By: Will Burchfield
Despite a 17-year career in Major League Baseball, highlighted by an MVP award in 1988, Kirk Gibson always thought his calling was in a different sport.
“To this day, I think I was a better football player than I was a baseball player. And at the time, (football) was my favorite sport. It fit my personality better,” Gibson told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. “But baseball’s done a nice job of settling me down, right?”
Gibson, a four-year wide receiver at Michigan State from 1975-1978, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Monday. He led the Big 10 in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns as a sophomore and helped the Spartans to a Big 10 title as a senior.
The Waterford, MI product finished his career with 112 catches for 2,374 yards and 24 touchdowns.
“I was either going to try to outrun you or run you over,” Gibson recalled. “Back in those days, we were taught what they don’t teach today and that’s guys never ran out of bounds. They tried to run people over.
“The philosophy was – at least this was my philosophy – if I hit ‘em hard enough, the next time I could get in there, make them close their eyes and then get around them. If I could get any daylight I always felt like I could outrun whoever it was I was on the field with. That’s just a gift, a god-given gift that I had.”
Gibson played for coach Darryl Rogers at Michigan State. And it was Rogers who encouraged Gibson to take his talents to the baseball diamond before his senior season on the gridiron.
“He came up to me one day and just said, ‘I don’t want you to come to spring ball,'” Gibson recalled.
When Gibson asked why not, Rogers replied, “I think you should play baseball because you can enhance your position in the NFL draft next year.”
So then-Michigan State baseball coach Danny Litwhiler invited Gibson to join his team for its spring tournament at Pan-American University in Edinburg, Texas.
“Did okay, I hadn’t played in several years. And then when I got back into the Big 10 season, I struggled mightily,” said Gibson. “I was going to quit because football was always rewarding for me and when I made a mistake or got frustrated I could go out and make some contact, and for whatever reason it made me feel better. In baseball, you struggle and you gotta go stand out in center field and think about your next at-bat.
“I told Danny that I was probably going to quit, that I’d give it another day or two, and then he gave me 20 reasons why I shouldn’t quit. I hit two home runs that game, then another home run the next game.”
The scouts started showing up shortly thereafter. A few months later, after some clandestine conversations, Gibson was chosen by his hometown Tigers with the 12th overall pick in the 1978 draft.
“I signed (because) they allowed me to come back and play my senior year of football,” Gibson explained. “I was going to come back and play my last year at Michigan State. I knew that, which they agreed to and it was all a secretive thing. I got many calls from other baseball teams and I just said, ‘No, I’m coming back for my senior year of football, don’t waste your draft pick.’
“It was obviously an incentive to come play for my hometown team, the Detroit Tigers. I did the football thing, played in the Hula Bowl, played in the Senior Bowl and then my football career was over. I thought (baseball) was the better career, longevity wise, the basic players’ agreement was better and I just thought it was the career path that I should take.”
It’s hard to argue with Gibson’s decision. The outfielder played in over 1,600 MLB games, smacked more than 250 home runs and provided one of baseball’s enduring images with his pinch-hit, walk-off homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series on two hobbled knees. It led to the second World Championship of Gibson’s career, the first coming in 1984 with the Tigers.
These days, Gibson is a color commentator for the Tigers on Fox Sports Detroit. After an unexpectedly quiet offseason in which the Tigers only made one major move – smartly trading center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Angels – Gibson is confident in the team’s chances in 2017.
“Their biggest hole is obviously in center field, but I think their strength is their pitching. I’m glad they hung onto most of their pitching, and I know they’ve got some young arms. I spent quite a few days last summer in the minor leagues as well, and they’ve got as good a chance as anybody,” Gibson said.