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The singular experience of Kirk Gibson (in two parts)

November 16, 2011 |  1:22 pm

Gibson-dodgers_640For a single season, Kirk Gibson was the greatest player I ever covered. Not the best player, but the best to watch and interview, and to observe his electric effect on his team and the game.

There was never anything like Gibson in 1988. Some mocked his winning the National League MVP despite fairly modest numbers (.290, 25, 76 RBI, 106 runs and 31 steals), but I never questioned it for a millisecond.

His intensity, his will to win, his all-out effort changed the culture of the clubhouse. He challenged teammates, coaches and media people. He competed with a fire that was tangible. He ran the bases with a scorched-Earth policy. Adrenalin seemed to explode out of the hair on his head.

For that season, he was also the greatest quote I ever knew. He’d say whatever he was thinking. He was honest to a fault. He could be outrageous, vulgar, hilarious, and if he didn’t know you, an ass. He didn’t think much of sports broadcasters, but respected those who covered the game every day.

Of course, it should also be said that for a single season he was the worst player I ever covered. When things were not going well for him, his competitive nature could cripple him. And in 1990, his knees still not right, the team struggling, the Dodgers asking him to play center, he was as difficult to cover as humanly possible. A walking bad mood.

Then came the infamous blowout in manager Tommy Lasorda’s office with general manager Fred Claire, Gibson’s screams audible throughout the belly of Dodger Stadium. When he finally emerged, radio broadcaster Joe McDonnell and I were the only media folks in the clubhouse who had overhead the uproar.

It was the final game before the All-Star game, and Gibson went back home to Detroit for the break. He read about the blowup in a story I wrote that was picked up by the Detroit Free-Press. When the second half resumed in Chicago, he told me in Wrigley Field he was done talking to me.

He was a free agent unwanted by the Dodgers after that season and we didn’t speak again until 2003, when he came to Anaheim as a coach for the Tigers. We shook our heads about it then, both hopefully a tad wiser with the years.

He wanted to manage even then, and was unhappy that the Dodgers later passed him over for a chance to manage and hired Grady Little. Knowing Gibson, he’s still bitter about it. Or at least at the Frank McCourt version of the Dodgers.

He finally got his chance with the Diamondbacks, and his first full season at the helm this year led to his being voted National League Manager of the Year  on Wednesday. Lead a marginally talented team from last to first in one season and that can happen.

I hope Gibson allows himself a moment to relish in his accomplishment. What little I did see of him this season, he appeared very serious. He seemed to enjoy himself more when he was driving the team as a player. Anyway, he smiled more.

He’s only 54, so there figures to be plenty more seasons ahead for Gibson. Maybe he even leads the Diamondbacks to a World Series title, and proves for the Arizona media to be the greatest manager they ever covered.

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Does Peter O'Malley have a fair chance to buy the Dodgers?

-- Steve Dilbeck

Photo: Kirk Gibson. Credit: John Swart / Associated Press

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