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THE HAPPY HUNTER
Ron Fimrite
December 10, 1984
After years of injury and disappointment, Kirk Gibson, Detroit's hot-tempered rightfielder, unleashed his 'potential' and made '84 a season to remember
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December 10, 1984

The Happy Hunter

After years of injury and disappointment, Kirk Gibson, Detroit's hot-tempered rightfielder, unleashed his 'potential' and made '84 a season to remember

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Gibson saved his best for the postseason. In the third inning of Game 1 of the playoffs, with the Tigers leading Kansas City 2-0, he made a game-saving, final-out circus catch of Brett's bases-loaded line drive to rightfield. Brett said he thought Gibson was "crazy" to even try for the ball. For the playoffs, Gibson hit .417 and was voted the Most Valuable Player. In the Series he hit .333 with two homers and seven RBIs.

The Series-clinching homer off Gossage was his second of the game, and it came off a pitcher Gibson had always had trouble hitting. There was one out at the time, and first base was open. Had Gossage not been so confident of his ability to handle Gibson, normal baseball tactics would have dictated an intentional walk. San Diego manager Dick Williams trotted out to the mound to discuss just such a possibility with his pitcher. "He said he'd had good success with him," said Williams, "and I said O.K." Tiger manager Sparky Anderson was so convinced his slugger would be walked, he held up four fingers. Gibson, in turn, held up 10 for Sparky. "I'm betting him $10 they're not gonna walk me. I'm gonna hit one out," he said. "Put the game on the line and stick me up there. I knew I could do it." He did.

Tiger fans had waited four full seasons for this Kirk Gibson to show up. Here is a man who was, in fact, a star before he'd played an inning. At Michigan State, where he was a speedy, hard-nosed wide receiver, he set school records with 112 receptions for 2,347 yards and 24 TDs. "There is no doubt in my mind, he'd have been All-Pro," says his college coach, Darryl Rogers, who is now at Arizona State. "In 20 years, he's as good a talent as I've coached."

It was actually Rogers who persuaded Gibson, a three-sport star at Waterford Kettering High School, to go out for baseball in his junior year at MSU. Says Rogers, "I told him we didn't need him in spring practice and that he should find out how good he was in baseball." In his one season, Gibson batted .390, hit 16 homers, stole 21 bases in 22 attempts and drove in 52 runs in 48 games. The Tigers made him their first choice in the 1978 draft, and to the bewilderment of NFL scouts, he signed right away.

That even surprised Gibson. "When I went out for baseball," he says, "all I wanted to do was increase my leverage for football." But the chance of a longer career at a higher salary appealed to him. The Tigers signed him to a $180,000 bonus, which included his salary for two years in the minor leagues. But there was a catch: Gibson insisted on playing football his senior year at MSU, and the Tigers held their breath. They took out an insurance policy on him, which Tiger president Jim Campbell says, "wasn't worth a damn. They'd have had to bring him home in a basket for it to pay off." Though Gibson had committed himself to a baseball career, the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals drafted him on the seventh round in 1979. Their thinking probably was: "If he can't hit the curveball, maybe...."

Gibson took a hurry-up baseball course at Lakeland, Fla. and Evansville, Ind. in the minors, striking out approximately once in every three at bats. Still, he hit .240 and .245, and in 1980 joined the Tigers as the most famous rookie in baseball. Asked what type of player the newcomer was, Anderson, to his and Gibson's eternal regret, compared his speed and power with Mickey Mantle's. "I was trying to draw a picture of him," Anderson says now, apologetically. "He could hit the ball so far and run so fast. Well, that statement just took off. I was wrong to say it." The new Mickey Mantle played only 51 games his rookie year, bowing out in June with a cartilage tear in his left (throwing hand) wrist. In '81, the strike season, he hit .328 in 83 games and led the league with a .375 average in the second half, hitting safely in 41 of 49 games. The Mantle comparison looked better. But in '82, Gibson had injuries to a knee, calf and wrist, and he suffered from a stomach ailment. He played in only 69 games, and his average dropped to .278. Then came 1983. "How long are you going to say he has potential?" asked Reggie Jackson after that catastrophic season. "Someday he's going to run out of it."

Gibson is having a beer in Galligan's, a bar-restaurant popular with Detroit's young professionals, when he is approached by a saucy-looking brunette. He is, as usual, dressed in sweater and jeans, and his manner, distant and forbidding, would seem to repel rather than attract strangers. But the young woman is undeterred.

"You're Kirk Gibson, aren't you?"

Gibson looks up wearily. "Right."

"Can I give you a kiss?"

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