MLB History: When Kirk Gibson Became a Detroit Legend

Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics
Gibson circa 1984 (Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)

If you want to talk about hometown heroes in Major League Baseball, use Kirk Gibson and the 1984 Detroit Tigers as the test case. Born in Pontiac, Michigan, 30 miles outside The Motor City, Gibson attended Waterford High School and Michigan State University before the Detroit organization selected him as its first-round pick in 1978. After a brief stint in the minors, Gibby made the big-league club and worked his way up to a starting position by 1983.

In 1984, Gibson had his breakout year when he clubbed 27 home runs and led the team with an .879 OPS, a few points better than star shortstop Alan Trammell. The Tigers won an MLB-best 104 games that season, a full 20 games better than the Royals, who finished 84-78. Detroit swept Kansas City in three straight in the ALCS, with Gibson hitting .417 and taking home the MVP award for the series.

As in the regular season, Trammell was the obvious runner-up, and the shortstop ended up winning the 1984 World Series MVP when the Tigers beat San Diego in five games. Trammell put on a clinic in Game 4 with 2 HR and 4 RBI, the full offensive output for Detroit. In the clinching Game 5, however, Gibson stole the show. After giving the Tigers a lead in the first with a two-run bomb, he faced Goose Gossage in the eighth with San Diego’s fate hanging in the balance. Detroit led 5-4.

Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola set the tone by telling the story (per Sparky Anderson) of how Gossage “blew away” Gibson in his first career at-bat many years earlier. Nonetheless, the obvious choice was to intentionally walk the Tigers slugger and put the double play in order. San Diego and the Goose took a chance on pitching to Gibson and failed miserably. As has always been his wont, Scully let the crowd’s roar tell the story that night.

Detroit Tigers v California Angels
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

After Gibson launched the ball into Tiger Stadium’s right-field upper deck, Detroit had an 8-4 lead and it was only a matter of time until the celebration began. The win marked the fourth World Series title for the Tigers, the team’s first since 1968 and the last for the franchise as of 2015.

For his part, Gibson ended the day 3-for-4 with 5 RBI from the two homers. He hit .333 with 7 RBI and a 1.145 OPS in the five games against the Padres. That RBI total was just one shy of the single-game World Series record (6) held by Bobby Richardson (1960 Yankees), Hideki Matsui (2009 Yankees), and Albert Pujols (2011 Cardinals).

Matsui’s performance also came in the deciding game of the 2009 Series, and the Japanese-born player took home the World Series MVP trophy for his effort. How did Gibson not win the MVP of the ’84 Fall Classic? Trammell hit .450 with 6 RBI and a 1.300 OPS while playing his Gold Glove-caliber shortstop.

Brilliant as Trammell was, he could not have known the feeling of elation Gibson must have experienced rounding the bases for the second time in Game Five. The Tigers would soon wrap up the title, and a postseason legend was born. A few years later, Gibson would let Dennis Eckersley and Dodgers fans in on the action, but his first starring role was as Detroit’s hometown hero in 1984.

Stats and game recaps courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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