Kirk Gibson in 'attack mode' against Parkinson's

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Kirk Gibson and Mario Impemba prepare for Thursday's Tigers-Pirates game at Comerica Park.

Detroit – He realized on Opening Day that things were amiss.

Kirk Gibson remembers it as an "anxiety" that washed over him as he worked alongside his FSD broadcast mates, Mario Impemba and Rod Allen, in his first stint since 2002 as a Tigers broadcaster.

"I had a hard time talking," Gibson recalled Thursday as he sat in FSD's open-air booth at Comerica Park, 45 minutes before the Tigers and Pirates were to play and Gibson was to join Impemba for his first full-game shift since that April 6 game against the Twins.

"It was huge anxiety, something I had never felt in my life. After that, I knew I had to get it checked out."

The diagnosis was Parkinson's disease, a neurological disorder that affects motor skills and can make speech complicated. Gibson had been gone from the booth, and from public appearances, for the past three months until he returned Wednesday for a three-inning cameo.

Parkinson's has brought a harsh and ironic change in life to a man who was one of the game's most colorful and dramatic stars when he played outfield for the Tigers, and later, for the Dodgers, in the 1980s and beyond. Gibson has been forced at age 58 to accept new daily-life responsibilities as challenging for his body as for a man's mind and soul.

"Getting there," he said, dressed in a blue-green jacket, print shirt, and tie, as he and Impemba went over game notes and schedules. "There's a lot of therapy. It's a work in progress, learning what I'm dealing with, and how to do it. I'm working with movement therapists and voice therapists."

Sense of humor is back

Neither he nor his wife, JoAnn, had any clue that something neurological had been gradually taking hold. If his gait was slightly off, and it was, a couple married 30 years this December thought it was due to past orthopedic issues: surgery from neck, shoulder, and wrist injuries accrued during his playing career.

If his voice was less facile than normal for a man known for rapid-fire sentences, that, too, the Gibsons figured, was somehow related to issues destined to be short-term.

Kirk Gibson checks his phone before Thursday's game at Comerica Park.

Gibson now says he can identify over past months signs he was dealing with something quite different. He doesn't care to elaborate, but the implication is changes, perhaps ominous, were occurring even last year as he wrapped up a four-year tenure as Arizona Diamondbacks manager.

How he fares during this reunion with FSD's booth is not a deep concern, Gibson said. The voice therapy has been working. More important, his Opening Day anxiety has waned.

And his sense of humor is back.

"I told Mario," he said, glancing teasingly at his partner, "I'll still have some Parky moments.

"We were talking last night (Wednesday) about dancing. I said I'm not a dancer. And I certainly don't want to be a dancer with Parkinson's."

Comfortable at the ballpark

Medication is part of his new regimen, as well. Gibson doesn't care to discuss particulars, but prescriptions appear to be helping to a point that new advances in surgery, he said, aren't in the immediate picture.

"I'm in attack mode," he said. "I got some news that was out of the norm, and this has become my new norm.

"And, actually, I've felt pretty decent. Just trying to stay active. In fact, my golf game was coming along well till I threw out my back last week. I find that things you maybe took for granted you even more appreciate now."

Part of what inspires him is his return to baseball. Simply to be back at Comerica Park, he said, even as a civilian sitting in the front-row, season box seats in right field that he and JoAnn regularly buy, has been his best and most important therapy.

"I came down last week and Chris Chelios (former Red Wings star now a Wings assistant coach) sat with us," Gibson said. "Just me, and JoAnn, and Chris, and crazy as it seems, it was a hurdle I had to overcome.

"I realized again that there's just something comfortable about being in the ballpark. And people have been unbelievable to me.

"Since that day (diagnosis announcement, April 28), the way people have been reaching out to me has been overwhelming and emotional. And the Tigers have really helped with the process.

"All the people at Fox (FSD), along with Mario and Rod, who have been the greatest teammates I could ever have, everybody's been incredible."

Gibson says he can now see an opportunity offered, paradoxically, by a disease and his public profile.

"Looking ahead, how do you stop the progression of this disease?" he asked, hoping a measure of enlightenment might come from a full dose of Gibson-style resolve to live his life fully. "How do you find a cure?

"I'm meeting with a lot of people and I want a bigger role in awareness. I've really put together a good team."

Gibson was an All-American football player at Michigan State before he turned to baseball, which allows him to slip easily into coach / manager speech. His past life is obvious in references to "teams" he is building and to being "highly motivated" to make his Parkinson's experience not only something he can endure, but make, to the extent possible, a triumph.

"People have just got to bear with me," he said, glancing again, with a knowing grin, at his partner Impemba.