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Tigers World Series hero Gibson has Parkinson's

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tigers fans have been wondering why Kirk Gibson was in the Fox Sports Detroit booth on Opening Day, but not at all since.

FSD and Gibson explained the reason Tuesday, and it's a sad one.

The former Tigers great has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

"I have faced many different obstacles in my life, and have always maintained a strong belief that no matter the circumstances, I could overcome these obstacles," Gibson said in a statement, which FSD said would be Gibson's only public comments on the matter. "While the diagnosis poses a new kind of challenge for me, I intend to stay true to my beliefs. With the support of my family and friends, I will meet this challenge with the same determination and unwavering intensity that I have displayed in all my endeavors in life.

"I look forward to being back at the ballpark as soon as possible."

The ballclub also released a statement, saying, "The Detroit Tigers family wishes the best for Kirk Gibson, and our thoughts are with Kirk and his family. We are all hopeful for Kirk's return to the ballpark soon."

FSD said it will welcome Gibson back in the booth as soon as he wants, and is able, based on his treatment, which apparently he has begun.

Parkinson's is a disease of the central nervous system, its tell-tale symptoms being shaking, or tremors, particularly in the hands and legs, and the slowing of movements, like walking. Actor Michael J. Fox and former baseball star Dave Parker are some of the most famous Parkinson's patients, and boxing legend Muhammad Ali also suffers from a form of Parkinson's. Fox left prime-time TV in 2000, but that was years after he was diagnosed. And he has since returned to the small screen. There is no complete cure.

Parkinson's patients undergoing treatment are said to have good days and bad days.

"Yes, it's serious disease, but it's not a death sentence. It's a chronic illness, and people can do a lot for a long time," said William Dauer, M.D., a professor of neurology at the University of Michigan who has specialized in Parkinson's research and treatment since 1998. "Life expectancy may go down a bit, but not terribly."

Dauer said Parkinson's is caused by the dying of brain cells, which can't be salvaged. Medicine is used to restore the chemical balance in the brain, however, and thus suppress the symptoms. Many of Dauer's patients live long, relatively normal lives, while others struggle more. No two patients are the same, he said.

Dauer said Gibson's excellent physical condition could help him as the disease progresses. Dauer also said there's no concrete link between head trauma — Gibson is a former football star — and Parkinson's.

Return to the booth

Gibson, who turns 58 next month, returned to the Tigers broadcasting booth this season, a decision made by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch — and a decision that was met with great fanfare. Gibson had spent the previous four-and-a-half-seasons as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who, with a new front office in place last season, fired Gibson and his bench coach, Alan Trammell, in September.

Gibson appeared on the Opening Day broadcast with Rod Allen and Mario Impemba, but not since. There was the assumption by many, including some of his close friends, that his absence was so he could watch his son, Cam, play baseball at Michigan State, and then he'd return to doing Tigers games after MSU's season ended. That wasn't the case. Gibson, it turns out, was supposed to do the four-game Yankees series at Comerica Park last week, but Allen had to fill in.

"Kirk Gibson was my first partner here in Detroit in 2002," said Impemba, who worked with Gibson for a year before he joined the Tigers field staff in 2003. "In the one year I worked with him, I learned that he never backed away from a challenge.

"As a friend and a colleague, I look forward to working with him again."

Gibson is a hero in his native Michigan, from his days playing wide receiver at Michigan State to his clutch performances on the baseball field, particularly Game 5 of the 1984 World Series. He hit two home runs in Game 5, including the decisive blow off San Diego Padres closer Goose Gossage, who vetoed manager Dick Williams' request to walk Gibson — and he paid the ultimate price. A short time later, the city was celebrating the Tigers' fourth, and last, world championship. Gibson also hit a huge homer against the Blue Jays late in 1987, spurring a miraculous comeback that culminated with the Tigers overtaking the Blue Jays on the last day of the season.

Gibson left the Tigers after the 1987 season, in a dispute with then-owner Tom Monaghan that played out in the newspapers, and he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was just the spark that team needed, and in the 1988 World Series, he hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history — barely able to walk, he used all arms to hit a ninth-inning home run in Game 1 in a scene that seemed ripped right out of "The Natural," which was released four years earlier.

That was Gibson's only at-bat of that World Seriers, the Dodgers would defeat the heavily favored Oakland A's, and Gibson would be named the National League MVP in 1988, despite just 25 home runs and 76 RBIs. Voters recognized that Gibson's worth went far beyond the stat line.

"I know it's not good, but if anybody can do anything against it ... anytime he's been up against the wall or has got a challenge in front of him, he's won," said Dan Petry, Gibson's friend and longtime teammate with the Tigers. "If he's up against another challenge, he's gonna defeat it or, at least ... he's gonna defeat it.

"I just wish him all the best so he can hurry back, and selfishly I can enjoy him with the broadcasts."

Raw talent

The No. 12 overall pick by the Tigers in 1978, Gibson was best known for his toughness and competitiveness — but those were traits that were raw, and needed channeling. Jim Leyland, then a coach in the Tigers' system, first was charged with getting Gibson in line, and Sparky Anderson took over the task when Gibson debuted in the major leagues in 1979. Gibson also could've made a career in football, had he wanted. He was said to be the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NFL draft, and Gibson's camp leaked it to baseball teams in 1978 that he wanted to play football. That was just a well-crafted mirage, however, so Gibson would fall to No. 12 and his preferred team, the Tigers. It worked.

Gibson went on to play 17 seasons in the big leagues, mostly with the Tigers and Dodgers, and briefly with the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates. He finished his career with the Tigers from 1993-95, returning home after Ilitch had bought the team from Monaghan. For his career, he had 255 homers and 284 stolen bases.

The diagnosis for Gibson caught many of his colleagues and former teammates by surprise, and even one guy who'll forever be linked in baseball history with Gibson, Dennis Eckersley, the legendary A's closer who gave up that famous home run in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

"Wow," said Eckersley, who had just learned of the news. "He's a tough dude. If anybody can do this ..."

In retirement, Gibson hosted a popular Detroit sports-talk radio show with Gary Danielson and Eli Zaret, before joining the FSD booth for Tigers telecasts, first with Josh Lewin (1998-2001) and then Impemba (2002). He was part of Trammell's Tigers coaching staff from 2003-05, mostly as bench coach, before the entire staff was fired to make way for Leyland and Co.

Gibson took a year off before heading to Arizona, where he first was a bench coach, and then manager.

He had some immediate success, leading the Diamondbacks to a 94-68 record and the NL West title in 2011, his first full season; they lost to the Brewers in a first-round playoff series. Gibson was named NL manager of the year in 2011, but the team never finished above .500 again during his tenure. He finished his managerial career with a record of 353-375, though he made quite the impact in Arizona — just like he had in Detroit and L.A. before that.

"We are devastated about Kirk Gibson's news," Derrick Hall, Diamondbacks president and CEO, said in a statement. "I just sent him a note to tell him how much we love him. We know he will tackle this head on and bring awareness to the disease.

"He will always be an important part of our D-backs family and we're here for support during this trying time."

Parkinson's disease

Here is a description of Parkinson's disease from the Mayo Clinic:

Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. It develops gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. But while a tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson's, the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement.

In the early stages of Parkinson's, the face may show little or no expression, or arms may not swing when walking. Speech may become soft or slurred. Parkinson's disease symptoms worsen as the condition progresses over time.

Although there is no cure for Parkinson's, medications may markedly improve symptoms. In occasional cases, a doctor may suggest surgery to regulate certain regions of the brain to improve symptoms.