Diamondbacks turn to hard-nosed Gibson in shakeup
PHOENIX – Kirk Gibson brings instant credibility and a much-needed attitude adjustment to the Arizona clubhouse. Whether that can cut down the unrelenting string of strikeouts or blown leads by the game’s worst bullpen remains to be seen.
Gibson’s resume includes 17 years as a major league player with a reputation for fiery toughness. His limping, triumphant game-winning home run in the 1988 World Series stands as one of the game’s most memorable moments.
Now, as interim manager of the Diamondbacks, his challenge is to instill that attitude in a team of terrific but sporadic talent in a laid-back clubhouse where players seem long accustomed to being the whipping post of the NL West.
“My hope is that Gibby let’s his hair down and we get to see the fire that is Kirk Gibson,” new interim general manager Jerry DiPoto said.
Gibson has been a bench coach for Detroit from 2003 to 2005 and, since 2007, for the Diamondbacks. He has had to hold his personality somewhat in check in deference to the manager. But when the Diamondbacks fired A.J. Hinch after a little more than a full season at the helm Thursday night, Gibson became the boss.
“A.J’s personality and Gibby’s personality are opposites,” third baseman Mark Reynolds said before Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Gibby’s fiery and seems ready to go every day. You can’t really convey that as a bench coach. He’s not in charge, it’s not really his place. But now that he’s running the ship and it’s his team to manage, the fans and the media are going to see a lot more of the old Gibby. It should be a kick in the butt.”
In a story he said might be allegorical to his current situation now, Gibson recalled his tirade in his first spring training with the Dodgers in 1988. He had left the Detroit Tigers to sign as a free agent and didn’t like what he saw in Dodgertown. The joking around, the “clowns coming out of trunks” and finally, the last straw when a teammate lathered the inside of his cap with “eye black.” That wasn’t the way he approached the game. He told them he devoted everything to the serious business of winning. Winning, he said, was fun.
“The rest is history,” he said.
Gibson went on to become NL MVP that season and, with both his legs injured, he dragged himself to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series to hit Dennis Eckersley’s 0-2 pitch into the Dodger Stadium seats, limping around the bases, his arm raised in triumph.
He said he’s matured some since his playing days.
“You get more savvy,” Gibson said at a news conference. “There’s just different ways of delivering your intensity. … That’s not to say I’m not going to have a blowup. It may happen. To see a fiery team on the field, playing with fire, would not make me mad. “
Gibson, a standout in baseball and football at Michigan State, played for Jim Leyland in the minors and Sparky Anderson with the Tigers, then Tommy Lasorda in Los Angeles. He said he is “more Sparky” than anyone else.
Hinch had never been a coach, let alone a manager, when eight days shy of his 35th birthday he was moved from his job as vice president for player personnel to replace the fired Bob Melvin on May 8, 2009. He was the choice of his longtime friend, general manager Josh Byrnes, who also got the boot on Thursday night even though he had 5 1/2 years remaining in his contract. DiPoto, a former big-league reliever, shifted from the vice president for player personnel position that Hinch once held.
Under Hinch, the team went 89-123.
“When I took the challenge, I honestly felt like it could work,” Hinch said in a conference call.
Byrnes, hired in 2005 after serving as assistant to GM Theo Epstein in Boston, was considered one of the rising stars of baseball management when the young Diamondbacks had the best record in the National League and advanced to the NLCS in 2007. Arizona was so worried about losing him that he was signed to an extension through 2015.
Managing partner Ken Kendrick, who made the ultimate decision to fire Hinch and Byrnes, said things probably would have been different had ace Brandon Webb been healthy and the bullpen not so terrible.
Hinch said he doesn’t like “to play the if game.”
“I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’m glad that I accepted the challenge,” he said. “Certainly things could have gone better.”
He acknowledged there were things he “had to learn on the fly” but downplayed reports that players simply didn’t buy into his leadership.
“There are those who didn’t believe in me and didn’t want me to be the manager,” Hinch said, “… but I’ll certainly cherish all the relationships that I’ve built.”
Besides the strikeouts and bad bullpen, Kendrick said Arizona’s farm system, once one of baseball’s best, needed improvement.
DiPoto, who described himself as “chatty,”‘said the problem is a gap between the talent the team has at the Class A level and at the major leagues.
As for the bullpen woes, DiPoto should have some expertise. He was a reliever for eight seasons in the majors in a variety of roles. Arizona’s bullpen entered Friday’s game with an ERA a shade under 7.00, and that’s an improvement from what it was a few weeks ago.
With the trade deadline a little over a month away, team president Derrick Hall said that the Diamondbacks want to evaluate the team before making any decisions on trades.
“We made it clear all along we don’t want to blow this up,” he said. “This isn’t a complete makeover. We have to tweak here and there, and I think with new leadership we can make those decisions now and see if they respond differently.”
The Diamondbacks were 15 games behind first-place San Diego in the division going into Friday’s game, the first of 10 straight at home.
Kendrick said that he, along with everyone else, shares the blame for the struggles.
“We all need to look in the mirror when things don’t go well,” he said. “… We’ve made some good decisions, but we have made some bad ones.”
– AP sportswriter John Marshall contributed to this report.
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