Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson says he remains a Tigers season-ticker holder. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)
Phoenix — Never does it change with Kirk Gibson.
Not since he was a freshman football star at Michigan State, not since he was a rookie with the Tigers, not in any of his incarnations as a wildly talented athlete, or even in his past years as a baseball coach and manager, has Gibson failed to fill a notebook with USDA-grade red meat.
He did it again Monday, sitting at a podium inside an interview room at Chase Field where Gibson, the Diamondbacks manager, was getting ready for a three-game series against his old team, the Tigers.
It is a team, Gibson said, for which he still has a “soft spot,” but a team he desperately wanted to whip Monday — and the next two days.
“I follow ’em, ’cause I grew up a Tigers fan,” said Gibson, who played for the Tigers from 1979-87, and later coached for them as a right-hand man to then-manager and his old Tigers teammate, Alan Trammell, who now is his bench coach.
“I’ve had season tickets since 1980. I go to all the playoff games. I follow Brad (Ausmus, Tigers manager). At the same time, I like to beat ’em.”
Gibson spoke at his normal direct-current speed Monday. His thoughts and sentences are rapid and seamless and rarely include extraneous words.
During a 15-minute media conversation, he talked about assorted subjects, from his Tigers experience, to updates on his Diamondbacks players, to reports that former Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who this month was traded to the Yankees, had said his sudden success in New York and some dismal days in Phoenix were due to the preference of the Diamondbacks he not throw a favorite pitch, his slider.
You could all but see a propane torch light within Gibson. But he understands his job. And there is a diplomacy mandate that most often spurs a manager to hold his tongue. Gibson did Monday.
“Well, I wish him well,” he said, with a tight, low-ember smile, no doubt wanting to rebut a pitcher who was 3-10 with a 5.01 ERA this season ahead of the trade. “People handle things differently. Let’s just say it was all my fault.”
Gibson appreciates, particularly this season, it is better to take flak than return it. The Diamondbacks are having rocky times (43-56) set in motion during spring camp when players (principally All-Star starter Patrick Corbin) began relocating to the disabled list.
Corbin’s loss to Tommy John surgery might have been better absorbed had Gibson’s boss, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, not traded away starters on the level of Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer.
And while neither bad moves nor bad luck has been entirely to blame for a somber season of baseball in Phoenix, Diamondbacks fans were wondering if a regime change might be in order — even before Tony La Russa was hired in May to supervise Arizona’s baseball operations.
The prevailing view in Phoenix is La Russa, who Sunday will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, will not make any immediate moves. Not until after the 2014 season wraps up.
That might or might not spell trouble for Towers — and Gibson. But the manager seemed Monday to be suggesting that most of the heat generated by fans in most markets is probably undeserved. And rather than Arizona, he used Detroit as his focus.
“It’s part of it,” he said of fan complaints that, he implied, have been lain at the feet of Ausmus and the Tigers as they’ve undergone their own distress in 2014. “I think people are too critical, and criticism affects a team four times more than anything positive.”
Gibson, of course, remembers the barbs, just as he recalls the marvel of Detroit’s last baseball championship season in 1984, when he helped drive a team to a World Series conquest he punctuated with two home runs in the Game 5 clincher over San Diego.
He mentioned Monday the dagger he took from former Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, who was neither a fan of Gibson’s facial stubble, nor appreciated Gibson, in a moment of locker-room revelry following the World Series triumph when he dumped a bucket of Gatorade on Monaghan.
“I said, ‘C,mon, let’s party,’ ” Gibson remembered. “He gave me a dirty look.
“The only problem was when (Monaghan) said I was a disgrace to the Tigers uniform. Later on, he apologized. He called and wanted to have lunch. I said there was no need to do that. Let’s move forward.”
“I can’t fix all the blame on him,” he said. “I was a jerk. Not a disgrace to the uniform. But I was crazy.”
Monday, with the Diamondbacks buoyed by a rare, three-game winning streak, an old Tigers icon excused himself and returned to work for his current team and concern.
No matter what happens when La Russa makes decisions and crafts strategies for 2015, Gibson would be the first to say he and the Tigers will, always at some level, continue a long and flamboyant relationship. And if you prefer to say that relationship is more akin to a romance, it’s doubtful a 57-year-old manager would quarrel.