Friday, December 12, 2014

Yesterday and Today: Kirk Gibson

This is the latest installment in our photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009). 

Photoshop by Nick Yim. Current photo and concept by Tom Derry.

The roar of '84 lives on at The Corner

By Tom Derry

A powerful athlete who seemed to thrive under pressure, Kirk Gibson was a key member of Detroit's last world championship baseball team.

Gibson, born in Pontiac, Michigan, and raised in nearby Waterford, was an All-American wide receiver for the Michigan State Spartans football team.

Despite playing just one year of college baseball, Gibson was drafted by both the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals and Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers.

Fortunately, for Tigers fans, Gibson chose baseball.

While he didn't turn out to be "The Next Mickey Mantle," as manager Sparky Anderson had hoped, Gibson was one of the most exciting players in baseball throughout the 1980s. Whether he was launching a majestic blast over the right field roof at Tiger Stadium, or thundering around third base and headed for a play at the plate, not many players could thrill the crowd like Kirk Gibson.

Gibson will forever be remembered by Tigers fans for his tremendous home run off San Diego Padres star reliever Goose Gossage in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series.

Leading three games to one and trying to close out the series at home, the Tigers put runners on second and third with one out in the bottom of the eighth, clinging to a one-run lead. 

Padres manager Dick Williams wanted Gossage to intentionally walk the dangerous Gibson, who'd already homered earlier in the game off of Padres left-hander Mark Thurmond.

But the right-handed Gossage had dominated Gibson in previous encounters, allowing just a bunt-single in 10 at-bats. Gossage even told one of his teammates that he "owned" Gibson.

When Williams came out to the mound for a conference, Gossage stood his ground and persuaded his manager to let him pitch to the left-handed-hitting Gibson.

A surprised Sparky Anderson yelled at Gibson from the Tigers dugout: 

"He don't wanna walk you!" 

That's because Gossage thought he could strike him out.

Then Sparky gave Gibson the motion to swing away. 

And swing away he did, belting a 3-run shot into the upper deck in right field to clinch the series for Detroit.

The Tiger Stadium faithful erupted in celebration. 

Detroit Free Press photographer Mary Schroeder was there to capture the iconic image of a victorious Gibson celebrating his home run on his way back to a joyous Tigers dugout. Gibson stood there with his fists in the air, like Rocky Balboa, Detroit's own version of a fighter who never stops battling.

Since 2010, the Navin Field Grounds Crew has witnessed thousands of people visiting The Corner. Fans constantly flock to the ballpark to relive the great moments in Tiger Stadium's history, but none more than Gibson's tremendous blast from 1984.

Not a week goes by that someone doesn't come back to Navin Field, site of old Tiger Stadium, and re-create Gibson's home run, running the bases with his fists furiously pumping in the air. 

And it never gets old.   

Original photo in the Detroit Free Press by Mary Schroeder

NFGC founder Tom Derry and the rest of the Navin Field Grounds Crew are the subjects of Jason Roche's award-winning Tiger Stadium documentary "Stealing Home."

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