Kirk Gibson's place on our countdown is likely skewed by his popularity among the fanbase (in no small part due to his Michigan roots), but make no mistake: he was a big part of the Tigers' success in the 1980s and one of the most productive hitters to ever wear a Tigers uniform. He was a rare talent with the ability to hit for power and steal bases, and his passion for the game was well received by many. It is because of these qualities that Gibson won a close vote over John Hiller and Lance Parrish to round out the top 20 of our countdown.
Kirk Gibson was born on May 28, 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan. He was a two-sport star at Michigan State University before being drafted by the Tigers in the first round of the 1978 draft. After a couple of uneventful years in the minors, Gibson debuted on September 8th, 1979. He struck out looking against Hall of Famer Goose Gossage in his first at-bat, and didn't fare much better down the stretch that year with a .651 OPS.
Over the next few years, Gibson played well in part-time action. From 1980 to 1982, he only played in 203 games, but hit .294/.343/.457 with 26 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 796 plate appearances. He played all three outfield positions during this stretch, demonstrating his versatility as a defender. Gibson was a below average defender for his career, but most of his value (or lack thereof) came later in his career. He was worth a combined three wins below replacement defensively in 12 seasons with the Tigers.
Gibson's playing time increased in 1983, but he didn't establish himself as one of the team's starting outfielders until the 1984 season. He hit .282/.363/.516 with 27 home runs, 91 RBI, and 29 stolen bases in 611 plate appearances as the Tigers waltzed their way to their fourth championship. Gibson's best season as a Tiger came in the following year when he nearly became the first Tiger to ever hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in one season. He finished a distant 18th in MVP voting compared to sixth in 1984, but Gibson was better in all facets of the game in 1985.
The most famous moment of Gibson's career is undoubtedly his gutsy pinch-hit home run off Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series, but Gibson also hit a big World Series home run for the Tigers four years earlier. With the Tigers leading the San Diego Padres 5-4 in the eighth inning of Game 5, Gibson hit a towering three-run home run* off Hall of Famer Goose Gossage to stretch the Tigers' lead to 8-4.
AL MVP Willie Hernandez comfortably closed out the game (and the series) in the ninth, giving the Tigers their fourth championship.
*It's worth noting that Gibson's homer came after a sacrifice bunt from Alan Trammell, the #6 player on our list and #2 hitter in that day's lineup. One wonders what sort of obscenities a young Al Beaton was yelling at his transistor radio prior to Gibson's at-bat.
Gibson remained productive in his last two years with the Tigers, putting up his third and fourth consecutive .860+ OPS seasons. Despite missing significant time in both seasons due to injuries, Gibson tallied two more 20 homer-20 steal seasons, his fourth and fifth in a row.
Top Tigers countdown #19: Tommy Bridges
Little guy, big numbers: Bridges played 16 seasons for the Tigers and is now the #19 player in franchise history.
The 1987 season would be Gibson's last in Detroit during the Tigers' '80s heyday. When he originally tested free agency waters in 1985, Gibson was the victim of collusion between the owners, leaving the Tigers as his only suitor. The owners were trying to restore baseball to its roots, when players had little freedom over their contract situations. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the players after 1987, and Gibson was immediately granted free agency. New Tigers owner Tom Monaghan didn't help matters by bashing Gibson in the local media. Gibson eventually signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Gibson got the last laugh when he won the National League MVP and his Dodgers won the World Series, in no small part thanks to his famous pinch-hit home run in Game 1. This would be his last full-time season, however, as injuries derailed his follow-up efforts in 1989 and 1990.
He played for the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates for a season apiece before returning to Detroit when current owner Mike Ilitch took control of the franchise. Gibson performed well in part-time duty in 1993 and hit .276/.358/.548 with 23 home runs and 72 RBI in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He retired prior to the end of the 1995 season as the Tigers limped to a fourth place finish in the AL East.
Despite playing elsewhere for part of his career, Gibson ranks in the top 20 in franchise history in home runs, RBI, stolen bases, runs scored, and slugging percentage. He spent five years as a broadcaster for the Tigers following his retirement before joining the Tigers' coaching staff. He has been with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization since 2007 and has a 290-279 record as their manager since midway through the 2010 season.