This season's quick start by the Tigers, who were 17-12 and leading the American League East at week's end, can be attributed to many factors, but none is more important than the comeback from retirement by outfielder-DH Kirk Gibson. And even though he was hitting .390, with an on-base percentage of .500, Gibson's biggest contribution has been as Detroit's emotional leader. "This club needed someone like him, someone who could kick some ass," says Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. "He has been a great influence. With him back, it's been a lot noisier around here."
Never mind that Gibson and reliever Mike Henneman keep heavy-metal rock blaring in Detroit's clubhouse; Gibson is just as loud in his demand for total effort from his teammates. "I've never seen anyone as wild about winning as Gibby," Anderson says of Gibson, who played with the Tigers from 1979 to '87. "It's all he cares about."
You hear that said about a lot of players, but when it's said about Gibson, believe it. He refuses to talk about his own fast start, and he certainly won't discuss his statistics. "I don't care about individual goals," he says. In fact, Gibson, who was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1988 while with the Dodgers, is the only MVP—from either league—never to play in an All-Star Game, even though he was selected twice: by Anderson in '85 and by then Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog in '88. Gibson declined the first invitation, to go hunting, and the second, to spend time with his family.
Between 1989 and '92, while Gibson played for the Dodgers, the Royals and the Pirates, leg and knee injuries robbed him of much of his speed and some of his power, and too much losing robbed him of some of his love for the game. Acquired from Kansas City by Pittsburgh in March of last year, Gibson was released by the Bucs on May 5 after he hit just .196 in 16 games. "He couldn't get around on mediocre stuff," one Pirate says. "His mobility was limited. His body hurt. It was tough for him to play two days in a row."
So Gibson, 23 days before his 35th birthday, returned home to Grosse Pointe, Mich. Though his body healed, he still ached—for big league competition. "It's the only thing I missed," he says. So when Anderson called Gibson in January and offered him the chance to play in Detroit again—and thus still be with his family during the season—Gibson leaped at the opportunity. After nearly a full year of rest, his strength was back. So was his quick bat. And he was running hard again. "I'm not as fast as I was five years ago," he says, "but I can still do it when I have to. If I have to get a bag, I'll get it."
The Tigers finished 21 games out of first last year, but Gibson has Detroit talking and thinking about winning its division. And with the preseason favorites, the Orioles and the Blue Jays, struggling, Detroit's quick takeoff makes a division title all the more possible. "I'm motivated, but if I'm motivated, and he [any teammate] isn't, we're dead," says Gibson. "We're a team. I came back here to win a championship. I didn't come back here to finish second."
PATIENCE IS HIS VIRTUE
The Giants' Barry Bonds is unquestionably the best player in the game today, but to suggest that San Francisco teammate Matt Williams is also having a big year at the plate—.331 average, 10 homers and 26 RBIs through Sunday—mainly because he's hitting in front of Bonds is an injustice to Williams.
If Williams is seeing so many more strikes because Bonds is hitting behind him, then why is Williams's ratio of walks to plate appearances (1-12.6) so much better than his career figure (1-18.6)? The reason is that Williams has become a far more selective and patient hitter. In 1992, Williams was undisciplined and confused at the plate, and he wound up batting .227 with 20 homers and 66 RBIs—all significantly lower stats than his '91 numbers. It got so bad that one evening last June the Giants had Williams take early batting practice—but didn't allow him to swing the bat. He just stood there and watched pitches.