Kirk Gibson is blasting flights of ducks with an imaginary shotgun fashioned from the fingers of his two large hands as his good pal and Detroit Tiger teammate, Dave Rozema, drives his '84 Audi over the forbidding southern Ontario landscape at speeds that might unnerve Chuck Yeager. Like a kid playing cowboys and Indians, Gibson makes a cracking noise to simulate the sound of gunfire. "You're history," he bellows at the departing fowl. "This is the perfect day for hunting lake duck. It's cold and overcast. Bleeping perfect." Gibson is a spectacularly gifted cusser who seems to find room even between syllables for his thundering maledictions. Swearing comes to him as naturally—and almost as regularly—as breathing.
"Hope there're no cops around," Gibson says to the hard-driving Rozema, whose almost cherubic countenance is made blissful by excessive speed. "They'll never take us alive," Rozema shouts, nevertheless slowing down to about 90 as a cautionary measure. Gibson, 27, and Rozema, 28, are such close buddies that their girl friends are sisters and their dogs brothers. "They've got a chemistry," says their mutual friend, Grosse Pointe auto dealer Joe Ricci. "They're like the Three Stooges. You laugh your ass off around them."
"They really complement each other," says Gibson's girl friend, JoAnn Sklarski. "Dave is the one telling the jokes, and Kirk's the one with the self-discipline." The two friends are dedicated hunters and fishermen.
"Ever catch a walleyed pipe?" Rozema inquires of an increasingly nervous backseat passenger.
December 10, 1984
"Don't you mean pike?"
Gibson explains: "Rozie and I were ice fishing with some friends, and when he wasn't looking, I attached this broken exhaust pipe to his line and dropped it back through the hole. I suggested we take a little walk around the ice. On the way back, I said, 'You know, I've seen it happen more than once—a guy leaves his line alone for a little, and when he gets back there's a bleeping fish on the end of it.' 'Yeah, sure,' Rozie says. Then he pulls on his line. 'Hey,' he says, 'you're right, I got something!' Well, he fought so hard trying to get that thing through the hole he almost fell in. When he finally got it out, we fell down from laughing so bleeping hard."
"And that," says Rozema, "was a walleyed pipe."
"Bleep," says Gibson.
Rozema deftly wheels his speedy little car down back roads until he reaches the Luken Marina near the mouth of the Thames River outside Tilbury, Ont., across Lake St. Clair from Detroit. Gibson, inside whose large body hums the metabolism of a ground squirrel, bounds from the car and makes for Bad Boys II, the 36-foot cabin cruiser he owns with Rozema and Ricci. The boat is named for two of her owners, Ricci's reputation in Wayne County being relatively clean as a whistle. Gibson and Rozema, on the other hand, have been regarded as playboys of the Midwestern world, night owls and world-class seducers. It is a reputation that they feel, though justified in part, has been exaggerated.
"It took me a long time to realize I was a public figure," Gibson says. "We've all done things we've been embarrassed by. My problem was that I was doing my growing up in public. And the gossip columnists crucified me. You can't believe the bleep they made up about Rozie and me. Right now, I've got a double running around town claiming he's me, and he's getting into all kinds of bleep. Somebody phoned JoAnn last week and told her I'd been seen with some other girl. She just laughed. She knew I'd spent the whole bleeping week hunting."
Most friends agree that the Bad Boys' union with the Sklarski girls, JoAnn, 26, and Sandy, 20, has slowed their pub-hopping pace to a crawl. Gibson, who shares his five-bedroom Tudor house in posh Grosse Pointe with JoAnn and her 8-year-old daughter, Colleen, now considers himself a family man. "Kirk has grown up a lot in the past two years," says Ricci, "and JoAnn has had a lot to do with it. When we started hanging out together, he wouldn't let you go home until it was five o'clock in the morning. I think much of the problem was that he and Rozie both lived on the east side of town, in Grosse Pointe. Grosse Pointe is older money. It's tradition. Anything they did seemed to contrast with that."
The late November day is colder than Gibson expected, the temperature dropping below 30°, and a fearsome wind is blowing off Lake St. Clair, across which he will sail Bad Boys to dock for the winter. "This is insaneness," Gibson says, climbing aboard. "One thing is sure—there won't be traffic." Gibson instructs Rozema to be sure and tell JoAnn to meet him on the other side of the lake. Rozema gives a jaunty wave and roars off down the narrow road. "He'll forget," says Gibson, smiling. "That Rozie—he's a real clown. You can take him anywhere, and he'll do something funny or bleep up something."
