Wojo: Parkinson's is Kirk Gibson's biggest battle
Detroit — He stares at the screen as familiar images flicker and distant sounds return.
“Have you seen this?” Kirk Gibson says.
On Gibson’s computer in the Comerica Park TV booth, he’s a ballplayer again, leaping and exulting. It’s a video the L.A. Dodgers showed before their opener this season, when they honored Gibson 30 years after he hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history. Gibson was there in March, and when he emerged to the roaring crowd, the fans stood in unison and performed his classic double arm pump.
“Everybody did the pump,” he says. “It was amazing.”
The video continues, with the 31-year-old Gibson limping around the bases, celebrating all the way. He wasn’t supposed to play in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series because of injuries to both legs, and yet there he was as a pinch-hitter in the ninth against Dennis Eckersley, swinging his way to immortality. Along with his clinching home run in the Tigers’ 1984 World Series victory over the Padres, Gibson launched two of the game’s legendary blasts.
As it turns out, those moments indeed are frozen in time. The Tigers haven’t won it all since. Neither have the Dodgers.
Also as it turns out, immortality is a cruel illusion.
“She is goooooone!” broadcaster Vin Scully exclaimed as the ball landed in the Dodger Stadium rightfield seats. Later he declared, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”
Gibson watches to the end, his head never turning.
You still get chills?
“Yeah,” he says, nodding, then closing the computer. “Not gonna lie.”
What was the best part of the anniversary event?
“I’ll tell you what it was — we raised a lot of money,” he says. “Auctioned jerseys, bobbleheads, hundreds of thousands of dollars raised. It was great.”
For Gibson, 61, this is the new competition and the new normal. Ask him about baseball and he’ll tell stories, sure. And then he’ll tell you to go to his website — KirkGibsonFoundation.org — to learn how he and others deal with a brain disease that hasn’t been defeated, at least not yet.
In 2015, Gibson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, shortly after he walked out of the booth at the end of the Tigers opener, panicked because he couldn’t collect his thoughts on the air. When he first heard the diagnosis, he assumed he was going to die. Then he did what he’s done most of his life, from his days as a two-sport star at Michigan State University, to a 17-year major-league career.
He assessed the opponent, acknowledged its threat, then vowed to outwork it, or at least outlast it. There’s no cure, and he doubts there will be in his lifetime. Parkinson’s causes muscle tremors, stiffness and speech difficulties. More than 1 million people in North America are affected, and many more might not know they have it, as it progresses gradually.
So Gibson is helping any way he can, giving speeches, talking to random people with the disease he calls “Parky,” raising awareness and money through his foundation. Three years since his toughest fight began, he has settled into a different life, with different goals. He’s grateful he can stay in baseball doing Tigers games on Fox Sports Detroit, and even more grateful he can find meaning in the madness.
“It’s hard to explain other than to say, I’m not the same as I was,” he says. “The disease has progressed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do most of the things you could always do. I know sometimes it’s probably hard to watch me or listen to me, because there are days on the air it affects me much more. But I always hope to contribute in some way. It’s what I know how to do.”
No plea for sympathy, no why-me lamenting. In some ways, the disease that’s slowing him also is settling him, and pushing him. Gibson now realizes he probably exhibited symptoms as far back as 2008, when he tried to shoot his bow and arrow and it kept slipping out of his grasp. He also noticed his left hand clenched when he shaved, but he chalked it up to all the surgeries over the years.
The symptoms can be controlled by medication, exercise and therapy, and Gibson battles it diligently. But he recognizes the deterioration won’t stop. Neither will he.
“Parky is like a new phase in my life, and I’m not the only person that has to deal with it,” he says. “You can’t get so self-centered, you can’t look for pity. It’s game day 24 hours a day. … I take it personally, much the same as if I went (to the plate) and they brought in a left-hander to face me. It’s just not in my DNA to give in.”
'Too busy to stay down'
Parkinson’s can affect people in varied ways, and usually strikes after the age of 50. The cause is unknown, and could be a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Frequent concussions also could be a culprit. Actor Michael J. Fox is one of the most famous people afflicted, diagnosed in 1991 at the age of 29, and Gibson said he’s working with Fox’s foundation on possible projects.
It’s noticeable in Gibson’s halting gait, one foot sometimes dragging behind, his arms pinned to his side. He follows the “Big and Loud” program, a therapy that prods patients to practice exaggerated movements and noises, to battle against rigidity.
