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1978 Draft Spotlight: Kirk Gibson

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As one of the nation’s top college-football talents, Gibson had a passion for football. He made it no secret that he played baseball as a youngster only because his father kept encouraging him to. He didn’t play baseball at all in his first two years at Michigan State, and did so his junior year only at the prompting of Spartans football coach Darryl Rogers.

“My whole idea was to get more money from football,” Gibson said. “Darryl called me in and said, ‘Play baseball. It’ll give you more bargaining power.’ I didn’t think I was going to be the least bit interested. But I enjoyed playing baseball so much more than I ever imagined. It was unbelievable.”

Gibson drew attention from scouts on Michigan State’s spring trip to Texas, and the Major League Scouting Bureau graded both his speed and power at 80 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. Bill Lajoie, the Tigers’ director of player procurement, did a double-take when he saw that report. He had scouted Gibson in high school and recalled a player badly in need of playing experience. “His only redeeming quality,” Lajoie remembered, “was his raw speed.”

Gibson hit .390 for the Spartans and showed a rare combination of speed and strength, stealing 21 bases in 22 attempts while bashing a school-record 16 home runs.

“I would never have anticipated that he could have made that much progress in one year,” said his father Bob, “but I always thought he had a lot of ability as a baseball player.”

Few people outside the baseball world took Gibson’s baseball exploits seriously, and Gibson even downplayed his own baseball skills, though some clubs felt it was a deliberate attempt to scare off every team except the Tigers. By mid-April, Lajoie had seen everything in Gibson he needed to see, but the Tigers masked their interest and were conspicuously absent from Michigan State’s late-season games.

“What work I did on him, I did early,” Lajoie said, “What more did I have to do, see him hit another one 450 feet? The only question was whether we would be able to get him. If you saw him play football, there was a question of whether you should mess with him.”

Lajoie orchestrated a secret workout at Tiger Stadium on the eve of the draft. Gibson hit ball after ball into the upper deck, and Lajoie used the opportunity to pin down Gibson and his intentions: “I asked him, ‘So Kirk, are you going to be a football player or a baseball player?’ He tells me, ‘I will play baseball, but only for the Detroit Tigers.’”

Gibson didn’t reveal to anyone else before the draft that he would consider signing a baseball contract, even one that allowed him to continue playing football. Because of the personal relationship they established with him, the Tigers felt they had the best chance of landing Gibson. They kept their fingers crossed that he would still be available when it came their turn to select. To their good fortune, he was.

Gibson signed a contract in which he agreed not to pursue a pro football career. He did, however, return to Michigan State for his senior year and set Spartans career records for pass receptions (112), yardage (2,347) and touchdown receptions (24). He was selected in the 1979 NFL draft by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Gibson said he never considered trying to play both sports professionally, as Bo Jackson did later. Only when he struggled in his first full pro year at Triple-A Evansville, did Gibson even talk of resurrecting his football career. It became a moot point by the end of that summer as the Tigers called up Gibson, and even though he hit just .237 in 12 games, he soon forgot about football. By 1984, he had helped the Tigers win a World Series, and from 1984-86 he averaged 28 homers and 31 stolen bases a season.

In 1988, Gibson signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent and won the National League MVP award. He became a key figure in another World Series celebration, in a single at-bat in the Dodgers 4-1 series victory over Oakland. Plagued by knee injuries, Gibson came off the bench in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game One and ripped a dramatic two-run homer for a 5-4 victory, a storyline lifted right out of The Natural.

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