If things had gone according to plan, Kirk Gibson might be preparing a college football team somewhere right now, getting ready for spring practices. He might have just finished talking up his school in the living rooms of America’s heartland, looking enraptured parents in the eyes and giving them the lowdown of what it would be like for their kid to play football under Coach Kirk.
He might have a resume of 10, 12 years in the NFL behind him as one of the game’s best wide receivers, or even tight ends.
He might have been considered a hotshot candidate to make the jump from the campus to the pros. He might have been more appealing than Jimmy Harbaugh.
It could have been all that, instead of where he is today, trying to cobble together a respectable team in Arizona as first-year manager of the Diamondbacks.
Veteran broadcaster and author Bob Page, a friend, recently told me of the time when the tide likely turned for Gibson—when Kirk went from certain pro football prospect to basher of big league pitching and eventual National League MVP.
“I got a leak from someone in the Tigers organization that they were going to hold a private workout for Gibby at Tiger Stadium,” Page told me. “I called Bill Lajoie, who wasn’t the GM at the time but who was in the front office and who was supposedly organizing the workout. Lajoie denied it.”
Unimpressed with Lajoie’s denial, Page secured a videographer from channel 7 and they traipsed to the ballpark early the next morning, when the workout was to have occurred.
And there, as the leak had suggested, was Gibson, in the batter’s box at Tiger Stadium.
He was finishing up his college education at Michigan State. This was circa 1978.
Everyone who’d seen Kirk Gibson play football at MSU figured him to be a solid NFL prospect. He was a big receiver, he could fly, and he had soft hands. That, and he had a football player’s mentality: tough and a kicker of asses.
Sure, Gibby had played some baseball but baseball was seen as not being big or physical enough for him.
Yet there he was, taking his hacks at Tiger Stadium as Page watched and his cameraman rolled tape.
“He swung and missed a lot,” Page said. “But when he connected, he hit the ball a mile.”
Before long, Gibson was eschewing pro football and was focusing his attention on the smaller game of baseball.
A year later, Gibson was making his debut for the Tigers.
As a young big leaguer, he wasn’t all that different from the private workout days. Gibson swung and missed a lot. But he also hit the ball a mile, when he made contact.
This pattern would pretty much repeat itself throughout his 16-year MLB career, which peaked with the 1988 NL MVP while playing for the Dodgers.
He hit the ball a mile in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series, famously sealing the deal for the Tigers.
There’s no doubt in my mind that had Gibson pursued the NFL, even with his injury-prone body, that he’d have made a helluva pro player and he would have followed the same career path as he is now in baseball—that of coach.
Gibson is 53 now, a perfect age to be honing his skills as a football coach, college or pro.
He would have been good at that, too.
Maybe better than he will be as a baseball manager, though we’ll never know.
You can imagine Kirk Gibson prowling a sideline, can’t you?
You can thank a hush-hush baseball workout at Tiger Stadium over 30 years ago in making the football talk a big game of “What if.”