Joining the Dodgers as a free agent in 1988, Gibson’s intensity spurred the team to a World Championship highlighted by his fabled Hollywood-like game-winning home run in the Series opener. Kept out of the lineup by a leg injury, he pinch-hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with Mike Davis on base and the Dodgers down 4-3. Visibly wincing on each swing, he fouled off four pitches before he hit a slider into the right field stands off the A’s immaculate relief ace Dennis Eckersley and limped around the bases while pumping his fists. It was his only at-bat in the Series.
Gibson was also a hero in the LCS, with a 12th-inning solo shot to beat the Mets in Game Four, a three-run homer in Los Angeles’ 7-4 Game Five victory and the game-winning RBI in the Game Seven clincher on a first-inning sacrifice fly. Not a good fielder, he displayed his defensive approach in Game Three when, playing on a sloppy field, the gimpy Gibson made a crucial slipping, lunging catch in the mud while nearly falling down three times in pursuit of the fly ball. Despite unspectacular numbers like a .290 batting average with 25 home runs and 76 RBIs, Gibson won the National League MVP in 1988 (in the process becoming the first player since the inception of the All-Star game to claim the award without a single All-Star selection in his career), an honor bestowed as much for the determined, fiery attitude he brought to the club as for his production at the plate. In a celebrated incident on the first day of spring training, Gibson grew enraged when clubhouse prankster Jesse Orosco smeared the sweatband of his cap with eye black, his reaction setting the tone for the professionalism and competitiveness that would fuel the Los Angeles’ pennant drive.
An All-America football flanker and baseball outfielder at Michigan State University, Gibson was Detroit’s number-one pick in the June 1978 draft. His combination of raw power and speed led the ever excitable Sparky Anderson to dub him “the next Mickey Mantle.” Injuries restricted his progress until 1984, when he became the first Tiger to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in the same season, and the first with at least 10 doubles, triples, homers, and steals since Charlie Gehringer in 1930. He was the MVP of the ALCS, then led the Tigers with seven RBI and three steals in their World Series steamrolling of San Diego, including a pair of home runs in the decisive Game Five.
Though Gibson topped out at 29 homers in 1985, his awesome power resulted in several tape-measure blasts. In 1986 he set a major-league record with five consecutive game-winning RBI and was honored three times as the AL Player of the Week. Gibson’s below-average defense resulted in a shift from right field to left in 1987. His game-tying home run and game-winning single at Toronto on September 27, 1987 enabled the Tigers to avoid a crippling sweep, and eventually to win the AL East title on the final day of the season.
Following his 1988 MVP campaign, Gibson’s chronic leg problems began catching up to him, limiting him to a combined 160 games his last two years in Los Angeles. He signed with Kansas City in December 1990, was traded to Pittsburgh for pitcher Neal Heaton in March 1992, but was released that May. The next season he re-joined the Tigers, where he spent his last three years. Though mostly an injury-plagued shadow of his former self, he did clout 23 home runs with 72 RBIs during the strike-shortened 1994 season.