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Friday Five: Tough guys

The Diamondbacks visit Detroit this weekend, which makes it a homecoming for Kirk Gibson. Which gave me the idea for this week's Friday Five.

Tough guys. Some showed it more on the field, some more off the field, some a little of each. Here are my five favorites:

1. Kirk Gibson. He played football for Michigan State, decided to play football for his hometown Tigers and, in 1984, delivered a huge Game 5 homer off San Diego's Goose Gossage to give Detroit its first World Series crown since 1968.

Of course, that proved a mere warmup for what was to come. In 1988, Gibson joined the Dodgers, went ballistic when Jesse Orosco pulled a "shoe-black on the cap" trick and then, in the 1988 World Series, cranked a pinch-hit, walk-off homer against Dennis Eckersley to win Game 1. It proved his only at-bat of the series, as he was suffering from injuries to both legs.

It was one of the all-time great moments in the game. And Gibson, now Arizona's manager, still carries that intensity. This past spring training, I happened to be around for the Diamondbacks' Cactus League opener (I was there for Bud Selig's introduction of Joe Torre as MLB"s new executive vice president of baseball operations), and I sat in on Gibson's post-game news conference.

My god. You'd have thought that the D-Backs had just lost their 18th straight regular-season game, so stern was Gibson's countenance.

Tough. Very tough.

2. Kevin Mitchell. Talk to people who knew Mitchell during his time in the game, and the recurring theme is that he was terrifying. He supposedly had gang affiliations, and in Dwight Gooden's and Bob Klapisch's book "Heat," Gooden described a scene in which Mitchell decapitated a cat.

It gives you an idea of why Frank Cashen traded Mitchell (to San Diego, for Kevin McReynolds) right after his impressive rookie year with the 1986 Mets.

Mitchell proceeded to win the 1989 NL MVP award with the Giants, and it was that year when he registered his most famous play, the barehanded catch in leftfield.

The only surprise was that, after that catch, he didn't squeeze the baseball into sawdust.

3. Mel Stottlemyre. He put up a fine career as a pitcher, and if he had access to 2011 modern medicine back in 1975, he might have kept going for a while longer.

But what gets Stottlemyre on this list is the way he has conducted himself in the face of horrendous personal adversity.

In 1981, Stottlemyre lost a son, Jason, to leukemia, when Jason was just 11. Mel Stottlemyre took a few years off to mourn with his family before resuming his career as a pitching coach, and he got his big break when Davey Johnson hired him for the 1984 Mets, kicking off a long run together (and Stottlemyre actually stayed to work under Bud Harrelson, Jeff Torborg and Dallas Green). All the while, he became active for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

He worked for the Astros for two years, then joined Joe Torre's Yankees for the 1996 season. In spring training of 1999, Torre took a leave of absence to have his prostate cancer treated, putting bench coach Don Zimmer in titular charge but increasing Stottlemyre's responsibilities, as well.

Zimmer had a bad knee (I can't remember which one), and he complained about it non-stop. Day after day, he publicly wondered whether he could keep going with the agony he was suffering. It became a recurring storyline, and at what point, following a regular-season loss in Texas, he actually told the team he was stepping down.

What virtually no one knew at the time - probably Stottlemyre, Torre and Brian Cashman; I'm not sure if Zimmer even knew - was that Stottlemyre, quietly working extremely hard, had been told he had a dormant case of multiple myeloma. The disease flared up in 2000, when Stottlemyre announced the news. I remember sitting at Stottlemyre's news conference in Seattle and asking him, "So last year ('99), during all of that chaos while Joe was gone, you were dealing with this?"

"Yeah," Stottlemyre said. Amazing. And since then, Stottlemyre has worked publicly to help others with the condition. A real tough guy, for sure.

(Special honorary mention at this juncture to our own Bob Tufts, who has handled his multiple myeloma diagnosis with great courage and dignity.)

4. Willie Stargell. I loved watching "Pops" play, waving that bat over his head like it was a toothpick. His long home runs are legend.

And what puts him over the top for his list was his reputation as a team leader. The kind of guy who wanted to put a team on his back and carry them. That was best exemplified with the 1979 Pirates, when Stargell rewarded "Stargell Stars" to his teammates who excelled.

With Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" serving as the team's theme song, Stargell, then 39, served as the father figure (hence the nickname) as the Bucs overcame a 3-1 deficit to the Orioles in the World Series, winning the final two games in Baltimore.

Great story. Great player. Great teammate.

5. Pete Rose. Charlie Hustle. The Hit King. Played for three World Series champions, and his most famous play (besides his record-breaking hit) is his 1980 World Series catch off Bob Boone's glove. Although, if you read this linked write-up, you'll see that Boone (in good, "It turned out just fine" spirit) blames Rose for not getting to the ball first.

He'd be higher on this list if he hadn't, you know, damaged the game's integrity by gambling on games and earning a lifetime suspension.

--Here's my column from yesterday about David Wright and the Mets.

--How about a contest later today? Sure, let's do it.

 

 

 

 

 

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