I confess I have always been a secret fan of baseball’s Detroit Tigers. I was first and foremost a New York Yankee fan. Very close in my loyalties was the Cincinnati Reds, who was the parent organization for the Indianapolis team when I was growing up. But from afar, I paid attention to the players, games and standing of the team from Detroit.
My grandfather was a huge Detroit Tigers fan. We had relatives in Michigan, but my grandfather’s ties were even closer than that. He had been friends with Detroit’s Hall of Fame outfielder, Ty Cobb. Cobb is credited with setting 90 Major League Baseball records during his career. He still holds several records today, including the highest career batting average (.366). Cobb and Pete Rose are the only two players to have collected more than 4000 hits in their career.
Over the years, the Tigers had some incredible players like Al Kaline, Willie Horton and Justin Verlander. One of their players who caught my eye was an outfielder named Kirk Gibson. Gibson played a few games with the Tigers at the end of 1979 and became a mainstay of the lineup for the next seven years. Free agency lured him to Los Angeles in 1988 and he played three years with the Dodgers and a year each with the Royals and the Pirates, before returning to finish his career with Detroit.
In 1984 Gibson helped lead the Tigers to the World Series. In game 5 of the series with Detroit ahead just one run, Gibson comes up to the plate with two runners on, facing Goose Gossage, one of the game’s best relief pitchers. Gossage, a former pitcher with the Yankees, had always had Gibson’s number. On Gibson’s first major league at-bat, Gossage struck him out on three pitches. In the times since, Kirk had only managed one bunt single in 10 appearances against Gossage.
From the Tigers’ dugout, Detroit manager Sparky Anderson spent Gibson’s entire time at the plate yelling, “Swing away. He don’t want to walk you.” Gibson took Gossage’s 1-0 fastball deep into Tiger Stadium’s right field upper deck. The shot put the Tigers’ lead out of reach, and squelched the Padres’ hopes for the Series.
The moment seemed to summarize Gibson as a player. He would not be defeated, even when the odds seemed stacked against him. Little did he know he would need that grit later in life.
After retiring from playing baseball in 1995, Gibson created the Kirk Gibson Foundation to provide college scholarships to students at the two high schools where his parents taught. He later provided help for athletic and academic excellence at his Alma Mater, Michigan State University. In 2010, Kirk made a significant contribution to the foundation by donating the proceeds of auctioning off his 1988 Dodgers World Series Trophy and his 1988 National League MVP Award.
In 2015, Gibson received the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a brain disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness and difficulties with motor skills of walking, balance and coordination. The symptoms usually begin gradually but worsen over time. As the disease progresses, difficulties persist in walking, talking and writing. The disease can lead to sleep problems, depression, memory failings, and fatigue.
Estimates indicate that more than 10 million people worldwide have the disease. Our awareness of the disease has improved because of notable figures like Muhammad Ali, Michael J. Fox, and Alan Alda. Others afflicted with the disease include Ozzy Osbourne, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, Maurice White, Brian Grant, Billy Graham and George H.W. Bush.
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, there is no common treatment for the disease. Each person is handled individually, based on his or her symptoms. Treatments range from medication and dietary changes to surgical therapy. Lifestyle modifications like more rest and exercise are often used. While the medications tend to treat the symptoms, none appear to reverse the effects of the disease.
Many people spend time in denial about the disease. Their fears of the stigma of the disease delay the seeking of medical treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment is significant for providing several years almost completely free of the symptoms.
Following his diagnosis in 2015, Kirk Gibson expanded the focus of his foundation to raise awareness and funding for Parkinson’s research. In 2017 the foundation helped sponsor the “Gibby & Friends vs Parky” event which raised $1.2 million to promote collaboration between MSU’s College of Human Medicine and several other health institutes.
Earlier this spring, Gibson helped fellow Michigan State Spartan Drew Stanton raise money for Special Olympics and a hospital in Lansing. Sharing with patients who were battling diseases, Gibson said, “When you have a condition where a reality becomes a new normal for you, you have to have people help you out. We want to make sure we assist you and trying to navigate through these tough times.”
He continued, “You just have a choice. Whether you have Parkinson’s or whether you have a headache or whether you’ve got a kid that’s acting up, you have a choice. You can make it a good day. You have to have people to help you through those things. I do … they’re family members. Friends. The outpouring of people to help you is enormous, and you probably don’t realize it. Make sure you use those resources.”
From the Catbird Seat, as a player, Gibson was relentless. He shares that same message today to anyone willing to listen. No matter what your battle, you can decide what happens to your life. We need more leaders who will share that message.