When they told him tonight that he had been selected as the most valuable player in the American League championship series, Kirk Gibson couldn't help but think back to Tuesday night, shortly before the start of the first game.
"I remembered standing there during the national anthem thinking that I had come a long way from where I was a year ago," he said moments after his Detroit Tigers had defeated the Kansas City Royals, 1-0, to win the pennant. "I had a terrible year last year, didn't know what my future was. I told myself this was the time for me to show I was more than a player with a lot of potential."
He did just that. He had already had a superb regular season: he hit .290, 27 home runs and 91 RBI and became the first Tiger to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases. Finally, he was living up to the billing he had received when he first came to the Tigers in 1979.
But it was during this series that the nation got a close look at the player whose skills were so great when he arrived here that Manager Sparky Anderson labeled him "the next Mickey Mantle."
Gibson hates those comparisons and the burden they carry. Against the Royals, though, he might not have been Mantle, but he was very good.
In Game 1, it was his running, reaching backhand catch of George Brett's bases-loaded line drive that kept Kansas City from getting back into the game.
In Game 2, he doubled to drive in a run and homered to drive in another. Tonight, even though the Royals' Charlie Leibrandt shut down the Tigers most of the night, Gibson singled, walked and stole a base.
"You saw the kind of player Kirk Gibson can be in this series," Anderson said. "But that's the way he played all year."
He played that way one year after most people thought he was destined to mediocrity. In 1983, he hit only .227, with 15 home runs and 51 RBI. When he turned 27 this spring, his career with the Tigers was more reminiscent of Marv Throneberry than anyone named Mantle.
"When I first got here, there was a lot of unfair pressure put on me by some great names in this game, and you know who (Anderson) I'm talking about," Gibson said tonight. "I was just a kid with one year of college baseball (at Michigan State) and I didn't know how to play the game.
"All I had was raw talent. I wasn't very smart and I had a lot to learn. I was overmatched. But Sparky stuck with me. It took me a while but now I think I'm smarter, I've learned and my best baseball should be ahead of me.
"This feels great, though, because I've worked so hard to get here. The Tigers weren't that good when I got here but the last two, three years you could see this coming. Winning this award is a great honor and I'm very proud of myself that I stuck with it."
Tonight -- one out from a pennant -- Gibson stood in right field, his mind racing. Later, he remembered thinking: "It's one out away. Don't let anything get over your head or in the gap. Don't let that man on first score, no matter what."
As Gibson thought, Willie Hernandez pitched and Darryl Motley popped weakly to third baseman Marty Castillo. Gibson raced for the dugout, jumping for joy.
"It was fun tonight, fun really," he said.