Kirk Gibson was never interested in being on the All-Star team and rejected two invitations during his 17-year career in Major League Baseball. But nowadays he’s all for being part of a team that faces a common challenge. Ten million people worldwide have Parkinson’s disease and Gibson is one of them.
The limp that became Gibson’s trademark for determination when he circled the bases after his iconic walk-off pinch-hit home run for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series is now in his left foot and is just one of his symptoms. Parkinson’s is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement and causes tremors. Gibson announced in 2015 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Gibson, an All-American wide receiver at Michigan State before becoming a big leaguer at 22 in 1979, is up for this fight. The same one waged by the late Muhammad Ali, actor Michael J. Fox and former Pirates star and National League MVP Dave Parker.
“I know it’s progressed, but it seems fairly slow,’’ Gibson, 61, said last week from Detroit. “I’m walking, I limp. My left arm is not going to move. I can try to cover it up. But it’s too much work to do that all the time. I’m dealing with it the best way I can. I’m very active. I’m working with my foundation trying to raise money and help others who have it. Obviously, you want to find a cure. It’s going to take a lot of people to do that. The other part is to help people when they find out they have it, where to go to get diagnosed. I’m very entrenched with that. I’m trying not to sit in the corner and let it get to me.”
Gibson is still getting used to being upfront and open about his condition. He never wanted anything to be about him. He never used injuries as an excuse. In 1988, Gibson injured his right knee when he slid into second base in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Mets. The pain lingered into the World Series and was the backdrop for one of the most famous home runs in Series history.
Earlier that season, Gibson had rejected an invitation to the All-Star Game — for the second time. “It doesn’t even seem like a logical decision, but that’s the way I did it,’’ Gibson said.
“Right or wrong, that’s the way it was. I had to make a lot of decisions in my life. I didn’t make all the right decisions. It worked out pretty good. I won a couple of world championships with my teammates [in 1984 with the Tigers and 1988 with the Dodgers] and that’s what I played for. As stupid as it sounds now, it just didn’t make sense for me to go there and do that. Years later I can’t really say I regret it. I do enjoy watching the game. It’s a great event. I just guess I never saw myself being part of it.’’
Gibson, who also declined an All-Star invite in 1985, did go as a coach in 2011. The game was in Arizona, where Gibson was manager of the Diamondbacks. “[Giants manager] Bruce Bochy asked me to go, it was in our home ballpark,’’ Gibson said. “It was cool. It was a great experience to meet guys. Back then [as a player] I wasn’t a fraternizer at all. That’s the way I was brought up. I was kind of ornery, kind of intense. If my brother was on the other team I probably would have tried to beat him at all cost and all expense. I just really wasn’t out there to make friends. My personality was more to press the issue physically and mentally and part of that meant not getting to know people early in my career as I did later in my career. It was part of the enigma of who I was.’’
Now, he is part of charity golf tournaments and functions for the Kirk Gibson Foundation, whose mission is to find a cure for Parkinson’s. “When you find out it’s a shock,’’ he said. “I didn’t have a real good understanding of what Parkinson’s was. Then you get on your medication and you feel better. I tried to minimize my medication intake. You can ride a bike, I golf at times. You have to try to do things to help coordinate yourself. I do some cognitive exercises to try and keep exercising my brain. I’m not the kind of guy that wants to give into it.’’
Gibson initially thought his symptoms — neck pain, frozen left arm, shoulder issue — were from his playing days, possibly from football. “It’s a possibility,’’ he said. “When I pass I probably would donate my brain [to medical research]. That’s where they are right now. Somebody has to be dead to take the organs and analyze them. People ask me how many concussions I think I’ve had. I mean, lots.”
Gibson stresses patient education.
“There’s a lot of cases, there’s a lot of people that have it that haven’t been diagnosed,’’ he said. “You got to go to the right doctor. You got to go to the neurologist. I will tell you it’s a beast. Sometimes you think you’re doing good and getting ahead . . . It’s a very powerful disease.”
Gibson enjoys getting out and meeting people.
“It’s fun to talk to everybody now. I was in Boston about a month ago. I spent quite a bit of time with Dennis Eckersley,” said Gibson, who hit his 1988 World Series homer off Eckersley, the A’s closer.
Gibson wants the team he is on now to succeed.
“I’ve always been a good team player,” Gibson said. “I’ve always tried to bring teammates together for a common goal so we could accomplish something and my mission statement from my foundation is collaboration, cooperation and teamwork. Getting people to think outside the box. I’m not scared of it. I expect to deal with it for a long, long time.’’