Photo: Kirk Gibson was an honorary captain against Notre Dame
Alan Trammell thought he knew Kirk Gibson’s football persona. As a Detroit Tigers baseball teammate, he saw the Michigan State All-American wide receiver’s football DNA on a daily basis.
“You watched him prepare for that first pitch,” Trammell recalled. “He was running sprints. You didn’t want to be around him. That was the football part of him that stood out. I didn’t need that to get ready, but we all saw it worked for him. He was fired up for the game.”
All these years later, though, Trammell learned he never knew Gibson’s true football game face. The revelation came when he accompanied Gibson to the Notre Dame-Michigan State football game on Sept. 23 at Spartan Stadium.
That was the night Gibson had his number No. 23 hung on the Ring of Honor. He also served as an honorary team captain in ceremonies that served as a prelude to his enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Foundation Dinner on Dec. 5 in New York.
“I was there soaking it all in when he went out for the coin toss,” Trammell said. “He WAS fired up. His mind was ready to play a football game. But his body, like the rest of us, wasn’t. Gibby was very proud.”
Gibson ultimately played 17 Major League Baseball seasons in a career that included two of the most dramatic home runs in World Series history – one for the Tigers in 1984 and the other for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. But his diamond success never dimmed his football legacy. It has endured through 40 years of baseball identities as a player, broadcaster, coach and manager.
Gibson was a starter from the day he arrived at Michigan State as a true freshman in 1975 through his senior season in 1978. He finished his career as the Spartans’ all-time leading receiver in receptions (112), receiving yards (2,347) and touchdown catches (24)
Gibson and quarterback Ed Smith benefited from a coaching change that brought Darryl Rogers with a West Coast passing game from San Jose State in 1976; it began to transform the ground-and-pound Big Ten. The Spartans won a 1978 Big Ten co-championship with Gibson as both a deep threat and go-to guy. He finished with 42 catches for 806 yards and nine touchdowns – seven receiving and two rushing.
To fully appreciate Gibson’s 1978 numbers in today’s context of relaxed pass defense rules, they can be conservatively doubled. Gibson mixed a rare combination of 4.3 speed with a 6-foot-3, 215-pound body. He also wasn't shy about blocking, which linebackers and safeties learned the hard way.
“I heard a lot of old stories when I was back there,” Trammell said. “Those guys’ eyes lit up when they talked about Gibby and Eddie Smith and the passing game. They also told some behind-the-scene stories. Rogers said, 'I don’t want to know these things … ' ”
Gibson might only be known for football if not for Rogers. Following Gibson’s junior football season in the fall of 1977, Rogers allowed him to play for the Spartans’ baseball team in the spring of 1978.
He tore up the Big Ten and earned All-American honors as an outfielder. Gibson batted .390 with 16 home runs and 52 RBI in 48 games. What began as a spring fling evolved into a pro career that far surpassed 1978's other two first-team All-American outfielders named by the Baseball Coaches of America. South Alabama’s Mark Johnston never played above AA in seven minor-league seasons. Harvard’s Mike Stenhouse never batted above .223 in five limited Major League seasons. Gibson played 1,635 games, batted .268, hit 255 home runs with 870 RBIs and stole 284 bases.
The Tigers drafted Gibson as the 12th pick of the 1978 first round. He played minor league baseball in Lakeland, Fla., in the summer of 1978 before returning to Michigan State for his senior football season.
But as baseball fans know, Gibson’s transition from college baseball to the big leagues didn’t’ come as easily to him as high school football to college.
“There was failure, and he’d be the first one to tell you that,” Trammell said. “When he failed, it drove him crazy. But he thrived on it. It drove him to be the best. Football players are intense, but you can’t do that for 162 games. Baseball players are more inward. He had to learn how to do the little things that were nuances of baseball. It took him time to understand that.”
Gibson’s ability to channel baseball’s nuances taught Trammell much about his long-time friend. He watched as Gibson began to study the game. Gibson listened to Tigers manager Sparky Anderson. He worked with Tigers Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline , who was around the team in spring training and as a broadcaster.
The sessions with Kaline were special for a kid that grew up in Michigan. He played football, basketball and baseball at Watefield Kettering in addition to American Legion baseball.
“Al Kaline was his boyhood hero,” Trammell said. “He was open to constructive criticism. He started to figure it out.”
Trammell saw the student-of-the-game side of Gibson emerge. It helps explain not only his baseball success on the field, but Gibson rising to a manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2010 to 2014.
Gibson got into coaching when Trammell was named the Tigers’ manager. Later, Trammell was a coach under Gibson with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Gibson was the National League Manager of the Year in 2011.
“He studied the game hard,” Trammell said. “He had a studious side of him.”
There is irony in Gibson having a broader national reputation for baseball than football yet making the College Football Hall of Fame with slim hopes of making the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Gibson’s Hall of Fame vote total was only 2.5 percent in 2001 despite his legacy in the game. In addition to epic World Series home runs, he was the 1988 National League MVP and the 1984 ALCS MVP. He was one of the game’s feared home run hitters with totals in the high 20s before PEDs skewed numbers. He was a rare double-threat with stolen base totals in the 30s. The steriod era may have hurt his Hall of Fame hopes more than any other factor.
Gibson had cast his professional future with baseball once the Tigers drafted him in the first round and allowed him to play his senior football season. Baseball players can sign more lucrative contracts that are guaranteed and there are fewer injury risks than football.
Without baseball, Gibson might have been a first-round NFL pick. The then-St. Louis Cardinals (now Arizona) drafted him in the 1979 seventh round as an insurance pick.
“We talked about him picking baseball,” Trammell said. “Once Gibby is on to something, he’s on it. He put football aside and was committed to baseball. I’m sure he reminisced about football to himself, but he didn’t do it outwardly with us. He made right choice. He had a helluva career.”
Gibson is now 60 years old, but he is attacking Parkinson's with the same football intensity that was his trademark. He was diagnosed in 2015. Since then, he has raised more than $1 million is research funds.
Of Gibson's intensity, Trammell says Anderson, who also coached Pete Rose with the Cincinnati Reds, liked to say Gibson was the only player that could match Rose’s famed reputation as Charlie Hustle.
“I’ve never seen anybody like him in baseball,” Trammell said.
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