Gibson: Upton will ‘fit in great’ with Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Lou Whitaker.

That’s who Kirk Gibson thinks of when he looks at what newly signed Tigers outfielder Justin Upton has dealt with in his career.

“A lot of people say he should do this and he should do that,” Gibson said Saturday during TigerFest. “It reminds me of Lou Whitaker. People always said Lou should have played like this guy or that guy, he should have been the best second baseman in baseball.

“All I know about Lou Whitaker is, he was a clutch player, an impact player and he wins you ballgames in a lot of different ways. J-Up is like that.”

Gibson has carried the oppressive weight of expectation, too. He was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle when he broke in with the Tigers. And when Upton broke in with the Diamondbacks at age 19, he drew comparisons to a young Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey, Jr.

Hard to clear those bars.

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Gibson was the hero on two world championship teams and the National League MVP in 1988, but some still cluck their tongues and say he underachieved.

Upton is a three-time All-Star and a two-time Silver Slugger winner who has averaged 23.5 home runs with an .829 OPS in his eight full seasons — yet his detractors will tell you he hasn’t lived up to expectations.

“Everybody has to find their place in baseball,” Gibson said. “It’s how you get there. Sometimes you try to live up to what other people think you should be. But you don’t really know. You have to go find it out. You have to have your support group and figure out who your allies are and then develop your game.”

Gibson was there to help Upton navigate those choppy waters early in his career. He was Upton’s baserunning and outfield coach in 2007, and later became his manager.

“I was honored that I got to coach J-Up early on,” he said. “The kid has a great personality. He laughs. But he’s a lot like me in that he hates to fail. And he had to learn how to deal with that. Hey, you fail, let’s fix it. The game is still going on.

“I used to throw my bat and my helmet and people would say, ‘Aw that’s BS.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ It’s who he is. He’s got passion and he cares.”

Gibson has seen Upton mature a lot in the last few years.

“He’s learned to harness his ability much more,” he said. “He understands how to handle the peaks and valleys.”

And that, as Gibson knows, may be the hardest lesson baseball teaches.

“A lot of things he’s had to learn were things I had to learn,” Gibson said. “He got the big build-up and he was thrown into the fire. He did very well and experienced some success.

“But then in 2012 we had a year like the Tigers had last year with a lot of injuries. He played that year with a hurt thumb and he probably should have sat out. But he battled his butt off.”

The relationship between Upton and Gibson grew tense in 2012 and Upton was traded to Atlanta before the 2013 season. Yet, the bond the two formed early on is still strong.

“I still have the utmost respect for Gibby,” Upton said Wednesday at his introductory news conference. “Not only what he did in the game, but as a young player, he’s a guy I learned a lot for him. I am sure I will be bumping into him around here. There are no hard feelings.”

Gibson gave Upton a glowing recommendation to general manager Al Avila before the Tigers signed him to a six-year, $132.75 million contract.

“I have nothing but good things to say about him,” Gibson said. “He is human. He’s going to have his failures. But he makes us a much better team…You know what, I saw him last night interacting with everybody, he’s going to fit in great with these guys.”