None of it stops him from staying in the game, fulfilling his TV obligations, showing up at the ballpark four hours before the broadcast, taking notes during Ron Gardenhire’s press sessions. His insight and humor remain sharp, if not always sharply spoken. He says he presents a challenge for his broadcast partners, but they scoff it off.
“I don’t look at it as a challenge at all,” Mario Impemba says. “To do what he’s doing with this condition, it’s unbelievable. People don’t have an understanding of how difficult this job can be from a mental point of view. There are nights when I gotta fight to keep my energy up, to keep my focus up. He is locked in from the first pitch to the last pitch, and I sincerely mean that, every single night.”
Another transformation began a while ago, and is more pronounced now. As a player, Gibson could be gruff and unaccommodating to media and fans (something he regrets), a temperamental star prone to combativeness. Over time, he acknowledged his flaws and worked to correct them.
These days, he’s relentlessly upbeat. His wife of 32 years, JoAnn, said it’s more a function of age than disease, and with four kids — including Tigers minor-leaguer Cam Gibson — perspective sets in.
“He already was mellowing and maybe people didn’t notice, but this certainly has accelerated it,” JoAnn says. “I think his whole athletic life has prepared him for battling this. He looks at things as though they’re a task and he wants to do it better than the next guy. I do think he tries to do too much, like he’s trying to frontload his life, cramming it all in, in a shorter amount of time.”
He wastes no time, and if he has a down moment, it’s fleeting, trampled by activity. Gibson rises most summer days by 6 a.m. — yes, even after a night game — and golfs nine holes before his wife wakes up at 8. Then they walk four to five miles together. Then he might play ping-pong, or billiards, before heading to the ballpark.
“There’s no day after day of being bummed out, he’s too busy to stay down,” JoAnn says. “He does have some wishful thinking that his managing career could’ve lasted longer, but he’s still closely connected with the game. Time will tell how long people want to hear him in the booth, we’ll see. Parkinson’s has a mind of its own, does what it wants to do when it wants to do it. When Kirk is having a moment, maybe shaking or not collecting his thoughts, Mario is great, jumps on it and takes off with it.”
Gibson’s preparation is meticulous, filling out his lineup card and jotting notes with steady deliberation. He jokes with the crew and chats with visitors, and as game time approaches, he turns serious.
“Trust me, I was really intense, have been my whole life, and I’m just trying to smell the roses as best I can, enjoy people a lot more,” Gibson said. “What lies ahead? I’m not sure. But I’m always looking for ways to help. There are times, talking to patients, they just feel they can’t do it. Hopefully my foundation and myself and the people that have joined our journey, we can motivate people to learn how to enjoy things like they always have.”
When the game ends, Gibson heads downstairs to the clubhouse to chat with Gardenhire or Al Avila or a player. To get from the press level to the basement, media members walk through a concourse among fans, then down three flights of stairs.
Gibson waits briefly for the elevator, then opts to walk. In the crowded stairwell, fans do double-takes and shout his name. An older man in front is moving slowly as Gibson comes up alongside him. The man looks up, grins and exclaims, “Oh, it’s you! You look good, man. How you doing?”
“I’m doing good,” Gibson says. “You OK? You need some help?”
The man extends his left arm and Gibson gently takes it, and the two finish the trek, step by step, side by side.
Alan Trammell is a Hall of Famer now, finally and deservedly. He cherished the honor, and spent much of the weekend in Cooperstown sharing it with many, including fellow inductee Jack Morris, and his long-time friend, Gibson.
It’s an unlikely pairing, the brash, domineering Gibson and the low-key Trammell. But Gibson means more to Trammell than a plaque or a bust. When Trammell managed the Tigers from 2003-05, Gibson was his bench coach. When Gibson managed the Diamondbacks from 2010-14, Trammell was his bench coach.
Gibson lives here and Trammell has his home in San Diego, but in his role as a special assistant to the GM for the Tigers, Trammell is around often. And keeping up with Gibson remains both joyful and challenging. Regularly during the winter, the two go on a snowmobiling excursion across the Upper Peninsula, covering anywhere from 800 to 1,500 miles. There’s also plenty of hunting and fishing on Gibson’s ranch in northern Michigan.
“Nothing surprises me with Gibby,” Trammell said. “Obviously as time goes on, it’s going to get progressively worse. But he’s got a lot of energy and he’s living his life, as I would expect. He’s a brilliant man, and when he gets into something, he does it full bore. I’ve never met anybody like him. When it came to competitiveness, Sparky used to say, Pete Rose and Kirk Gibson, they’re at the top.”
