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From Sparky To Gibby To The D-Backs, Grit Stays Strong

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(TONY RANZE/AFP/Getty Images)

(TONY RANZE/AFP/Getty Images)

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DETROIT — Kirk Gibson quotes Sparky Anderson.

Kirk Gibson’s players quote Kirk Gibson. And they don’t even know it.

“Gibby-speak,” Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall calls it. “They talk like he does.”

He’s right. They do.

The Diamondbacks don’t so much play like their manager as they act like him. They don’t so much play the game the way Gibson played it as they play it with his mentality.

“There’s an edge,” said one scout who has watched them play recently.

There’s a difference, and if you don’t hear it in their voices, you see it in the results. A team that lost 97 games last year has reached the final week of June in first place in the National League West.

They’ve won as many games as the Red Sox over the last six weeks, more games than any other team in the game.

“We’re at the point that this isn’t a fluke,” general manager Kevin Towers said.

They’re at the point now where you think they can stay in a weak NL West race all year (they certainly believe they can), and at a point where Gibson should be on any list of Manager of the Year candidates.

Clint Hurdle has done an outstanding job with the Pirates. But has he changed a culture there any more than Gibson has in Arizona?

The Diamondbacks of 2010 were a team that you laughed at, and a team that could always be counted on to lose games late. The Diamondbacks of 2011 are a team you take seriously, and they’ve already won seven games they trailed after six innings, and five games they’ve trailed after seven.

“It’s that guy,” closer J.J. Putz said, pointing to Gibson in a hallway in the visitors’ clubhouse at Comerica Park. “He would never let us quit. If he thinks someone quit, that guy wouldn’t be in the lineup the next day.”

Putz and the bullpen that Towers rebuilt are obviously a big part of the turnaround. But if you’re going to credit Putz, you’re going to have to credit Gibson, because the manager was the guy who recruited him.

“He pretty much sold me,” Putz said. “He said things were going to change.”

They’re an interesting combination, the closer from the University of Michigan and the manager who starred at Michigan State. Putz has the Michigan fight song as the play-back music on his phone, and when Gibson heard that he blurted out, “The last time I heard that song, we were kicking your butts.”

More recently, Putz was supposedly one of the instigators when the Diamondbacks showed up for a road trip dressed in ties with Gibson’s picture on them.

And not just any picture. This was the one of him in a hot tub, from a 1989 commercial.

It’s hard to imagine anyone ever doing that with Sparky. Of course, it’s hard to imagine Sparky ever doing a commercial in a hot tub.

Kirk Gibson played for legendary manager Sparky Anderson for 12 years with the Tigers. (Getty Images)
But the way Gibson sees it, he is teaching the Diamondbacks to play the way Sparky taught him to play. He’s trying to be the guy Sparky was for him, the guy who was such a big influence that his former players quote him years later.

“I can say I preach his message on a daily basis,” Gibson said.

The message Friday was that this weekend series in Detroit isn’t any more significant than any other series the Diamondbacks will play, and that being in first place in late June doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything yet.

The message was to play hard and to act the part.

“He taught me to be a professional,” Gibson said.

The influence was strong, and built over many years. Gibson came to Anderson’s Tigers as a 22-year-old rookie in 1979, and they spent 12 seasons together. A letter Anderson sent him after Gibson retired in 1995 hangs in Gibson’s office at Chase Field.

Gibson has managed the Diamondbacks for just about a year, and really this is the first season where you could say the team was truly his. You can wonder how things would have been had the Diamondbacks chosen Gibson (and not A.J. Hinch) when they fired Bob Melvin in 2009 (as Hall now admits they should have), but the fact is they didn’t.

They did choose him last year, and when Towers took over as GM, he took the interim tag away.

And now the Diamondbacks are Kirk Gibson’s team.

“Playing the game hard, aggressive and rowdy,” third baseman Ryan Roberts said. “That’s the type of group we have. And he definitely sets the tone, and the mentality.”

“It’s fun to watch the players take on his personality,” Hall said.

His personality, and his words.

It happens with most good managers. It’s happened before.

Listen to Kirk Gibson talk, and you’ll hear things that Sparky Anderson could have said.

Listen to his Diamondbacks, and you’ll hear Kirk Gibson.

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