bomb in the end zone, only I didn't drop many bombs, and when I did, at least I could go hit somebody on the next play.
"The toughest thing about professional baseball is learning to play every day. All of a sudden you're trying to adjust and at the same time trying to learn. I had to learn to use a wooden bat. With the aluminum ones, the grip is different and you can hit the ball off the fists and drive it, which leads to certain bad habits. I also had to get rid of some of the bulk across the chest that I'd built up for football. It hampered my throwing and, to a lesser degree, my flexibility in swinging the bat. But, most of all, you don't realize how much goes into mentally tying together the physical parts until you do it for a living."
Gibson played 54 games for Class A Lakeland last season, hitting .240 with 13 stolen bases, seven homers, 40 RBIs and 54 strikeouts. As agreed upon when he signed, he was put on the Tigers' 40-man spring roster (another clause in his contract forbids his playing pro football). "I'm here with the idea that I can make this club," he said before the first intra-squad game. As he learned, the Tigers figured he was there for experience and knowledge. "Realistically we know he has to start off the season in Evansville, in Triple A," says President and General Manager Jim Campbell.