Friday, September 23, 2005

Gibson Still Stirs the Soul

In a lost season, Kirk looks back

Steve Dilbeck, Columnist Inside SOCAL
Courtesy of the L.A. Daily News

ANAHEIM - He was leaning against the batting cage, still seeming larger than 6 feet 3, somehow still a powerful presence.

Memories, old feelings and attitudes, flooded back, so fresh as to escape time.

For a single season, Kirk Gibson was the greatest athlete I ever covered.

Not only for how he performed for the Dodgers in 1988 and continually rose to the moment.
It was everything about him. His tangible intensity. His confronting of teammates, management and reporters alike. His outrageous but dead-on quotes. His disdain for the electronic media. His absolutely fierce competitiveness.

Gibson wasn't just the whole package - he was a unique one.

He attacked the game. He demanded excellence of himself and those around him. He valued team, winning, family. Was something to watch and hear.

It had been 15 years since Gibson screamed at me: "I won't ever (expletive) talk to you again!"
He hadn't, either, though by the end of that 1990 season he became a free agent, leaving the Dodgers and taking his battled-scarred legs to the American League and Kansas City Royals.
I continued to cover the Dodgers in the National League. Our paths never crossed.

But 15 years is a long time. Too long not to put one incident behind us. Too long not to let him know how memorable he was in that 1988 season.

Everything about Gibson seemed different. He had that broad back, thick mustache and - despite a receding hairline - that short, spiked hairstyle. When his intensity peaked, you looked for steam to rise from his hair.

He walked different, sort of a manly waddle. He shaved at least once a week. He could be incredibly crude, but hilarious. His laugh was surprisingly infectious.

From his cap smearing eye-black on his forehead in spring training, to his scoring from second on a wild pitch, to his fairy tale World Series home run, he drove that championship season with flair.

His byplay with Tommy Lasorda and Steve Sax were often priceless. Eight of us covered the Dodgers then for various area newspapers, and we were not shy of our own characters. He seemed to take to us, respected the grind of the daily beat writer as much as he disliked the "talking head" who would show up once a homestand and expect royal treatment.

He filled up the notepads, too. You had to talk to Gibson after every game, though you treaded carefully after a loss.

Toward the end of the 1988 season, as he headed toward the NL MVP and the Dodgers closed on the division title, the national media began arriving in mass during a late series in San Diego.
Everyone wanted to interview the fiery Gibson - me, too - needing to write a piece for a coming special playoff section. I was working at the Daily News' sister paper, the San Bernardino Sun, a great suburban newspaper that nonetheless never has been confused with having the impact of the Washington Post.

But Gibson agreed to his beat writer's request, taking me down the left-field line into the visitor's bullpen at Jack Murphy Stadium, where we sat alone and uninterrupted for my interview.

The next season, the leg that had reduced him to one World Series at-bat would not heal. He more frequently became surly, sometimes rude.

The competitiveness that had fueled his greatness as a player, now worked against him. If you knew Gibson, you understood.

They finally discovered during exploratory surgery that he had torn his hamstring. In that 1990 season, he was trying to come back but struggling on a bad team.

He asked general manager Fred Claire to trade him to an AL team closer to his hometown of Detroit. When the trade did not happen, he requested a meeting before a Sunday afternoon at Dodger Stadium just prior to the All-Star break.

The meeting happened in Tommy Lasorda's office and was the scene of the now infamous shouting match between Gibson and Claire.

Walked into one end of the clubhouse and could hear them screaming at each other - from the opposite end of the clubhouse behind Lasorda's closed door.

Looked around and was stunned to see I was the only reporter in the room. The tirade went on for maybe 8 minutes. Joe McDonnell, then working for ESPN radio, caught the last half and I had lost my scoop.

Joe had it on the airwaves before I got upstairs, but I was the only print reporter who heard the exchange. And when Gibson went home to Detroit for the All-Star break, it was my story he read in the Detroit News and USA Today, papers operated by the same conglomerate that owned the Sun.

So when the season resumed in Wrigley Field, Gibson - as was his manner - confronted me and announced the end of our speaking relationship.

And now there he was at Angel Stadium last week, now the Tigers hitting coach, leaning against the cage.

At first I shrugged and left the field when the Angels did. Was almost to the stairwell when I realized Gibson could be fired with manager Alan Trammell after the season and I might not ever have this opportunity again.

Fifteen years was just too long.

When I approached him, he turned and gave me a warm greeting. He spoke briefly about the struggling Tigers having to play for pride, but then we began to reminisce. He had to be reminded about our little incident.

"I did a lot of silly things," he said. "Now I look how some of our guys act, think of how I could be, and just shake my head."

Broke with reportorial tradition and flat out told him that in 1988 he was the most memorable athlete I'd ever covered.

If he was taken back, it was only for a moment.

"That was a special time," Gibson said.

We talked about the Tigers, his ranch, our families, college football. Just two guys. We might as well have been sharing beers.

The next day I was explaining this meeting to my three sons, taken back that none were yet born in 1988. I described his stunning World Series home run, trying to relive the moment.

Then the next night, I was buying cereal and pulled out a box of Wheaties from the grocery shelf. On the cover was Gibson in 1988, pumping a fist after his World Series home run.
Some moments are simply more memorable. Some seasons, and people, too.

--Steve Dilbeck's column appears in the Daily News four times a week. He can be reached at stephen.dilbeck@dailynews.com.

Courtesy of the L.A. Daily News

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