Baseball: Captain Kirk motivates Motown: With half the season gone, Philadelphia and Kirk Gibson are proving hustle can beat the rustle of money

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The Independent Online
NO PITCHING, no comment, the experts pronounce. The Detroit Tigers, none the less, are having their say in the AL East, thanks in part to the major leagues' most formidable array of hitters, but mostly to Kirk Gibson, the former All-American college football alumnus who has put the motor back into Motown.

For Gibson read perspiration, motivation and divine inspiration. In 12 full seasons, the 36-year-old outfielder's teams have averaged 86 wins, only the 1989 Dodgers having a losing record. Never impressive enough to be All-Star material, his own figures - career average a middling .268, no 30 home runs or 100 RBIs in a season - are far less important than the infectious drive of this heavy metal fan and rabble-rouser.

Recently, after rain had caused a hiatus with Detroit down 3-2 in the sixth to Kansas City, Gibson leapt to his feet as the skies cleared, screaming blue murder at the dejected figures on the bench. 'Some were hoping they'd call it off but I yelled: 'We're going back out and we're going to play until 1am if we have to, and we're here to win. Let's go.' The roar worked: the Tigers won.

Last Christmas, it should be noted, Gibson was throwing himself into his real estate business in Detroit when lured out of retirement to rejoin his hometown club, that 1984 World Series Most Valuable Player award a fond if distant memory. The Motor City had remained home despite subsequent shifts in LA, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, but only Sparky Anderson, the Tigers' wise old bird of a manager, could have tempted him back to the diamond.

What bothered Gibson was a fear that baseball 'was moving away from team-mates wanting to be together'. Instead, the Tigers - who last won a pennant in 1987, the final season of Gibson's first spell - have been bonded by this Neanderthal figure, reviving prehistoric notions of team unity. 'Kirk has a lot of energy,' observes their utility player, Tony Phillips. 'You feed off that energy.'

The ethos is plain. 'Fun to me,' Gibson explains, 'is winning. If we don't, we've all failed. You play your brains out and you bust your butt until the last pitch.' And few have broken their bottom at the death quite so memorably as did Gibson in Game One of the 1988 World Series.

Prevented from starting by rib and knee injuries - that abrasive style has a price - the National League MVP hobbled off the bench with the underdog Dodgers down to their last out and trailing Oakland 4-3. Unable to run, much less swing properly, Gibson took two strikes from Dennis Eckersley, the game's premier closer, then rifled a one-handed, two-run shot into the right-field bleachers. When the hero had limped round the bases, the TV producer intercut footage of Robert Redford doing likewise at the end of The Natural. Rarely can life have aped art so articulately.

Gibson promptly returned to the wings yet his monologue proved as invigorating as Olivier's eve-of-Agincourt soliloquy in Henry V, Tommy Lasorda's dodgy Dodgers taming the A's in five games. As another Motown alumnus once put it, there ain't no mountain high enough.

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