Tigers prospect Cam Gibson is chip off old block

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Cam Gibson is pictured in Tigertown in Lakeland on Tuesday.

Lakeland, Fla. — You sit on a patio outside the youngsters’ dormitory at Tigertown and watch as a 22-year-old man squints into Florida’s afternoon sun. His eyes, clearly inherited from his mother, look like blue lightning bolts.

You hear him talk about competition (“I run as hard as I can — I don’t know how to do anything different.”), or about his passion for hunting (“You go out and sit in the solitude and hear the crinkle of the leaves and the birds chirping and you see the deer roaming and you think, ‘This is my life.’ ”). And at that moment, the other parent is apparent in one Cam Gibson.

This is Kirk and JoAnne’s son, all right. And it is quite the range of skills and physical traits, not to mention life values, a one-time Michigan State and Grosse Pointe South High athlete has brought to Lakeland as this newest generation of Gibson prepares for his first full season of pro baseball with the Tigers.

“It’s crazy,” Cam Gibson was saying Tuesday, a few hours after he had taken his physical as a prelude to formal minor-league workouts beginning today. “The other day down here, I saw a little kid going after his brother, and it was just how I was with my two brothers when I was growing up.

“I think I’ve been coming here since 1999. But now I’m running around on this side, as an adult, with a job to do.”

The task is to make himself, steadily, a better big-league outfield prospect. The Tigers thought enough of his potential to snag him in the fifth round of last June’s draft, believing a 6-foot-2, left-handed hitter who weighs 200 pounds and who, no surprise, has fine speed would in a few seasons be of help at Comerica Park.

“I saw a lot of Cam when he was at Grosse Pointe South and speed was what caught your eye,” said Mark Monahan, a Tigers area scout who works the lower half of Michigan. “When he was young, he didn’t play a lot of baseball — he was more into hockey. But then he took to baseball, and I hadn’t seen a guy in high school like that, who with his speed could get to the gaps and catch balls the way he could.

“The bat’s always a little behind for guys like that. But we thought that eventually would come in to play, and it has. He’s turned himself into a decent hitter, and he’s growing rapidly.”

Gibson signed in June for a set slot price of $319,700, and was on his way to Lakeland for processing ahead of a trip to Single A Connecticut.

He played in 33 games, hitting .252, with six home runs, four triples, a double, and a .761 OPS. He did it all as a designated hitter after a strained elbow ligament (not serious and now healed) kept him from any outfield shifts.

Work to do

It is expected he will begin this season at Single A West Michigan, in suburban Grand Rapids. Only if the Tigers stationed him at a hunting blind in northern Michigan’s woods would Gibson be as cheered.

“It’s almost like you’re playing in front of your family for the Tigers,” he said, “but you’re not with the Tigers yet.”

He has plenty to work on before any tickets to Detroit are issued. And Gibson knows it.

Cam Gibson starred at Michigan State, just like his father, before the Tigers drafted him.

He concedes there must be more discipline at the plate. Eight walks, 24 strikeouts, and a .303 on-base percentage in his 33 games at Connecticut would support Gibson’s thoughts there.

He must also settle on the style of hitter he will be. Another of the Tigers area scouts, Clyde Weir, who covers mid-Michigan and who followed Gibson closely during his Michigan State days, could see no one, including Gibson, had quite decided on a plan: Power hitter or spray hitter? Top-of-the-order, take-a-walk guy? Aggressive mid-order batter?

“He went through a different set of stances and approaches at the plate,” said Weir, speaking of Gibson’s days at Michigan State. “He eventually came to the conclusion, certainly in that first year of pro ball, that he wanted to change his attack and hit for more power. He wanted to turn on the ball more, and hit the ball with more authority, which I think has been a plus for him.

“But I think the main ingredient for me,” Weir said, echoing a Monahan critique, “was his makeup. I really saw a fierce desire to succeed that, for me, was off the charts.

“When we were talking with him the winter before the draft, he looked at me and said: ‘Clyde, if you decide to draft me, please draft me for me, and not for any other reason.’

“I thought, ‘I really like that.’ He wanted to stand on his own and be evaluated accordingly, and not because he was Kirk’s son. It was those kinds of examples that really jumped out at me when we did the final review.”

His father’s son

Independent appraisals made the son a Tigers draft pick 37 years after his dad had been drafted in the first round and signed with the Tigers. But, for all his individual pride, not for a moment does Cam separate himself from what he has learned, and inherited, from his father.

It might begin with how the Gibsons believe an athlete’s brain is as integral to performance as muscles and reflexes.

Cam already has all but absorbed his dad’s mantra about visualizing success ahead of an at-bat. He has learned to think in tandem with the opponent.

“My nature is to go after it,” Cam said, referring to his aggression threshold, “but in the pros you have to think differently. You know their (pitchers’) scouting report, and they know your scouting report.

“So you know on a 1-and-2 count, he’s going to throw you a backdoor slider because he knows you’re going to swing and miss at that 1-and-2 backdoor slider.”

So, the trick, among many he knows he must learn this summer and in subsequent seasons, is to either lay off the pitch. Or, of course, to hammer it — to “defeat the beast,” a favorite creed of his father’s that the son of course has also adopted.

Another chip from the Gibson block is evident when the son talks about a hitter’s acceptance, or rejection, of a brutally tough pitcher.

“If you think about it, it’s in your head,” Cam quotes his dad as saying about negative thoughts and their peril. “You’re going to get yourself out.

“So this pitcher today has struck out six batters in a row, and he’s throwing 101,” the younger Gibson continues, describing the very scenario in which his dad so often triumphed.

“If he’s throwing 101, I’m gonna hit it 102 over the fence.”

Mom, of course, has her own influence here. Cam says JoAnne is able to balance, with a mother’s blend of sweetness and strength, Kirk’s curriculum that is built more on mental and physical fury.

“My dad’s so analytical,” Cam said, “where my mom will say, ‘Just play, sweetie, like I’m dropping you off at Little League. Let your hair fly and have fun.’

“I’ve got both sides coming at me,” Cam said, with a grin more appreciative than weary.

Enjoying life

If he needs to get away from baseball, he has choices apart from those Up North deer-hunts he enjoys with his dad on their ranch in the northeast Lower Peninsula.

He is only a few credits shy of getting his degree in criminal justice and last autumn took a class he found particularly intriguing: “Investigative Procedures,” taught by a former East Lansing police chief, Mark Alley. Gibson learned about fingerprints, and collective evidence.

“I like stuff like that,” he said. “It’s a mystery.”

If classes and hunting aren’t options, a man who has been playing the drums since he was young will pick up the sticks, given that “it’s a really good way to take out some steam.”

He also spends significant time with his girlfriend, Mackinzie Miller, a Michigan State biomedical student. It is a life, he says, a man who two weeks ago turned 22 can count as blessed, much as, yes, his dad always expressed when Kirk summed up his good fortune: “I hit the lottery.”

Cam agrees.

“You know life’s good,” he said, “when everybody’s surrounding and supporting you.

“My entire family’s in on it. I’ve got no reason to do anything but succeed, because they’ve all trusted and believed in me for so long.”

What do they say about apples not falling far from the tree? A half-step and you’ve got the Gibsons covered.