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Gibson still swinging as he fights Parkinson's

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

When the pressure was on, that's when Kirk Gibson, the baseball player, was at his best.

In April, Kirk Gibson, the man, stepped into the box to face his toughest opponent to date.

Gibson, the hero of Tigers and Dodgers World Series runs in the 1980s, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, just days after he made his return to Tigers TV telecasts.

"It was a kick in the (you know what)," Gibson said in a recent interview with The News. "I've never dealt with anything like that."

Gibson worked the Opening Day broadcast, and it was clear to those around him that he wasn't right.

He was diagnosed shortly thereafter, and was off the broadcasts until his return in early July.

Gibson was in great spirits during his talk with The News, while he was vacationing in Iowa — or, "staring at a lot of corn," as he put it.

He attributes his bounceback to a great support system, from his family to his colleagues to his physical therapists in Grand Rapids, where Gibson and wife, JoAnn, have been traveling frequently.

There, Gibson participates in the "Big & Loud" program, which helps Parkinson's patients improve their functionality. While there is no cure for Parkinson's — a nervous-system disorder which affects movement and gets worse over time — it is manageable for several years, if the patient is willing to work.

Gibson? He likes to work.

"I've been blessed to have gone to therapy in Grand Rapids. The girls there were unreal," Gibson said. "They taught me 'Big & Loud.' You have to force yourself to make big movements, for yourself to talk loud. If you don't use it, you're gonna lose it.

"You have to practice it."

Fox Sports Detroit — which brought Gibson back this year after he was fired as Diamondbacks manager last year — gave him all the time he needed to deal with the stunning diagnosis.

"The Fox people were very supportive in what I had to do," he said. "They gave me time to get better. I had great support from everybody in what I had to do. Great support from everybody, from the fans, to my family, anybody I'd come by.

"It was very uplifting."

While there's no cure for Parkinson's, a man of Gibson's age (58) in such good shape can live a relatively normal life for a long time, and Gibson has taken that to heart. He's playing golf again, and spent the summer seeing just about every concert that came to town, according to a lengthy recent profile by Scott Miller of Bleacher Report.

That also means Gibson, if he wants, can be part of the FSD broadcast for some time. He hasn't signed a contract for next year, though he hopes to soon. FSD went with an analyst rotation this year that included incumbent Rod Allen along with newcomers Jack Morris and Gibson.

Mario Impemba was the constant, as the everyday play-by-play man. And Gibson, who'd been away from the broadcast booth since 2002, couldn't say enough about Impemba.

"He's very smart. He prepares well," Gibson said. "I'm not sure people understand how hard it is to do what he does. He's gone from me to Rod to Jack, and you know, he embraced it. It was great."

Impemba also got more comfortable, as the season went along, with tossing playful digs toward Gibson, something Gibson's former TV partner, Josh Lewin, was a master at.

"I like it when he does it!" Gibson said. "I like to be challenged. Occasionally, I'll give him something he can zing me on.

"I want him to feel comfortable to do that."

Impemba's comfort level grew in that regard, and it was evident later in the season, when the two went back and forth a lot — making for some silliness during the days the Tigers were out of contention.

"I get a little goofy," Gibson said, laughing. "We're all a little weird in our own way, aren't we?"

It was tough at first, though, Impemba said.

After all, this is Kirk Gibson sitting in the next chair over, for crying out loud.

"It kind of was, to be honest," Impemba said. "Sometimes you really want to be careful. You want to have fun, but still, you have to respect what these guys have accomplished.

"Gibby just doesn't care. He doesn't care if you give it to him. His attitude is, 'Bring it on and let's have some fun.' That's really refreshing."

Impemba said he was wildly impressed with Gibson, even just from the standpoint that he had been out of the booth so long. Throw the return from Parkinson's on top of that, and it was "astounding," Impemba said.

Gibson was as well-prepared for broadcasts as he was as a manager, Impemba said, always coming to work with ideas for talking points, graphics and videos.

"He was as prepared as anybody. Sometimes I said, 'Gibby, you're making me look bad!' " Impemba said. "That's his way of doing things. What people get on the air is pure Gibby.

"He came to play every night."

Gibson was supposed to do 60 games with Impemba in 2015, including Opening Day with Impemba and Allen.

His role was reduced, though, after the diagnosis — but it's expected to rise again in 2015.

Gibson was brought back to the Tigers at the urging of owner Mike Ilitch, who wanted more glory-days players around. Gibson had some hostility over his last departure from the Tigers, following the 2005 season. He thought good friend Alan Trammell got a raw deal as manager.

All that's in the past now. Gibson's moving forward — in life, and in the booth.

"I love the game. I love to talk about it," Gibson said. "Hopefully, I can enlighthen some people.

"I know I want to get better at it, and I know I will get better."

Given his history, on the field in the 1980s and off the field this spring, who'd bet bet against him?