Late yesterday afternoon, after the Tigers had taken a 3-1 lead in the World Series, the clubhouse boys passed out a single sheet of paper to the Detroit players -- the scheduled itinerary for the Tigers in San Diego if the Padres had forced a sixth game. Kirk Gibson held the paper aloft disparagingly and asked loudly, "Anybody have a puppy that needs training?"
So much for the Padres' chances in The World According to Kirk.
And tonight, before the home fans, Gibson and the rest of the Tigers -- but mostly Gibson -- made the sarcasm stand up as they ran the table on the Padres, beating them, 8-4, and insuring that wherever the Tigers slept tonight, it wouldn't be on an airplane on the way to San Diego. "The Detroit Tigers did not want to go to San Diego," Gibson said after the game of his life, a game in which he hit two cannon shot home runs, drove in five runs, stole one run by scoring on a sacrifice fly to -- get this -- the second baseman and did as much as a potential superstar can do to justify the advance billing. "Before the game I told Sparky, 'There's just no way we won't win this one.' "
Ever since Gibson, 27, chose baseball over football seven years ago, writers have looked for words to accurately characterize his possibilities. And because he could run, throw and hit with power, the consensus was that he "could become the next Mickey Mantle." For a long time it appeared that Gibson would fall so far short of that standard he would need a cab to even get close. For his first four seasons in the majors he was a part-time player. Last year, when he finally played full-time, he hit only .227 and had, by his own evaluation, "a terrible year." But this year he finally began to push the right buttons on the elevator, hitting .282 with 27 homers and 91 runs batted in. Tonight he finally reached the penthouse.
Tommy Tresh, who played on the Yankees in the 1960s, used to say of his teammate Mantle: "He's what everybody thinks baseball's supposed to look like."
Tonight, Kirk Gibson was what everybody thinks baseball's supposed to look like.
He hit his first home run in the first inning, taking Mark Thurmond's first pitch and hitting it so hard the only thing that prevented it from going all the way to Canada was the upper deck in right. In the fifth inning Gibson scored on Rusty Kuntz's pop fly to shallow right, a move so swift and daring it defined what the optimum combination of cockiness and talent can do for a player. And in the eighth inning, with the Tigers up by a scant 5-4, Gibson came up against Goose Gossage and hit another stupendous homer, after which he gave his teammates some of the fiercest high-fives ever recorded outside a football stadium and jumped for joy, his fists raised in triumph, his hair flying, his face a beacon of light and exultation.
Tough guys don't dance?
"I've always said that when the chips are down I want to be the guy they count on," Gibson said after the game, three days worth of beard on his face giving him the look casting directors die for when they need a crowd shot of unemployed auto workers. "Well, the chips were down tonight and I did it.
"Before the game I told Alex Grammas (the Tigers' third base coach), 'Greek, I guarantee you there's gonna be some thunder in this bat when we need it.' "
And, of course there was. In the first and especially in the eighth. The eighth presented the most dramatic situation. With two men on and first base open, Dick Williams, the Padres' manager, walked to the mound to discuss giving Gibson, a lefty, an intentional walk rather than having Gossage, a righty, pitch to him. By all that's holy in the baseball Book, that's the high percentage move. Sparky Anderson, the Tigers' manager, expected as much and held up four fingers to Gibson, indicating that he thought Gibson would be walked.
Gibson didn't think so. He knew Gossage had success against him historically -- in Gibson's first major league at bat, on Sept. 8, 1979, Gossage struck Gibson out on three pitches -- and Gibson figured Gossage would go for the gusto. "I held up 10 fingers to Sparky," Gibson said. "I bet him 10 dollars that they wouldn't walk me and that I'd hit it out of here."
As in, calling his own shot. As in, why bother with Mantle? I'm going for Ruth.
For his part, Gossage was having none of that intentional walk stuff. Kuntz clearly heard Gossage tell Williams: "I'm not walking him. I'm throwing. This guy ain't gonna beat me."
"When Gibby hit that one, that was it," Kuntz said. "My ring finger started to twitch."
"It was a dream come true," Gibson said later as he mixed what he called "an awesome drink," half beer, half champagne in a 32-ounce cup. "It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful season."
The Tigers, like the rest of the baseball world, have been waiting for Gibson to do something like this, something so special and dramatic it would boost him to the forefront of the game. "I'll tell you, he's gonna do stuff like this every year now," Kuntz said. "He's got all the tools. And he plays like an animal out there. And that's the way he lives too. High strung. Emotional. Intense. Look, you don't think that beard helps? You don't think he'll scare you walking down an alley at midnight?"
The stolen run in the fifth was just as emblematic of Gibson's gifts as were the homers. Most power hitters aren't fast enough to even think of scoring on a pop to short right, but Gibson was going all the way. "Kirk Gibson gave Kirk Gibson the green light," Kirk Gibson was saying. "I'm going on just about anything, because I'm gonna utilize my speed. It's like I'm saying, 'Here I go, you better come and get me.' "
Alan Wiggins, who was forced to catch the fly ball when Tony Gwynn lost sight of it, caught it facing the wrong way and couldn't turn, plant and throw fast enough or accurately enough to come and get Gibson. And for a brief moment, Kuntz, who hadn't gone to bat in the whole Series, had what looked like the game-winning RBI. "You have to tip your hat to the guy," Kuntz said. "He makes it a sacrifice, saves me an at-bat and gets me an RBI. All I could think of was thank you, thank you, thank you."
And did Kuntz think Gibson would go?
"Oh yeah. Gibby would have run right through Terry Kennedy if he'd had to," Kuntz said.
Before the Series started Dave Bergman went up to his teammate and said, "Gibby, just go back to being your ornery, maniac self and we'll be fine."
And the only people going back to San Diego are the ones who live there.