The two friends, both Michigan natives, could conceivably be parted next season. Rozema, a righthanded pitcher who won 15 games as a rookie in 1977, is a free agent, but a history of injuries, the playboy reputation and a 7-6 record in '84 may limit his marketability. "Maybe it's best for the both of us," says Gibson of the possible split-up. "But we'll get together again." He shudders in the noonday chill. "Let's get the bleep out of here."
Out on the water, the always restless Gibson jumps back and forth between the exposed upper deck and the cozy cabin below. He fiddles with his charts and adjusts his radio, which blares rock. He sees ducks everywhere. "Look at those bleeping mergansers," he cries out. "Greasy little mothers. Tomorrow you're history." Gibson has slightly thinning, uncombed blond hair and a full, dark beard, not the scraggly five o'clock shadow that made him look so menacing in the World Series. He has a commanding presence, partly because of his 6'3", 215-pound size, but mostly because he exudes an air of confidence, even arrogance. Gibson always speaks his mind. He is as subtle as a haymaker.
"I get ornery out there," Gibson says of his ballplaying. "I'm not there to make friends. I'm even a little out of control sometimes. I've had guys on other teams say, 'Hey, take it easy.' That's a compliment to me. I remember once I slid into third hard against George Brett, and I gave him the elbow. He was knocked right on his ass, and I was safe. 'Hey, you're not playing football anymore,' he says. I like George, but I do what it takes to win." His yellowish-brown eyes widen as the boat turns into the channel. "Bleep!" He's off like a shot to the upper deck to grab the wheel because a Great Lakes freighter, the George A. Stinson, is dead ahead. Gibson skillfully maneuvers his small boat out of harm's way and returns below, laughing. "Every now and then you'll be surprised by one of those suckers. But this is part of the Great Lakes waterway."
He docks the boat and paces nervously, awaiting JoAnn's arrival. Within a few minutes she pulls up in a gray BMW. She is, predictably, a smashing blonde, slender and leggy and with a complexion of pale peach. Gibson climbs behind the wheel and heads for home at the speed of light, the car radio issuing cacophonous songs with incomprehensible lyrics from station WRIF. JoAnn braces herself as Gibson swerves onto the highway. "What's the matter? Too fast?" he inquires innocently. She reaches for the radio dial. "How about a little no music," she says, restoring a measure of serenity to the car's interior.
The picture of Gibson, helmet off, clenched fists raised, bewhiskered face illuminated in triumph, after his three-run, eighth-inning upper-deck homer in Detroit off Goose Gossage in the fifth and final game of the 1984 World Series, has become the symbol of that great occasion for all Tiger fans. Indeed, the score was only 5-4 for the home team at the time, so Gibson's mighty clout was the championship clincher. The front page of the Oct. 15 Detroit Free Press, consisting mostly of Gibson's photograph, has been converted into a bestselling poster in town. In the civic victory celebration two days after the final game, Gibson reenacted his clenched-fist salute for hysterically cheering multitudes in Kennedy Square.
He is a hometown boy, born in Pontiac, reared in the suburb of Waterford, an All-America football star at Michigan State. He is cheered when he walks into bars and restaurants. "Gibby, Gibby!" Strangers ring his doorbell at odd hours. He can park anywhere—he has the BMW, an Eldorado, a Chevrolet Blazer, a Chevy pickup and four Honda four-wheelers. He is truly a hero. The year before, he was a bum.
The 1984 season was Gibson's revenge for 1983. His much-publicized "potential" had become the town joke; in '84 he began to reveal that potential in all of its astonishing breadth. He hit 27 homers and stole 29 bases in the regular season, becoming the first Tiger ever to hit more than 20 homers and steal more than 20 bases in the same year. He scored 92 runs and drove in 91. He set a team record with 17 game-winning RBIs. His .282 batting average was 55 percentage points higher than his '83 average. Last season, unlike 1983, he was given one position to play—rightfield—and though it had been his least favorite, he played it with dash, daring and occasional brilliance.
