Henning: Former Tigers, MSU great Kirk Gibson still dazzles in Grand Rapids

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Typical audiences for a Grand Rapids Economic Club luncheon are about 550 people.

There were 800 at Monday’s session, which featured a certain former baseball and football star from Michigan State, who later won a World Series in Detroit and at Los Angeles before he became an analyst on Fox Sports Detroit’s telecasts.

Former Tigers and Michigan State great Kirk Gibson, a Fox Sports Detroit broadcaster, drew a crowd of 800 Monday in Grand Rapids.

Kirk Gibson.

“Never saw crowds like this,” said Peter Secchia, the former United States ambassador, Michigan Republican National Committeeman, entrepreneur and philanthropist, and Gibson friend who has helped with Gibson’s quest to better understand and research Parkinson’s disease, and who introduced Monday’s speaker.

This was not a new gig for Gibson. He has of course spoken to audiences galore through the years. And he is very good at these sessions.

He strolled to the dais Monday and rather than set up behind its lectern, he spoke extemporaneously as he walked back and forth, holding the audience in his hands like one of those baseball bats he once throttled.

“Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve picked up a few games lately,” he said as the crowd laughed, sheepishly.

“I have no comment beyond that.”

In what was a seamless and superb 30-minute talk, otherwise filled with anecdotes from his life and playing days, the “few games lately” line was Gibson's only allusion to this month’s broadcast-booth fracas between Mario Impemba and Rod Allen, which has led to a season-finishing suspension and very possibly an end to Allen’s and Impemba’s years on Tigers telecasts.

It was necessary for Gibson to acknowledge what would have been uncomfortable had he chosen to ignore news and realities relevant to his audience, and to Gibson.

He has chosen not to say anything about Impemba or Allen, even if he worked with each man, and side-by-side with Impemba when it was Gibson’s turn as Tigers color man.

There are orders from FSD and legal matters and way too many complexities for Gibson to get in the least bit involved.

So, he does what Gibson would always be expected to do: his job. FSD is scrambling to finish the regular season’s remaining two weeks, and Monday was testimony to everyone’s shuffling.

Jack Morris was scheduled to work in Gibson’s place as the Tigers played Monday night against the Twins at Comerica Park.

Gibson will work most of the remaining games as he, Matt Shepard, and Dan Dickerson highlight a mixed crowd that will close out FSD’s 2018 television baseball season.

Next year, he isn’t sure about. Parkinson’s is “advancing,” Gibson freely acknowledges, and how many games a man now 61 can expect to fulfill has yet to be decided.

“What’s too much — what’s not enough?” he asked Monday, walking back and forth across the dais, dressed in a dark-green suit and tie.

If his verbal delivery has slowed, Gibson’s mind has not ebbed an iota. He knows baseball with the same intricacy he understands, say, aeronautics, which a one-time private pilot learned 35 years ago by cramming in his hotel room during Tigers road trips.

They are facets from an intellect overwhelming in its scope. Gibson, as happens even on telecasts, can find himself drifting into spontaneous discussions about zoology, climate, astronomy, horticulture, nutrition, Hollywood — anything that has seeped into the cerebrum of a man who, to his soul, is a portrait of curiosity.

He also has his eye on the 2018 Tigers. And it’s an X-ray machine.

“The Tigers are going to be all right, but you’ve got to be patient,” he said to the crowd, which was noteworthy, in that the usual iPhone and texting distractions you see at any gathering seemed Monday to be nonexistent.

“Look, I’m the guy analyzing these games. I point out things. I try to be sensitive to the players, because I was one, and this game’s not easy. It’s hard.”

But he concedes he’s turned up the heat in recent weeks, realizing young players are wrapping up a season in which they can’t afford in ensuing years to repeat miscues.

He is not stepping across any lines of propriety when a one-time warrior who later became a big-league manager offers a critique or suggestion that a young player needs to tighten something untidy in his performance.

He knows wives, or girlfriends, or whomever is listening, can get the message across to a player in a way that can help and not for a moment usurp the ways of Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, who Gibson respects abundantly.

He talked of his mentors: Darryl Rogers, the Michigan State football coach who died two months ago; Jim Leyland, who was his minor-league manager and first day-in, day-out instructor when both were at Single-A Lakeland; and Sparky Anderson, his manager who was “afraid of losing me,” Gibson said following a miserable 1983 season, and who helped make Gibson and the Tigers world champions a year later. And, of course, his dad, Bob, who was a first coach and inspiration.

“My life basically has been fast, but I’ve had to learn to slow down,” he said, and on the luncheon tables were green, 10-page folders, entitled “Gibby & Friends vs. Parky,” which highlighted all the doctors and researchers and partners who have been part of an effort, joined by Secchia and others, in what already has been a multi-million dollar mission to treat and understand Parkinson’s.

Gibson turned to the audience at mid-stroll and said, “This makes me feel like a narcissist. But there have been a lot of pitfalls on the way to some successes.”

He met with luncheon guests afterward, posing for pictures, signing whatever they asked him to sign. And then he and his wife, JoAnn, headed out the ballroom of the JW Marriott Grand Rapids hotel and for home.

Gibson might not have been moving as “fast” as Gibson prefers to move. But it’s amazing how much ground you can cover when you’re determined, and so doggone solid.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning