For many of us who grew up in the land of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan or Ohio, the cool breeze of fall leads to one destination: Pasadena. The ‘Granddy of Them All’ is the goal for every kid who steps on the gridiron in the breadbasket. It’s the time the kids from the Midwest get to strap it on against the kids from the Pacific Coast. No matter where you live in Rockford, Rochester, Akron and the many other cities that mark this region of blue-collar workers, the goal is there. This year our team will make it to the Arroyo Seco where the Rose Bowl resides.
He was like us all. The difference: he was a natural from Pontiac. Tough, determined and very athletic, the schoolboy star became an All-American wide receiver who won the Big Ten football title while attending Michigan State. His tough, Ditka-type mentality along with great speed and agility, made him a sure pick for pro ball. When the draft came, the Cardinals picked him. But just when everyone expected him to jig, he jagged. Who wanted to play for the Racine-Chicago-St. Louis-Phoenix-Arizona Bidwell’s?
During college, his football coach, Darryl Rogers, suggested he go out for baseball. In only one collegiate season he hit .390, with 16 home runs and 52 RBI in 48 games. He jagged to the Tigers. His career was filled with honors. Two World Series championship rings, one in the American League (1984) and one in the National League (1988). One NL MVP (1988). A Silver Slugger (1988) and 2 time All-Star.
Oh ya. He hit what was probably the most famous home run in Dodger history. It is one of the most famous in World Series history. Just ask Hall of Fame pitcher, Dennis Eckersley. Strike one. Strike two. Ball, outside. Ball, again outside. Foul ball. Ball again. Mike Davis is on the move toward second.
“But, we have a big 3-2 pitch coming from Eckersley. Gibson swings, and a fly ball to deep right field! This is gonna be a home run! Unbelievable! A home run for Gibson! And the Dodgers have won the game, 5 o 4. I don’t believe what I just saw! I don’t believe what I just saw! Is this really happening, Bill? One of the most remarkable finishes to any World Series Game…a one-handed home run by Kirk Gibson! And the Dodgers have won it…five to four; and I’m stunned, Bill. I have seen a lot of dramatic finishes in a lot of sports, but this one might top almost every other one.” (Jack Buck)
The other day, in the tunnel that takes one from their seats to the club beneath the stands behind the plate at Chase Field, if you are on the 3rd base side, you get to pass the entrance to the Diamondback’s locker room and their dugout. It is one of the great hidden gems in all of baseball, as you will undoubtedly meet any number of players and coaches as they go back and forth from dugout to locker room. Surprisingly, the players and coaches are very accommodating. Most have smiles and acknowledge you with a ‘how ya doing’ or ‘great to see you’ without ever having met you before. This close. This intimate. This is unbelievable. These are the guys in the Show. That’s Kennedy. “How ya doing, Up?”. “Goldie”. “Let’s get’em tonight.” “Thanks.” “See ya.” “Have a good game.” Talking with the guys. Guys talking to us.
Then, there he was. Looking down at a piece of paper in his left hand, shuffling toward the dugout, looked up briefly and said, ‘Hi’ as he moved on past and into the dugout. Another ‘Hi’ in the land of dreams. He looked like an older man, shaggy stubble of a beard, an old athlete well past his prime. But he was undoubtedly ‘Gibby’, the hero of East Lansing, Detroit, Los Angeles and certainly soon to be in Phoenix.
This is a tough man. He takes no guff. Going back to his days in Detroit (the first eight years he was there) he became a free agent in 1985 but received no meaningful offers and therefore re-signed with Detroit. He knew it. Baseball knew it. Baseball ownership had been in collusion and in 1988, an arbitrator moved that MLB owners colluded against the players in an effort to stem free agency. Seems nothing changed between players and management from the time of Comisky to Selig. Owners are owners. Players are chattel. Gibson took free agency immediately and went to the land of Dodger Blue.