Gibson was one of the leaders in a rambunctious Tigers clubhouse, and he had his battles with Sparky Anderson. When Sparky would bench him against a tough lefty, Gibson would fume. The manager was either going to mold him, or break him.
As life lessons go, before Parky, there was Sparky.
“Sparky was so good, he realized who I was before I did,” Gibson said. “I’d be sitting next to him on the bench and he’d say, ‘I’m gonna teach you this game or you’ll be home to your momma.’ He took me like a raging stallion and broke me to be able to ride.”
Away from the field, Gibson had no idea how to turn off the intensity. He talked to counselors and sought advice, and often ignored it. In two stints with the Tigers covering 12 years, Gibson had his highlights and his struggles.
But he always embraced the Moment, whether as a clutch receiver at Michigan State or a clutch outfielder with the Tigers and Dodgers. In 1984 with Detroit, he slugged 27 home runs. In 1988 in L.A., he was named the NL MVP. In anxious moments, the brain rarely failed him, until now.
I asked him what 61-year-old Gibson would say today to 25-year-old Gibson.
“Pay attention,” 61-year-old Gibson said. “The signs and signals are there, trust your mentors. Would I do anything different? I probably would, knowing what I know now. You would too, and probably everybody would. We’re not perfect. I can tell you I never maliciously wanted to hurt anybody or be mean to anybody.
“When I put the pads and the helmet on, you’re taught to physically hurt and mentally pummel your opponent, trying to win. Then you go take your shoulder pads off and take a shower, and you’re supposed to walk out and be this nice guy? That switch was not there for me. It took me a while to be able to do it. I’m able to do it now.”
The trip from baseball immortality to human mortality can be painful, and enlightening. In some ways, the journey strengthened Gibson. His good-natured candor is striking, still competing, still smiling — or attempting to.
“That’s one of the symptoms you have, what they call mask face,” he says, half-smiling. “Some people might get embarrassed by it, but be happy because it could be a lot worse.”
As the mask hardens, the mask also lifts.
“That’s the part that makes me smile, that fans can see there’s always been another side to him,” Trammell said. “He’s a wonderful human being. He just didn’t let you in.”
Gibson is letting more in now, and letting more out. He doesn’t necessarily reminisce about his baseball exploits, unless prodded, or unless it can be a vehicle to discuss Parkinson’s. He expanded his foundation in 2015 to raise funding for research. He’s also looking for fresh ideas, as he digs deeper into the endeavor.
His appearance at the Dodgers opener raised more than $300,000. In 2017, he helped raise $1.2 million in collaboration with Michigan State at an event called “Gibby & Friends vs. Parky.”
“There’s some really exciting things being learned about prevention,” Gibson said. “It’s like in baseball, they talk about all the data, the metrics. It’s the same in medicine, and we’ve made huge strides. When you first hear the diagnosis, you think, oh man, I’m gonna die. Then you start to figure out what you have to do — let’s band together, let’s collaborate, let’s be a team. That’s what I learned out there,” he points to the baseball diamond, “and that’s the plan.”
The plan includes “Team 23” on his website, where people can donate and join. If not a cure anytime soon, the hunt continues for a cause.
Head trauma long has been considered a risk factor, since boxer Muhammad Ali lived his final 32 years with Parkinson’s. Does Gibson wonder if he paid the price for all those hits in football and all those collisions in baseball?
“It could be from concussions,” he said. “Looking back, we were taught to use our head, and I had a hard head. I took great pride in catching a ball and running right at you as hard as I could, putting my helmet on yours. People ask, how many concussions did you have? Well, what’s the definition of a concussion? You’re knocked out? You see stars? I mean, that was my goal, to see stars!”
He shook his head and laughed. He’s not inclined to look back, and there’s no turning back. He’s determined to show that people can live a new-normal life with Parkinson’s, that they should have access to resources and should be encouraged.
Sometimes you get to pick your purpose and your passion, and sometimes it picks you.
“Oh, it picked me all right,” Gibson said. “There are positives in everything. I don’t take offense to Parky, I take it as a challenge. It’s just the way I choose to be. If I screw up on TV today, I beat myself up just like I would down in that dugout. But you know what? I pick myself up, I got another play, another at-bat, another broadcast.”
No, he’s not the same as he was, double-arm pumping, helmet flying, the fiery face of the Tigers, the man who made baseball fans gasp with one mighty swing. He’s not the same, except in the most important way, a competitor to the core, a fighter with a purpose.
To learn more
Go to KirkGibsonFoundation.org to learn how Kirk Gibson and others deal with Parkinson’s disease.