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Monday, December 29, 2008
Kirk Gibson, 1989-90: The Hero's Magic Gasps, And Dies


In his first official at-bat following his legendary 1988 World Series home run, Kirk Gibson lined a single to right field to drive home new teammate Willie Randolph and give the Dodgers a 1-0 first-inning lead on Opening Day, 1989. Gibson then went to second on an Eddie Murray groundout, stole third base and, with a pump of the fist that called back his '88 heroics, scored on catcher Jeff Reed's throwing error. Four innings later, Gibson homered off 19888 Cy Young runner-up Danny Jackson.

But the Dodgers lost the game, 6-4. Good beginnings, unhappy endings - this was the story of Kirk Gibson's post-1988 Dodger career.

Even before that '89 season opener, there were already signs that Gibson's health was going to remain an issue, wrote Gordon Edes of the Times.

There had been some question whether the Dodgers' heavyweight, Gibson, would be able to go nine rounds Monday. Two or three days ago, Manager Tom Lasorda said he was convinced that Gibson was really hurting, and even after the game Monday, Gibson said he was a "mess." ...

"When I'm on the field I'm going to play hard, I'm going to force myself to play my game. I wouldn't have been out there if I was only going to run half-speed and not steal bases. . . . The other (team) doesn't care if I'm hurting, so when I go out on the field I don't ask for a get-well card."

When he came off the field, however, you could say it was a different story. Gibson played in the Dodgers' first 10 games, the last of which was their home opener April 13 - a game that he had to leave after the sixth inning, Edes wrote.

Trainer Bill Buhler said the Dodger left fielder, whose spring has been marred by knee, hamstring and shoulder problems, complained of being stiff and sore all over. ...

"It's just against my better judgment to continue playing," said Gibson, who even with his injuries has been the Dodgers' most productive hitter with eight runs batted in.

Despite that admission, however, Gibson is reluctant to concede that he will, indeed, sit out a while.

"I don't know that," he said. "I'm not really in the mood to talk about it."

Gibson started four of the next nine games, up to April 25. At that time, he was still managing a fine April for the Dodgers: a .393 on-base percentage and .460 slugging percentage. But his left hamstring locked up on him, forcing him from the game in the fifth inning, and he went on the disabled list for nearly a month.

When Gibson came back, on May 23, he came back strong. He played in 36 consecutive games, starting 35 of them. When extra innings and a doubleheader forced the Dodgers into 53 innings of baseball in three days, June 3-5, Gibson played 44 of them, with an OPS of 1.198. Through June 18, he was still on-basing .391 and slugging .493. The Dodgers were 34-33, but just 5 1/2 games out of first place in the National League West.

But then Gibson's contributions started to plummet. From June 19 to July 22, Gibson turned into a 2008 Andruw Jones: .121 batting average, .195 OBP, .196 slugging, .391 OPS. (If that weren't enough, he was the victim of a carjacking at gunpoint in his driveway after a 2-1 loss to San Diego on June 28, the Times reported.)

On July 23, with his OPS having dropped more than 200 points to .680, Gibson took himself out of the lineup. Wrote Bill Plashcke:

He was weary of fly balls he couldn't chase and fastballs he couldn't rip and ultimately, Kirk Gibson's competitive burn gave him no choice.

After the Dodgers' 8-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates Saturday night, he asked to meet with team officials. It had become obvious, they weren't going to make it easy for him. You don't just bench most valuable players. He would have to do it himself.

So he flatly told them that his legs were killing him. And then he asked them, would they please take him off the roster.

"I don't have the ability to do the things expected of me," Gibson said Sunday after being placed on the disabled list for what could be the rest of the season. "As much as I wanted to tell myself I could do it, as positive as I wanted to be . . . reality is reality."

His problems were officially diagnosed as a sprained medial collateral in his right knee and a chronic left hamstring sprain. Gibson, who missed 27 days earlier this season with a left hamstring injury, translated them in different terms.

"I came back too early from the first injury, I still felt it," he said. "Then it got worse and worse and worse. Now, I hardly have any strength in my lower body at all, and I can't do anything. People who say I don't use my legs to hit, that's not true." ...

Why did Gibson wait until now to force that decision?

"I was trying to deal with it," Gibson said. "I am committed to my teammates. I have a contract, an agreement to give my best effort. I was dealing with this the best I could. I thought I would work through it. I couldn't."

Two weeks later, the Dodgers announced that Gibson would have season-ending surgery on his hamstring, with the hope - underline hope - that he would be ready for Spring Training 1990.