Gibson saved his best for the postseason. In the third inning of Game 1 of the playoffs, with the Tigers leading Kansas City 2-0, he made a game-saving, final-out circus catch of Brett's bases-loaded line drive to rightfield. Brett said he thought Gibson was "crazy" to even try for the ball. For the playoffs, Gibson hit .417 and was voted the Most Valuable Player. In the Series he hit .333 with two homers and seven RBIs.
The Series-clinching homer off Gossage was his second of the game, and it came off a pitcher Gibson had always had trouble hitting. There was one out at the time, and first base was open. Had Gossage not been so confident of his ability to handle Gibson, normal baseball tactics would have dictated an intentional walk. San Diego manager Dick Williams trotted out to the mound to discuss just such a possibility with his pitcher. "He said he'd had good success with him," said Williams, "and I said O.K." Tiger manager Sparky Anderson was so convinced his slugger would be walked, he held up four fingers. Gibson, in turn, held up 10 for Sparky. "I'm betting him $10 they're not gonna walk me. I'm gonna hit one out," he said. "Put the game on the line and stick me up there. I knew I could do it." He did.
Tiger fans had waited four full seasons for this Kirk Gibson to show up. Here is a man who was, in fact, a star before he'd played an inning. At Michigan State, where he was a speedy, hard-nosed wide receiver, he set school records with 112 receptions for 2,347 yards and 24 TDs. "There is no doubt in my mind, he'd have been All-Pro," says his college coach, Darryl Rogers, who is now at Arizona State. "In 20 years, he's as good a talent as I've coached."
It was actually Rogers who persuaded Gibson, a three-sport star at Waterford Kettering High School, to go out for baseball in his junior year at MSU. Says Rogers, "I told him we didn't need him in spring practice and that he should find out how good he was in baseball." In his one season, Gibson batted .390, hit 16 homers, stole 21 bases in 22 attempts and drove in 52 runs in 48 games. The Tigers made him their first choice in the 1978 draft, and to the bewilderment of NFL scouts, he signed right away.
That even surprised Gibson. "When I went out for baseball," he says, "all I wanted to do was increase my leverage for football." But the chance of a longer career at a higher salary appealed to him. The Tigers signed him to a $180,000 bonus, which included his salary for two years in the minor leagues. But there was a catch: Gibson insisted on playing football his senior year at MSU, and the Tigers held their breath. They took out an insurance policy on him, which Tiger president Jim Campbell says, "wasn't worth a damn. They'd have had to bring him home in a basket for it to pay off." Though Gibson had committed himself to a baseball career, the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals drafted him on the seventh round in 1979. Their thinking probably was: "If he can't hit the curveball, maybe...."
Gibson took a hurry-up baseball course at Lakeland, Fla. and Evansville, Ind. in the minors, striking out approximately once in every three at bats. Still, he hit .240 and .245, and in 1980 joined the Tigers as the most famous rookie in baseball. Asked what type of player the newcomer was, Anderson, to his and Gibson's eternal regret, compared his speed and power with Mickey Mantle's. "I was trying to draw a picture of him," Anderson says now, apologetically. "He could hit the ball so far and run so fast. Well, that statement just took off. I was wrong to say it." The new Mickey Mantle played only 51 games his rookie year, bowing out in June with a cartilage tear in his left (throwing hand) wrist. In '81, the strike season, he hit .328 in 83 games and led the league with a .375 average in the second half, hitting safely in 41 of 49 games. The Mantle comparison looked better. But in '82, Gibson had injuries to a knee, calf and wrist, and he suffered from a stomach ailment. He played in only 69 games, and his average dropped to .278. Then came 1983. "How long are you going to say he has potential?" asked Reggie Jackson after that catastrophic season. "Someday he's going to run out of it."
Gibson is having a beer in Galligan's, a bar-restaurant popular with Detroit's young professionals, when he is approached by a saucy-looking brunette. He is, as usual, dressed in sweater and jeans, and his manner, distant and forbidding, would seem to repel rather than attract strangers. But the young woman is undeterred.
"You're Kirk Gibson, aren't you?"
Gibson looks up wearily. "Right."
"Can I give you a kiss?"
When she leaves Gibson calls after her, "Nothing against you, understand. It's just that I don't do that." He grumbles in his beer after she leaves. "That's embarrassing," he says. "I think you should be treated like a human being."
