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"A lot of people had lost confidence in me," says Gibson. "Finally, I said to myself, 'Kirk, you can kick yourself in the rear or you can go home to Mama.' So I kicked myself in the rear."
He ignored suggestions by the Tigers that he play winter ball and went hunting instead. "I felt the thing to do was to go to the woods and get my bleep together. Then I went to friends and talked things out. After that, I went to a gym and started working with Mike Lucci, the old Lions linebacker. I worked out five days a week, on the Nautilus equipment and running and swimming. I'd gotten heavy during the year—up to 225 or 230. I was determined to report to spring training at 215, and I did."
Next, at the suggestion of his agent, Doug Baldwin, he enrolled in the Pacific Institute in Seattle, which, among other functions, helps develop a positive frame of mind. "I was there three days. They had me write out what they call 'affirmations.' I had gone to the Tigers and told them I was unhappy not playing every day, that they should either play me or trade me. Sparky called me in and told me I'd play rightfield. Fine, but it was in my head that I hated rightfield. I felt overmatched there. One day I lost a ball in the sun, and 52,000 people booed me. So one of the affirmations I wrote down was, 'I love playing rightfield in Tiger Stadium on bright sunny days.' I'd read that to myself every morning. Pretty soon I started believing it."
Loving to play rightfield was one thing; learning to play it was quite another. On the first day of spring training last February, Anderson put Gibson under the tutelage of Al Kaline, the Tigers' Hall of Fame rightfielder, now a broadcaster. "He worked with me all day in practice," Gibson recalls. "He'd stand next to me in rightfield. He'd say, 'Look, you took the wrong step on that ball.' He taught me how to grip the ball when I threw it. I can't say enough about Al Kaline. He is good people. If you can't learn from him, you can't learn from anybody."
Gibson next had to show Anderson that he, a lefthanded batter, could hit lefthanded pitching. "Sparky had platoonedi me," Gibson says. "What's he telling me when he does that? That I can't hit lefthanders. Then I go in against one, and I say to myself, 'What am I doing here? I can't hit these guys.' If you know you're not supposed to be able to do a certain thing, you just won't be able to do it." It was time for another affirmation. Gibson at least had had one affirmative season against lefties, having hit .366 against them in '81. But he was .150 against lefties in '83. This year he took them, as he says, "deep." In 166 times at bat against southpaws, he hit nine homers and drove in 30 runs, while hitting a respectable .265. Midway through the season he could say, with understandable delight, "God damn it, this stuff works."
Gibson and Nick are off on a duck hunting trip near Tilbury. Bouncing along Highway 401 in the big Chevy Blazer, they discuss the impending adventure. The dog is visibly excited by the prospect. His reddish tail works like a pendulum. "Do you know where we are, Nick? Do you know where we're going?" The dog is even more agitated. "Well, then tell me, Nick, old boy. Speak to me."
"That's right." Gibson nuzzles the retriever. "My dogs are my best friends. They'll go trucking off in cold water, freeze their asses off...they don't care. If I'm hitting .220, they're there. If I strike out five times, they're there."
Nick licks the side of his master's grizzled face. "I treat my dogs like humans," Gibson says. "I'd rather relax with them than spend time shooting the bleep in some bar. Sometimes when things are going bad, Nick and I will take a ride with my horse, Rusty. We'll find the highest hill, and I'll turn Rusty to the wind and sit there for maybe 45 minutes, thinking, dreaming." He pats Nick's muzzle. "He's like me; he tries. If I told him to jump off the Mackinac Bridge, he'd do it. Once, on our way back from hunting, I stopped off in this bar for a beer. Nick was waiting outside. When I finished, I grabbed a stick and threw that stick off this bridge into the icy water. Nick didn't hesitate. He went right off the bridge, belly-flopped and went three feet under the water. Then he came up, got that stick and brought it back."
Gibson smiles at the recollection. "You know, people ask me what I'd be if I weren't a ballplayer. A guy from NBC asked me that once, and I said I'd be my dog, Nick. All he does is eat, sleep, play, have sex and go hunting. He doesn't pay bills, and nobody bothers him."