The first fastball that Kirk Gibson faced in the major leagues came off the hand of Goose Gossage. It was late in the 1979 season and the rookie Tiger outfielder was overmatched, going down on strikes. At the time, and for a few years after that, it wasn’t clear whether Gibson had made the right choice, selecting to pursue a career in baseball rather than football. Gossage made the young Gibson look foolish many times.
Gibson entered the September game in 1979 as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter for Dave Stegman, hopping out onto the on-deck circle when he received a wave from skipper Sparky Anderson, in just his fourth month as Detroit’s manager. Gibson, wearing #23 on the back of his home Tigers uniform, was stepping to the plate at Tiger Stadium, practically in the backyard of where he’d grown up in Michigan. The Tigers trailed the Yankees by a single run but were faced with the task of hitting Gossage, the most fearsome reliever in the game. It was Gibby’s first big league appearance.
Welcome to the show, rookie!
Gossage dispatched Gibson rather easily to seal the Yankees 5-4 victory. But it was just the first of several humiliating meetings with Gossage for Gibson. The next season, Gibby’s first full year in the big leagues, he faced the Goose five times and struck out four times. In 1981 he struck out in his only appearance against Gossage. In all, in his first five seasons against Gossage, Gibson was 1-for-9 with seven strikeouts. His only hit was a single. With his violent delivery and 98-100 MPH fastball, Gossage owned the young Tiger slugger. And then, prior to the ’84 season, Goose signed a free agent contract with the San Diego Padres. Finally, Gibson’s nemesis was out of the league.
But the two would meet again in more important and dramatic circumstances.
In many ways, Gossage and Gibson were mirror images of each other. Both were rugged men who loved the outdoors, hunting, and “manly” pursuits. Between the white lines, they both approached the game of baseball with an aggressive attitude. Gossage glowered on the mound, while Gibby snarled in the batters’ box. Gossage practically threw his entire body at the batter, whipping his magical right arm toward the plate. Gibson took ferocious swings, and when he connected he produced mammoth home runs. When he missed he produced strikeouts that were almost as thrilling. He would kick the dirt and stalk his way to the bench, grumbling and cussing at himself. Neither Gibson nor Gossage could accept failure. They attacked the game.
By 1984, Gibson was a more mature hitter. He was more patient, laid off bad pitches, and he was capable of shortening his stroke when he got behind in the count. A naturally gifted player, he could carry the team when he got on a hot streak. He was a different player between the ears too, having harnessed his competitiveness to his advantage. In the off-season of 1982, Gibson had met with a sports psychologist who taught him techniques to help him “visualize” successful at-bats. Armed with his new approach, Gibson blossomed in ’84, settling in as the #3 hitter in Sparky’s lineup. The Tigers ran away with the division race, easily cast aside the Kansas City Royals in the AL Playoffs, and advanced to the World Series. And, wouldn’t you know it? Waiting for them were Gossage and the Padres.
The ’84 World Series was not very competitive, but it was still exciting. The Tigers were clearly the best team in baseball and they seemed to want to show off that fact. Jack Morris mowed down the San Diego lineup. It seemed like leadoff man Lou Whitaker was on base every inning. The bullpen was sharp, and the Tigers showed off their defense too. Shortstop Alan Trammell came out on the national stage and led all players in batting, winning the Series MVP Award with nine hits in the five games. He belted two homers in Game Four, which left Detroit just one win away from capturing the title. In Game Five, the Tigers played longball early, with Gibson smacking a two-run shot in the first inning. Later, Lance Parrish sent a Gossage fastball into the left field seats to give the Tigers a 5-3 lead. The Padres got a run back in the 8th inning to pull to within one. That’s when Gibson got to meet his old nemesis again.
Gossage had faced Gibson late in Game Four the day before, coaxing Gibby into a harmless popout. The Tigers won that game, and now they were trying to tack on some insurance runs late in Game Five on a Sunday evening at Tiger Stadium. Gossage walked Marty Castillo to start the 8th. Whitaker followed with a bunt that was misplayed by the Padre infield. Runners were now on first and second. Sparky asked Trammell, despite his hot-hitting, to bunt the runners over, which he did. That put runners at second and third with first base open and Gibson coming to the plate. San Diego manager Dick Williams instructed Gossage to walk Gibson to set up a double play situation and force at any base. But Goose, recalling his tremendous success against Gibson in the past, motioned that he didn’t want to issue the free pass. Williams trotted out of the dugout, and after a discussion on the mound that included much of the Padre infield, Gossage won the argument. He would get to face Gibson.
Famously, an isolated camera and microphone documented Sparky Anderson’s reaction to the scenario. The gum-chewing Tiger manager was amazed that Williams was swayed by Gossage. “No sonofabitch is going to tell me what to do, I can guarantee you that,” Sparky said to coach Roger Craig as he witnessed Williams go to the mound to debate with Gossage.
But Gossage did persuade Williams and he was allowed to pitch to Gibson. Pitch one was deposited into the right field upper deck by a powerful swing from Gibson’s bat. It was the first home run Gibson hit off Gossage, the pitcher who had welcomed him to the big leagues by striking him out in his first at-bat, and who had manhandled the Detroit hitter for so long.
Detroit fans don’t need me to tell them what happened next. Gibson pounced around the bases, fists in the air, while the Tiger Stadium crowd shook the old ballpark with their approval. Everyone knew that the Tigers would be World Champions. They’d really known it since April, but the World Series was the final chapter. Gibson’s blast off Gossage was the exclamation point. He would never get another hit off the Goose, but it didn’t matter. He’d won the most important battle.