Welcome to Throwback Thursday. Each week, we spotlight one of our favorite throwback superstars. We choose these stars using a rigorous scientific process we know in-house as “Whoever Nick Tells Robert to Write About, But it Has to Be a Baseball Player, We’re Launching Baseball This Week.” This week’s pick: Kirk Gibson.
It’s funny how in a sport like baseball — where advanced stats and large sample sizes drive the narrative — players can still be defined by individual moments. Edgar Martinez’ greatness is encapsulated by The Double. Bill Buckner is synonymous with allowing a ground ball to roll through his legs. Even Babe Ruth get this treatment to some extent; the first thing fans are likely to think about when they hear the name Babe Ruth is the The Called Shot. They might not know that The Called Shot came in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, but The Called Shot is still synonymous with Babe Ruth. Kirk Gibson is lucky though, he has two moments that would define most player’s careers.
A Michigan native, Kirk Gibson was a two-sport star (he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2017) at Michigan State University before getting drafted by the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals. He chose baseball.
His early baseball career was sort of sporadic. He only played in 203 games from 1980 to 1982, but he was effective, hitting .294 with 26 home runs, 30 stolen bases, and 91 runs batted in. Those years quickly established Gibson as a versatile hitter and baserunner, someone who was able to consistently hit home runs and put his speed to good use stealing bases. He would eventually establish himself as a starting outfielder in the 1984 season, hitting .282 with 27 home runs, 29 stolen bases, and 91 runs batted in over 149 games.
In fact, his early performance was so good that his manager at the time, Sparky Anderson, declare that Gibson would be the next Mickey Mantle. Although he didn’t become the reincarnation of Mantle, he did get an enviable reputation for hitting clutch home runs. Those home runs would end up defining and summing up his greatness.
His first clutch home run came in the 8th inning of Game 5 of the 1984 World Series. With the Tigers up 5-4 on San Diego and runners on second and third after some aggressive bunting, Kirk Gibson stepped up to the plate against star reliever Goose Gossage. The first pitch was hard and inside, sending Gibson leaning back out of the way. The second pitch though was high and only slightly inside; Gibson crushed it, depositing the homer in the deep right upper deck. It not only clinched the game, earning Detroit their first World Series title in 16 years, but it was Gibson’s first home run off of Gossage. Incidentally, Gossage had struck Gibson out during Gibson’s first-ever major league at bat.
One game-clinching World Series home run would be enough to define your career, but Gibson wasn’t done. After joining the Dodgers in free agency, Gibson would have a legendary 1988 season, hitting .290 with 25 home runs, 76 runs batted in, and 31 stolen bases. That return was enough to earn the NL MVP award and a Silver Slugger.
But in the NLCS, Gibson injured both of his legs and had to watch from the clubhouse (where he was undergoing physical therapy on his still-injured legs) as Los Angeles and Oakland traded runs. Spurred on by Vin Scully saying he was “nowhere to be found,” Gibson called up Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and told him that he was ready to pinch hit, and then began furiously taking practice swings in the clubhouse batting cage.
So, in the bottom of the 9th, with Dodgers down a run and with two outs on the board, Gibson got the call and limped his way to the plate. He worked closer Dennis Eckersley to a 3-2 count, still unable to properly swing because of the pain in his legs. Eckersley threw a backdoor slider and Gibson swung to meet it. Only able to generate power with his upper body, Gibson lifted the ball just over the right field wall. He pumped his fist and hobbled his way around the bases before getting mobbed by his teammates. The Dodgers won the game, and Gibson didn’t make another plate appearance in the series. It’s an iconic home run, and justifiably the thing that most fans associate with Kirk Gibson.
Gibson’s career was never the same and hobbled by injuries he had to call it quits as a player in 1995. But he was lucky. He got two game-winning, iconic home runs in World Series games. Some players don’t even get to the World Series. Plus, it’s better to be known for hitting home runs than letting the ball run between your legs. Just ask Buckner.
Either one of those hits would have landed him in the pantheon of clutch hitters, but instead he got to do it twice. So, rep his Detroit batting practice jersey with pride, because you’re repping one of the great clutch performers of all time.