This season's quick start by the Tigers, who were 17-12 and leading the American League East at week's end, can be attributed to many factors, but none is more important than the comeback from retirement by outfielder-DH Kirk Gibson. And even though he was hitting .390, with an on-base percentage of .500, Gibson's biggest contribution has been as Detroit's emotional leader. "This club needed someone like him, someone who could kick some ass," says Tiger manager Sparky Anderson. "He has been a great influence. With him back, it's been a lot noisier around here."
Never mind that Gibson and reliever Mike Henneman keep heavy-metal rock blaring in Detroit's clubhouse; Gibson is just as loud in his demand for total effort from his teammates. "I've never seen anyone as wild about winning as Gibby," Anderson says of Gibson, who played with the Tigers from 1979 to '87. "It's all he cares about."
You hear that said about a lot of players, but when it's said about Gibson, believe it. He refuses to talk about his own fast start, and he certainly won't discuss his statistics. "I don't care about individual goals," he says. In fact, Gibson, who was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1988 while with the Dodgers, is the only MVP—from either league—never to play in an All-Star Game, even though he was selected twice: by Anderson in '85 and by then Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog in '88. Gibson declined the first invitation, to go hunting, and the second, to spend time with his family.
Between 1989 and '92, while Gibson played for the Dodgers, the Royals and the Pirates, leg and knee injuries robbed him of much of his speed and some of his power, and too much losing robbed him of some of his love for the game. Acquired from Kansas City by Pittsburgh in March of last year, Gibson was released by the Bucs on May 5 after he hit just .196 in 16 games. "He couldn't get around on mediocre stuff," one Pirate says. "His mobility was limited. His body hurt. It was tough for him to play two days in a row."
So Gibson, 23 days before his 35th birthday, returned home to Grosse Pointe, Mich. Though his body healed, he still ached—for big league competition. "It's the only thing I missed," he says. So when Anderson called Gibson in January and offered him the chance to play in Detroit again—and thus still be with his family during the season—Gibson leaped at the opportunity. After nearly a full year of rest, his strength was back. So was his quick bat. And he was running hard again. "I'm not as fast as I was five years ago," he says, "but I can still do it when I have to. If I have to get a bag, I'll get it."
The Tigers finished 21 games out of first last year, but Gibson has Detroit talking and thinking about winning its division. And with the preseason favorites, the Orioles and the Blue Jays, struggling, Detroit's quick takeoff makes a division title all the more possible. "I'm motivated, but if I'm motivated, and he [any teammate] isn't, we're dead," says Gibson. "We're a team. I came back here to win a championship. I didn't come back here to finish second."
PATIENCE IS HIS VIRTUE
The Giants' Barry Bonds is unquestionably the best player in the game today, but to suggest that San Francisco teammate Matt Williams is also having a big year at the plate—.331 average, 10 homers and 26 RBIs through Sunday—mainly because he's hitting in front of Bonds is an injustice to Williams.
If Williams is seeing so many more strikes because Bonds is hitting behind him, then why is Williams's ratio of walks to plate appearances (1-12.6) so much better than his career figure (1-18.6)? The reason is that Williams has become a far more selective and patient hitter. In 1992, Williams was undisciplined and confused at the plate, and he wound up batting .227 with 20 homers and 66 RBIs—all significantly lower stats than his '91 numbers. It got so bad that one evening last June the Giants had Williams take early batting practice—but didn't allow him to swing the bat. He just stood there and watched pitches.
Last year, Williams struck out 14 times before he walked once. This year, he walked 11 times before his 14th strikeout. Instead of chasing bad pitches, especially breaking balls down and away, he has been laying off them. If Bonds has been a good influence on Williams, it's because Bonds is one of the game's most selective hitters. From the on-deck circle, Bonds often urges Williams to wait for a good pitch. Williams has listened—and waited.
A NO-HITTER SPOILED
On May 5, in his 1,904th plate appearance, Red Sox catcher Bob Melvin was hit by a pitch for the first time in his career, lie missed joining John Kruk, Mickey Mantle, U.L. Washington and Herm Winningham as the only players in major league history not to be hit in their first 2,000 plate appearances. "I'm a catcher, so I get hit three or four times a night," Melvin says. "Two nights earlier, I got hit when [pitcher] Frank Viola bounced one. I got a cut on my chin, chipped a tooth and got a cut inside my mouth. So don't tell me about not getting hit."
UP, UP AND AWAY
Everyone already knows how well the ball carries in the thin air of Denver's Mile High Stadium, but last weekend's display was ridiculous. The Braves arrived to play the Rockies on Thursday, having scored just 28 runs in their previous 10 games, and proceeded to score 13, 13, eight and 12 runs in sweeping the four-game series against Colorado.
What's more, on Friday night Atlanta's shortstop, Jeff Blauser, who has modest power, and its light-hitting second baseman, Mark Lemke, each hit two home runs in one game. How rare is it for a double-play combination to do that? Consider that Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker played next to each other on the Tigers for 15 seasons and combined for 371 homers but never did they both homer twice in the same game. Through Sunday, Blauser and Lemke together had 66 career home runs.
As part of the attempt to speed up games this year, umpires were instructed by their respective league presidents to call the high strike. But most players and coaches insist that nothing has changed. "If they started calling the strike zone by the book [kneecap to the armpit]," says Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller, "everyone would be hitting .200, players would be getting ejected every night, and Roger Clemens would win 35 games." ...Only seven times since the start of the 1987 season has a pitcher won a game in which he walked nine or more batters: Four pitchers did it once each between 1987 and '90, and Pirate knuckleballer Tim Wakefield did it three times—all last month.
Minor League Note of the Week: The Padres' Class A affiliate in Waterloo, Iowa, was rained out or snowed out in nine of its first 15 home dates. "I'm cursed," says Waterloo general manager Jeff Nelson, whose Opening Night fireworks were postponed twice and who had three consecutive games postponed on two occasions. "Our assistant G.M. [Jon Marigliano] and I made a pact after we were rained out May 7: We're not shaving for home games. We didn't shave on May 8 when it was supposed to rain, and it didn't rain. Now it's beards at home."