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The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle (A New Book from Barry Sparks) - Vol. 3 (Kirk Gibson)

May 6, 2022

THE SEARCH FOR THE NEXT MICKEY MANTLE (A NEW BOOK FROM BARRY SPARKS - COMING SUMMER 2022) SPECIAL TO SSTN Author Barry Sparks has a brand new book coming from Sunbury Press this summer, The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle. This wonderful book tells the story of many of the players who were hyped as the next great superstar - the next Mickey Mantle. We have been provided the great opportunity to preview this book months prior to its release. We are also privileged to be able to share some excerpts from the text with our readers. The book will be released in the summer of 2022. *** KIRK GIBSON: THE HARD-NOSED IMPACT PLAYER “I have found the next Mickey Mantle. Kirk Gibson will be a legend.” Seattle Mariners scout Jerry Krause Sportswriter Jayson Stark once observed that Kirk Gibson "had the physique of Gibraltar and the speed of a Porsche." (1) At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Gibson possessed the rare combination of extraordinary speed and awesome power. In college, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds, and he could bash a baseball into the upper deck of any ballpark and completely out of some. As if that wasn't impressive enough, he played the game with the intensity of a hard-nosed football player, which he was in college. The "next Mickey Mantle" tag was applied early, stuck with Gibson longer and haunted him more than perhaps any other player. Despite periods of brilliance and dramatic moments, Gibson never played in an All-Star game in his 17-year career. Battling a series of injuries throughout his career, he never clouted 30 homers, drove in 100 RBI or batted .300 in a season. Kirk Gibson never considered a career in baseball until his junior year in college. Being a professional football player was his goal. Gibson played football, baseball, and basketball at Waterford Kettering High in Waterford, Mich. He attended Michigan State University on a football scholarship and worked hard to become an outstanding receiver. He led the Spartans in receiving yards from 1976 to 1978. After Gibson's junior football season, MSU baseball coach Danny Litwhiler, a former 11-year major league player, asked him if he was interested in playing baseball. Kirk, reluctant at first, decided to play baseball after receiving the blessing of Darryl Rogers, MSU football coach, and his father. They figured playing baseball would increase his leverage with NFL teams at draft time. Gibson made an impression as he batted .390, slugged 16 homers, tallied 52 RBI and stole 21 bases in 48 games. He established school records for homers and RBI and was named to the All-American team. More than a dozen major league teams were interested in drafting him. Litwhiler said, "Kirk has more all-around ability than any baseball player I've ever seen." (2) The Michigan native preferred to play for the Tigers, who had the 12th selection in the draft. He wanted to stay close to home and play in front of his friends and family. He used the leverage of possibly playing in the NFL (some thought he could be a first-round selection) to discourage other baseball teams pursuing him. He was more honest with the Tigers. Detroit invited Kirk to show off his skills in a pre-game batting practice at Tiger Stadium. He recalled the unofficial tryout: "I hammered everything. I don't know how many pitches crashed into the upper deck, but during a lengthy 60-pitch session, it was more than enough to have sold the Tigers on my raw ability." (3) He was adamant that he would return to Michigan State University to play football his senior year after being selected in the baseball draft. He said there was no negotiation on that point. Many teams weren't willing to take the risk of him getting injured playing football. The MSU star garnered high praise from major league scouts. The Atlanta Braves had the first selection in the 1978 draft. Their chief scout Paul Snyder said, "Gibson stands out. If I had to compare him to anyone, he's like Mickey Mantle. You don't often see that combination of speed and power." (4) Jerry Krause, scout for the Seattle Mariners, told scouting director Mel Didier, "I've found the next Mickey Mantle." Krause believed Gibson would hit 50 homers a year in the Kingdome. "He'll be a legend," he enthused. (5) Didier wrote in a scouting report, "Gibson reminds me of Mickey Mantle with Pete Rose hustle. He has flair." (6) The Atlanta Braves selected Bob Horner of Arizona State University No. 1. The Braves passed on Gibson because he told them his first love was football, explained Snyder. Gibson was still available when the Tigers selected with the 12th pick. Gibson opted for baseball over football because he thought he would have a longer career and baseball had free agency. He admitted, however, that baseball was extraordinarily difficult for him. He figured it would take him longer to excel at the professional level in baseball than football. The Tigers signed him for $200,000, the largest bonus in the history of the club. They assigned him to Class A Lakeland in the Florida State League. Kirk made it clear he wanted to get to the majors as quickly as possible. Detroit shared his goal, but had to be careful not to rush him. At Lakeland, he was introduced to taskmaster and manager Jim Leyland, who stated he wasn't impressed by Gibson's reputation, potential or bonus. He expected the highly touted prospect to report to the ballpark at 8:30 every morning for a challenging workout. Gibson responded by telling him to "Bring it on." In 54 games, he batted .240, knocked eight homers and drove in 40 runs. He struck out 54 times in 175 at-bats and made six errors. After eight weeks in the minors, he returned to Michigan State University to play his senior year of football. He helped lead the Spartans to a share of the 1978 Big Ten Championship and a No. 12 national ranking by the Associated Press. He was named first-team All-Big Ten and first-team All-American. He closed out his career as MSU's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and TD receptions. The St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the seventh round of the NFL draft. The Tigers invited Gibson to their 1979 spring training camp, but he was cut early. Detroit assigned him to AAA Evansville in the American Association. Tigers great Al Kaline said, "Gibson has awesome power. He just has to get used to playing every day, seeing a lot of different pitches. I think he's going to be a super baseball player." (7) Manager Jim Leyland, who had been promoted to Evansville, continued to work with Gibson. Years later, he recalled Gibson's work ethic: "I've never had a player who worked harder than Kirk. (8) *** END NOTES 1. Akron Beacon Journal, Oct. 7, 1984 2. Lansing State Journal, May 20, 1978 3. Bottom of the Ninth, Kirk Gibson with Lynn Henning, p. 50 4. Detroit Free Press, June 9, 1978 5. Yahoo Sports, March 22, 2017 6. Bottom of the Ninth, p. 53 7. Detroit Free Press, April 6, 1979 8. Detroit Free Press, Aug. 17, 1995


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