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When Will The Bubble Burst?
Ron Fimrite
May 14, 1984
Even though they continue to win at a blistering pace, the Detroit Tigers recognize that it won't last forever
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May 14, 1984

When Will The Bubble Burst?

Even though they continue to win at a blistering pace, the Detroit Tigers recognize that it won't last forever

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Parrish is the most powerfully built of all the Tigers, with Schwarzeneggerish biceps, and his relatively slight production—.227, five homers and 19 RBIs—frustrates him. "I've had guys in scoring position all the time," he says. "If I'd been hitting at all, I'd have 35 to 40 RBIs by now." As it is, he's second only to Lemon in that department.

The most surprising and gratifying performance has been rightfielder Kirk Gibson's. A powerful 6'3", 215-pounder with wide-receiver speed, Gibson is one of those blessed two-sport athletes. As an undergraduate at Michigan State he was confronted with deciding whether to enter the baseball or football Hall of Fame. The grim reality has been that he has looked more like another Clint Hartung, the legendary can't-miss bust of the late '40s, except that he has lacked Hartung's sunny disposition. Last year he groused through a miserable .227 season in which he feuded with fans, press and management. He didn't like being platooned in the outfield, and he couldn't stand criticism. In truth, he was simply playing ugly baseball. And yet that great promise was still there. Last June 14 he became only one of 11 men to hit a ball over the Tiger Stadium roof, joining the august company of, among others, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard. But that was small consolation for the low average and, in the eyes of purists, proof only that he swings too hard.

Gibson did some soul-searching this past winter. "What happened to me last year I wouldn't wish on anyone," he says. "But I got through it, and it was a lesson in life. Everybody grows up. I've just had to do my growing up in public. It was hard for me to understand that I was a public figure. I had my heroes as a kid—Al Kaline and Bill Freehan—but I never ever asked anyone for an autograph. This is a very humbling game, and I haven't got it down yet, but I hate to accept failure. I'm not a loser."

Gibson first got his psyche straightened out—"I dropped all my vendettas"—and then got his body in shape with five-a-week workouts so that by spring training he seemed to Anderson and his staff to be essentially a new man, a former malcontent who had suddenly become a cooperative hard worker. His old hero, Kaline, now a Tiger broadcaster, took him on as a personal charge. "I'd always had a terrible time in rightfield. I was a wild stallion out there," Gibson admits. "Al Kaline, who was only the best rightfielder, taught me how to play it. He got me charging ground balls and throwing after one step instead of two or three."

At the plate Gibson found himself more relaxed, more willing to wait on pitches and drive them to the opposite field. In a four-hit game against the Red Sox May 2, the lefthanded Gibson singled, doubled and tripled to left and singled to center, proof of sorts that he'd learned his lessons well. "He realized that he was his own worst enemy," says Tiger hitting coach Gates Brown. "He's mellowing. He's not trying to hit every ball over the roof. With his strength, all he has to do is make contact and the home runs will come. Rocky Colavito once told me that a home run is a home run if it goes 300 feet or 500 feet." The homers have been coming, along with everything else. At week's end Gibson had four of them, with a .293 batting average and 14 RBIs. And he's playing the outfield with unaccustomed gusto.

Anderson is no longer platooning Gibson, and, of course, he leaves his middlemen in place, but there are crowds of eager candidates at first, third and DH. So, in the early going at least, Anderson is playing just about everybody on the roster. "When you're winning," he says, "you should give everybody a chance to feel a part of it. When it comes down to a struggle, we'll have to go with the same nine every day."

He'll certainly have some intriguing choices to make if and when he settles on a final nine. At third there are Brookens, Howard Johnson, Barbara Garbey, Evans and catcher-infielder Castillo. And at first he can choose among Garbey, Dave Bergman and Evans. Garbey (pronounced gar-BAY), the Cuban refugee (SI, June 13, 1983), was off to a torrid start at the plate, but he has lately cooled down to a still impressive .392. Anderson likes his quickness and defensive skills at first. For the time being, however, he's platooning there with Bergman.

The Tigers' pitching has been superb, and the bullpen is vastly improved with the addition of lefthander Willie Hernandez, acquired from the Phillies, and with the full-time availability of Lopez, injured part of last year, and middle reliever Doug Bair, who came over from the Cardinals late last June.

Oh, it's a rosy picture, all right. When the Tigers knocked the Indians over Friday after the two losses to Boston, Lemon said to reporters in all seriousness, "I knew we'd come back." From what, pray tell? The depths of a two-game losing streak? What if he played for the Yankees? And it won't get any better for the rest of the division if Sparky is any kind of seer—and he seems to be. "Just wait until it gets hot," he said after the Saturday game, played in 49° weather. "Then we'll pick up our hitting. The home runs are just gonna start flying." Now there's something to think about.

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