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
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.
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
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.
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
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.