It is apparent that everyone in Galligan's knows who Gibson is, so he avoids making eye contact. "I have some rules about signing autographs," he says. "If somebody's rude, I definitely won't. And I won't while I'm eating. You sign one autograph, and that's all you do for the rest of the night. Where do you cut it off? You go to a hockey game, and you don't get to see one. Some guy came up to me the other night and asked me for a high five. I told him I give high fives on only the best and highest occasions. He called me a turkey. People don't mean bad, but they don't understand that I really want to be left alone. Basically, I enjoy playing the game and that's it. I'd love to do without all the publicity and hype and live a normal life. Because we're world champions now, people's attitudes toward us have changed. To me, I'm still Kirk Gibson. I still have my identity."
Gibson is just back from a hunting and fishing trip in the Upper Peninsula. "I love to hunt, to get outdoors," says Gibson. "Where I was there was no power, no bathrooms, nothing. Just trees and swamp. Beautiful." The great love of his life, even JoAnn concedes, is his hunting dog, Nick, a 90-pound golden retriever that has impeccable manners and breeding. Gibson has two retrievers, the 3-year-old Nick and a year-old puppy, Duke, who, because he's "kind of a sissy," has become more JoAnn's pet. "Nick is like his son," she says.
For a man who thrives on the outdoors, Gibson has an uncommon flair for business. He commanded $257,500 in '84 from the Tigers, and is heavily into local real estate and a landscaping business called, appropriately, Ground Crew. He figures to be financially "free and clear" by the time he's 35. He spends mornings seated at his desk making phone calls. "I just love sitting at that desk and doing business," he says. It is virtually the only time during the day that he is remotely still.
Kirk has always been a restless, competitive, terrifically intense person, say his divorced parents, Bob, 60, a high school math teacher at Waterford Kettering, and Barbara, a theater and speech teacher at Clarkston High School near Pontiac. He is the youngest of three children and the only boy. His sisters, Jocelyn (Jackie) and Christine (Teena), are six and five years older, respectively. Gibson admits he may have been spoiled. "My parents never made me work," he says. "When I grew up all we did was screw around with motorcycles and water skiing. I had it pretty easy. My dad pushed me hard in athletics. He built me a home plate and mound in the backyard and a hoop over the garage, and he made me practice. I'd be out playing, and he'd say, 'Get your damn glove and play catch with me.' "
"Kirk was always very aggressive," says his mother. "He'd try anything and never worry if he got hurt. Once he hit his chin on the diving board trying some razzle-dazzle dive. He was all banged up, but he got right back up on that board again."
That's pretty much what a somewhat older Gibson did this past baseball season. Nineteen eighty-three was to be the year the Tigers would see what he could do over a full season. In his three previous years, he had not played in more than 83 games, hit more than nine homers or stolen more than 17 bases. It had been a painstaking apprenticeship. In 1983 his baseball acumen would be tested. It was, and he failed. Platooned much of the time and switched from one outfield position to another, he hit only .227 in 128 games. He also struck out 96 of 401 times at bat, and his outfield play was deplorable.
He was booed mercilessly. There were rumors about booze, broads and drugs, the three deadly sins of professional sport. His response to the acrimony was to lose his temper in public and private. "It happened so often it hurt him," says the Brewers' Jim Gantner. Gibson agrees. "I had vendettas out against the fans, the press, everybody."
His family and his girl friend suffered in silence. "I thought I'd never get through it," says his mother. "Knowing Kirk like I know him, he was trying as hard as he could. It was terrible."
"A lot of people had lost confidence in me," says Gibson. "Finally, I said to myself, 'Kirk, you can kick yourself in the rear or you can go home to Mama.' So I kicked myself in the rear."
He ignored suggestions by the Tigers that he play winter ball and went hunting instead. "I felt the thing to do was to go to the woods and get my bleep together. Then I went to friends and talked things out. After that, I went to a gym and started working with Mike Lucci, the old Lions linebacker. I worked out five days a week, on the Nautilus equipment and running and swimming. I'd gotten heavy during the year—up to 225 or 230. I was determined to report to spring training at 215, and I did."