"This is the last alternative I have right now," Gibson told Steve Springer of the Times. "It worries me that this could bother me throughout my career. Everyone knows I want to play the game."

In fact, Gibson was out for more than 10 months, not returning until June 2, 1990. From Mark Heisler:

Kirk Gibson strode back into action Saturday night. He drew several standing ovations and, on the first big league pitch he'd seen in 10 months, hit a towering fly toward the right field seats.

Oh no, it couldn't be. ...

Not this time.

The ball came down in Paul O'Neill's glove, a foot in front of the fence. Kirk Gibson went 0 for 4 in the Dodgers' 8-3 loss to the Reds. If there was hope that he'd limp back out and turn the season around like it was the ninth inning of the '88 World Series opener, that hope did a serious fade. ...

Gibson's surgically repaired left hamstring, which had sidelined him since last July 22, may still be bothering him. His remarks before Saturday suggested something less than perfect confidence in it. ...

His 1990 campaign belatedly began 2-for-23, one walk. Within just a few weeks, trade talk began to surface, with Gibson himself eventually acknowledging he would welcome a move, ideally back to Detroit. In early July, Plaschke reported that Gibson and Dodger general manager Fred Claire shouted at each other in Lasorda's office.

Lasorda's door was closed, but the shouting was loud enough to be heard throughout the clubhouse. Although neither Claire nor Lasorda would comment on the nature of the dispute, it was apparently a culmination of frustration over Gibson's situation on the team.

Coming on the final day before the All-Star break, it provided a fitting end to a fitful first half in which the Dodgers finished with 10 losses in their last 16 games and a 39-43 record. ...

While discussing Gibson's status with him Sunday, Claire reportedly became upset and began scolding Gibson. He reportedly told Gibson that he should think less about himself and more about the team. He accused Gibson of having a bad attitude.

Gibson, who has played out of position in center field this season without complaint, became incensed with the remarks and began shouting. The two men reportedly began stalking each other around the room with Lasorda serving as referee.

When the meeting ended, Gibson left the office to the stares of hushed teammates. ...

It might have hardly been coincidence that around this time, Gibson started to find himself at the plate again. In 32 games from July 1 to August 11, his OPS was .966, propelling him to .867 on the season. It was this surge that appeared to stop the Dodgers from completing a July 31, deadline-day deal of Gibson to the Tigers, for pitcher Steve Searcy (career ERA from 1988-92, 5.68).

And then, suddenly, it was all gone again. Gibson hit no home runs for the remainder of the year, his OPS falling to .573 over the final two months, to finish at .745 for the year. It was an above-average 107 OPS+, so he was hardly a failure, but the glory days in Los Angeles were over.

In November, the Dodgers signed Darryl Strawberry. And on the first day of December, barely two years after his exultant limp around the Dodger Stadium infield, Kirk Gibson signed a free-agent contract with Kansas City.

Ross Newhan penned the epilogue.

Gibson never received an offer from the Dodgers, although Fred Claire, team executive vice president, said Saturday he had informed agent Doug Baldwin that he was prepared to offer arbitration before the Dec. 7 deadline, meaning Gibson could have stayed another year if he had wished.

"With our outfield structure, I couldn't go beyond that," Claire said, adding that he thinks a healthy Gibson will pay dividends for the Royals, and that he is deserving of thanks for his contributions to the Dodgers.

"The Gibson chapter was a success," Claire said. "I don't know if in the history of the game there was a player who signed as a free agent and became a most valuable player the next year. That speaks for itself." ...

Reduced to a part-time role by leg injuries and forced to undergo an experimental hamstring surgery, Gibson batted .213 over the next two years, hitting only 17 home runs. It was a span of frustration that seemed to bottom out in September when Gibson batted .159 with no homers and four runs batted in.

Amid the struggle, frustrated by his slow recovery and by what he felt was a half-hearted attempt by Claire to satisfy his desire to be traded to an American League team near his home, Gibson engaged Claire in a clubhouse shouting match that Claire says was talked out and forgotten the next day.

"Kirk said what he had to say, and I said what I had to say," Claire said. "I have nothing but respect for him."

Speaking by phone Saturday, Gibson said he regarded the Dodger experience as positive, although Los Angeles was the culture shock he expected, and that Kansas City will be better for a country boy.

"I did a lot for the Dodgers, and the Dodgers did a lot for me," he said. "I think we both have our memories."