He was a Sparky Anderson player. Tough. Straight-laced and to the point. There he was the student. In Dodgertown he appeared to be outspoken and disciplined, something never said about the team since they flew across the nation to reside in Hollywood. He chastised the team for being unprofessional and brought about a winning attitude through the full strength of his personality. He openly criticized the team and became the de facto leader. His intensity and absolute determined attitude made the powder blue into a fighting blue. The Dodgers became tough under Gibson. Some say he brought back the Brooklyn spirit (us against them) to Los Angeles. The result? They became winners once again. They were once again the Dodgers of Robinson and Hodges, Pee Wee and Campy, Erskine and Newcombe. More than anyone, it was Gibson who brought them to this point.
Skip forward a decade or so. Now he was a bench coach in a very lonely Diamondback’s dugout for a manager nobody remembers. After a few really horrible months, crowds thinning and losses mounting, D’Back’s fired their manager and moved Mr. Gibson up to an ‘interim’ position as manager of their ball club. It was a move that saved money with management not caring what would happen the balance of the season. Gibson was an old baseball man who would step in place and marshal the troops until they could find someone who might bring them back to a pennant fight. After all, if their previous manager couldn’t do it, why would you think Gibson could do any better?
What he did in the final few games of 2010 was a miracle. These same bunch of guys who literally wallowed in defeat learned to become winners. There was only one thing that happened. Kirk Gibson became their manager. It is absolutely as plain and simple as that.
But the Diamondback management, since the days they forced out Colangelo as the owner, have been helter skelter. This GM in. That GM out. The owner interferes with everything. He criticizes the players and drops hints to his journalist pals about this and that. Announcers are fired because they don’t wear a logo T-shirt. Loyalty is non existent. Important decisions are hard to come by.
Beyond all odds, prior to the next season, mercifully, the ‘interim’ tag was thrown away and Gibson became full-time manager. It was the best decision this owner has ever made, certainly better then his purchase of the T-201 Honus Wagner (The Gretsky) baseball card.
Before the season began, Gibby asked around, including his old Dodger coach, Tommy Lasorda, what he would look for in selecting a good coaching staff. Lasorda simply said, ‘get the best’. Get the guys that every player looks up to.’
Gibson is no dummy. He quickly surrounded himself with the finest coaching staff in baseball. For batting coach, who better than Don Baylor (former NL Manager of the Year. 1979 AL MVP, hit 139 RBI in single season. 19 years in the Major Leagues.) Charles Nagy, Pitching Coach, 3x All Star (Cleveland) pitcher (129-105) in 14 years. Eric Young, First Base Coach, All-Star (Colorado), Silver Slugger (1996) in 15 years. Matt Williams, Third Base Coach, 5x All-Star, 4x Gold Glove, 4x Silver Slugger. Only player to hit home run for three different teams in three different World Series (Giants-1989, Indians-1997 & Diamondbacks-2001). Alan Trammell, Bench Coach. 3x All-Star, 3x Silver Slugger, 4x Golden Glove, MVP World Series (1984). Hit .343 in 1987. One of only three players to play 20 or more seasons for the Tigers (Ty Cobb & Al Kaline).
If you are a player for the Diamondback, who do you want to look up to and ask if you have a question? This is the best coaching staff in baseball. Result? The Arizona Diamondbacks were the surprise team of the season in 2011. Result? Gibson was NL Manager of the Year (2011) with nearly all of the same players he had inherited from the previous regime.
That was yesterday. Now is another year. Without any superstars, without the great pitching staff of the San Francisco Giants. Without the rah-rah of the Magic invested Dodgers, here come the D’Backs, within 2 in the loss column. This isn’t the Roeneke led Brewers, 16.5 out of first. This isn’t the Ozzie led Marlins, 14.5 out of first or the Manuel Phillies 16 out of first place at the beginning of August. These are the Gibson led Diamondbacks. Tough as their manager is. Strong as their manager is. Single-minded as their manager is.
Since he has worn that jersey number since he was a kid, #23 may just be the #1 manager in all of baseball. Other than he, who has done what he is doing? For many, we don’t believe what we are seeing.