(AP) — Danny Litwhiler, the longtime college coach who persuaded Kirk Gibson to give up football for baseball, died at age 95 the day the Arizona Diamondbacks clinched the NL West title.
"I thought it was no coincidence," Gibson said. "He gave me the most important advice of my life, and here I am ballin' in the playoffs 33 years later."
Few could have guessed that Gibson, the super-intense MVP player whose 1988 World Series home run remains one of the game's iconic moments, would evolve into the calm, controlled leader who transformed a woeful franchise into a team of scrappy winners.
"There's a lot more to him than what people thought," said Diamondbacks bench coach Alan Trammell, Gibson's friend for more than three decades, "which I smile, because I knew this a long time ago."
To try to understand the 54-year-old Arizona manager, go back to his roots in Michigan, where his family still lives.
"I grew up as a kid in the woods," Gibson said in an interview with The Associated Press, "working machinery, bulldozers, backhoes, dump trucks, flying airplanes, snowmobiles, motorcycles, diving, navigating on the Great Lakes. ... You've got to be on top of your game. I'd rather be driving the boat than riding in the boat. That's the way it is. That's who I am."
In high school in Waterford, Mich., his first love was football.
"You know, I was big, fast, mean, dominant," Gibson said. "I was a really good player and it came much easier than baseball."
He played both sports at Michigan State. As a standout wide receiver, playing for coach Darryl Rogers, he helped the Spartans earn a tie for the Big Ten title. As Gibson tells it, Rogers suggested he work on baseball so that he would have leverage when it came draft time, regardless of which sport he chose. But baseball was tough, and Gibson was considering giving it up.
Then came the conversation with Litwhiler, who played 11 seasons of pro ball.
"I said, 'Skip, I'm struggling and I'm thinking about giving baseball up and just going to football,'" Gibson recalled. "He said, 'You can do what you want, but I'm going to tell you young man you have a great future in this game.' He sat there and talked to me for 15-20 minutes and basically convinced me to give it some time, which I did."
The next thing he knew, Gibson said, there were scouts in the stands, and the Detroit Tigers made him their No. 1 pick, the 12th selection overall, in the 1978 draft. Football's St. Louis — now Arizona — Cardinals also drafted him, but his mind was made up that baseball would be his sport.
His first major influence as a professional was Jim Leyland, his manager in the minors. Gibson made his major league debut with the Tigers in 1979 and became Detroit's regular right fielder in 1983, playing for Sparky Anderson.
Anderson "taught me how to play the game and started beating it into me how to be a professional and beat into me that I wasn't very important in the game and that the fans were the most important," Gibson said.
Trammell said Anderson's influence on Gibson is obvious.
"We all as players had some success," Trammell said. "You have to talk about yourself to a certain degree, but he (Gibson) is very uncomfortable talking about those kinds of things. That's what we were taught by Sparky is team first. We also were taught that when you win, good things and good comments would come about. It's the truth. This has been a total team effort."
Trammell, an established star with the Tigers, had never seen anyone quite like Gibson.
"I've never seen a guy get ready for a game the way he got himself mentally psyched up and prepared," Trammell said. "He didn't want anyone around him. It was 'game on' about a half-hour before the game. ... That was something that I've never seen. Sparky said that he puts two people the highest as far as intensity and competing. He said Pete Rose was one. Who's going to argue that? But Gibby was second. That's a pretty high compliment."
It's the extreme competitiveness that's at the core of Gibson's being, a "burn" that he has to control more as a manager than he did as a player.
"I have to make sure I keep my composure. I have different roles and duties as a manager," Gibson said. "But I love the competition. There's a feel, I don't know how to explain it. I've always liked it. Maybe some wouldn't, but it's I guess where I'm most comfortable."
Gibson was the MVP of the ALCS in 1987 and the Tigers went on to win the World Series. He signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988 and, with Tommy Lasorda as manager, that year led the team to a World Series title, earning the National League MVP award in the process. Of course, as any fan will tell you, Gibson, basically playing on one leg because of an injury, hit a game-winning home run off Oakland's Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series, pumping his fist in triumph as he hobbled around the bases.
Following his retirement, Gibson worked as a color analyst for Tigers telecasts from 1998 to 2002, then Trammell, then managing Detroit, lured him out of the broadcast booth and made him his bench coach.
"I knew deep down that he likes to be on the field," Trammell said.
Gibson held the job until 2005, then two years later Bob Melvin made him his bench coach in Arizona. Gibson stayed on when Melvin was fired and replaced by the inexperienced A.J. Hinch. With the team mired in last place, Hinch was fired on July 1, 2010, and Gibson was named interim manager.
When Kevin Towers was hired as general manager, one of his first duties was to decide whether Gibson should be retained.
"The couple of weeks I spent with him it became very clear that, yes, he has the fire, the passion. He's intense," Towers said, "but also just from being around him, he was very well-prepared. He had a real good idea on who he wanted this ball club to be and how he would get there. That's why I didn't interview anybody else, just took the interim tag off him and hired him."
Gibson is relentless about gathering information to help him make decisions, often relying on the vast experience of his coaching staff that, besides Trammel, includes hitting coach Don Baylor, pitching coach Charles Nagy, third base coach Matt Williams and first base coach Eric Young.
"There's a lot of different things out in front of you," Gibson said, trying to explain his decision-making process. "There are resources out there. You're just plucking things away as you need them, what's applicable. But you have to know where it's at. You can't spend time searching for it. It's like boom-boom, boom-boom. Plus, in general, you've some things kind of pulled out on the front shelf because you're kind of predicting what you need."
Gibson has used 117 different lineups this season, sometimes relying on a hunch, more often using the information that he's accumulated on that matchup.
"He's a sharp guy, a very sharp guy," Trammell said. "He's well-prepared and he's a leader."
After two seasons as the NL West doormat, the Diamondbacks came to spring training this year with no one expecting much from them, except Gibson, Towers and the coaching staff.
The first day, there was a team meeting, and only Gibson spoke.
"The only time it's been brought up all year long was how it had been in the past and what we went through in the past and why we weren't successful and this is what we're going to do to be successful. This is how we're going to approach the game," third baseman Ryan Roberts said. "This is how we're going to play the game and this is how we want you to play the game. If you don't want to play the game, then the door's right over here."
Roberts said Gibson has kept things loose, joking around with his players, but everyone knows when it is time to get serious.
Through it all, Gibson seems to enjoy remaining something of an enigma.
"You guys didn't understand me, you don't understand me," he said, "and I don't do everything right, OK? I'm trying to. I make mistakes, but I'll stick with it."
Until, he said, his team wins it all. That must be the "vision" he often talks about.
"I have a lot of pride in succeeding," Gibson said, "and I will tell you that it's more fun succeeding with many others than it is individually. It's way more fun. The best thing would be to have a parade here with millions of people.
"That's a party," he said. "That's a party."