Next, at the suggestion of his agent, Doug Baldwin, he enrolled in the Pacific Institute in Seattle, which, among other functions, helps develop a positive frame of mind. "I was there three days. They had me write out what they call 'affirmations.' I had gone to the Tigers and told them I was unhappy not playing every day, that they should either play me or trade me. Sparky called me in and told me I'd play rightfield. Fine, but it was in my head that I hated rightfield. I felt overmatched there. One day I lost a ball in the sun, and 52,000 people booed me. So one of the affirmations I wrote down was, 'I love playing rightfield in Tiger Stadium on bright sunny days.' I'd read that to myself every morning. Pretty soon I started believing it."
Loving to play rightfield was one thing; learning to play it was quite another. On the first day of spring training last February, Anderson put Gibson under the tutelage of Al Kaline, the Tigers' Hall of Fame rightfielder, now a broadcaster. "He worked with me all day in practice," Gibson recalls. "He'd stand next to me in rightfield. He'd say, 'Look, you took the wrong step on that ball.' He taught me how to grip the ball when I threw it. I can't say enough about Al Kaline. He is good people. If you can't learn from him, you can't learn from anybody."
Gibson next had to show Anderson that he, a lefthanded batter, could hit lefthanded pitching. "Sparky had platoonedi me," Gibson says. "What's he telling me when he does that? That I can't hit lefthanders. Then I go in against one, and I say to myself, 'What am I doing here? I can't hit these guys.' If you know you're not supposed to be able to do a certain thing, you just won't be able to do it." It was time for another affirmation. Gibson at least had had one affirmative season against lefties, having hit .366 against them in '81. But he was .150 against lefties in '83. This year he took them, as he says, "deep." In 166 times at bat against southpaws, he hit nine homers and drove in 30 runs, while hitting a respectable .265. Midway through the season he could say, with understandable delight, "God damn it, this stuff works."
Gibson and Nick are off on a duck hunting trip near Tilbury. Bouncing along Highway 401 in the big Chevy Blazer, they discuss the impending adventure. The dog is visibly excited by the prospect. His reddish tail works like a pendulum. "Do you know where we are, Nick? Do you know where we're going?" The dog is even more agitated. "Well, then tell me, Nick, old boy. Speak to me."
"That's right." Gibson nuzzles the retriever. "My dogs are my best friends. They'll go trucking off in cold water, freeze their asses off...they don't care. If I'm hitting .220, they're there. If I strike out five times, they're there."
Nick licks the side of his master's grizzled face. "I treat my dogs like humans," Gibson says. "I'd rather relax with them than spend time shooting the bleep in some bar. Sometimes when things are going bad, Nick and I will take a ride with my horse, Rusty. We'll find the highest hill, and I'll turn Rusty to the wind and sit there for maybe 45 minutes, thinking, dreaming." He pats Nick's muzzle. "He's like me; he tries. If I told him to jump off the Mackinac Bridge, he'd do it. Once, on our way back from hunting, I stopped off in this bar for a beer. Nick was waiting outside. When I finished, I grabbed a stick and threw that stick off this bridge into the icy water. Nick didn't hesitate. He went right off the bridge, belly-flopped and went three feet under the water. Then he came up, got that stick and brought it back."
Gibson smiles at the recollection. "You know, people ask me what I'd be if I weren't a ballplayer. A guy from NBC asked me that once, and I said I'd be my dog, Nick. All he does is eat, sleep, play, have sex and go hunting. He doesn't pay bills, and nobody bothers him."
Gibson turns off the highway onto the familiar network of one-lane roads. "I think I'm gonna have a bitch of a year next year. Now I've got five years in, and I've learned some things that have made my job easier. When I first came up I got built up so high I had no place to go but down. I started to believe my own press clippings. I was saying to myself, 'Hey, I'm great.' I may have gotten lazy. Then I found out there was more to this game than what the press says about you."
He pulls to a stop in front of a lodge alongside a half-frozen creek. He is greeted by his father and by the hunt-club manager, Don LaMarsh. Nick leaps enthusiastically from the Blazer and dashes in and out of the underbrush.
"You know," Gibson says, breath smoking from the bearded face, "I don't ever want to be compared to anybody else. I want to get all that bull behind me. I'm the next Mickey Mantle, they say. Bleep, those guys out on the mound don't give a bleep what you are." He hefts his 12-gauge shotgun lovingly.
"I didn't ask for the buildup I got," he says, climbing onto a truck that will take him to his duck blind. "I may not be the next Mantle, but I'll tell you one thing: I'll be remembered. And I'm not scared, I guarantee you that."