NOVI, Mich. — On the front door of his Michigan home hangs a wreath streaked with golds and reds, matching the leaves on the changing trees surrounding it.
Inside, the man who tore through Octobers past by smashing two of the most dramatic World Series home runs of our time answers the doorbell by yanking open the door and practically leaping into view, devilish grin, twinkling eyes, greeting a visitor as if teasing a trick-or-treater.
Except, this has nothing to do with Halloween.
It is a brisk autumn evening, and Kirk Gibson is in a place he never dreamed of being, waging a battle he never planned on fighting and surrounded not by teammates and postseason scouting reports, but by a loving family and a crack team of doctors and therapists.
In April, Gibson, 58, announced he has Parkinson's disease.
With his energetic greeting, he is demonstrating one of his voice therapy exercises.
It sounds like a singer warming up his voice by working scales pre-concert. Except, the stakes are different. Dramatically different.
"I'm not going to lie," Gibson says. "It was like a kick in the nuts. Initially, it's a shock. And then you've got to tell your family, your kids, and you start looking into it. And you don't know how they're going to react, and you don't want to let them down.
"It's not a death sentence. It doesn't have to be a death sentence. So you start looking at a course of action, and you have to implement it.
"I just took it with great vigor, I guess you could say. I wanted to do it, I wanted to do it right, I wanted to do it well, and I wanted to attack what I was up against.
"I learned to hit a curveball. At one time, I learned how to hit a screwball. But I had to really screwball this thing. Because it's different.
"It's a new normal for me."
As ever, he is living his life pedal to the metal. He is attacking Parkinson's as if ripping into that Dennis Eckersley backdoor slider in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series in Dodger Stadium. Or the Goose Gossage fastball in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series in Tiger Stadium.
October. Scene of some of his greatest triumphs.
The way he figures it, he's got a few more fist pumps in store.
On the back door for most of the past three weeks a sign has been taped to the glass: "BIG and LOUD."
That this man would have to be reminded to do anything big or loud at one time would have been unthinkable. Always, his was among the biggest personalities in a clubhouse. One of the loudest voices on the field.
But Parkinson's disease steals its way into your brain, affecting the central nervous system and, in turn, motor skills and nonmotor skills alike. Cells that produce an organic chemical called dopamine begin to die off, and the effects manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Slurred speech. Rigidity. Slowness of movement that can make even walking difficult at times, affecting one's gait. Shaking.
Initially, it often can be controlled with medication. Eventually, as the disease progresses, patients hit a wall with their medication. The dosage needs to be increased gradually, but then the side effects worsen. There reaches a point where increased medication brings diminishing returns.
One of the most notable challenges associated with the disease is called dyskinesia, which is a side effect that often becomes evident in Parkinson's patients who have been on a medication called levodopa for a prolonged period of time. Dyskinesia is a condition with severe movement disorders caused by involuntary muscle movements.
Eventually, deep brain stimulation becomes an option for patients who have reached a critical point and with whom doctors are having a difficult time managing medication.
Gibson, according to his neurologist, Dr. Ashok Sriram, has young-onset Parkinson's disease. It is attacking the left side of his body, and it is still in the very early stages.
"We need a crystal ball to tell [his future]," Sriram says. "People progress differently. But in general, we know people with Parkinson's, the disease progresses slowly. We know that part.
"The reality is, it is a progressive condition and things are bound to get worse. How soon, we don't know. But people who take it as a challenge, take the bull by the horns, take charge to make sure they are in control…those people do very well. They really do very well.
"I have a feeling Kirk is going to be one of those people with slow progression because of the intensity of his exercises."
One of the first things the specialists did with Gibson upon his diagnosis in April, after settling on his medication, was set him up with the BIG and LOUD physical therapy programs that are common among Parkinson's patients. They call for sweeping, dramatic gestures with your arms and legs, and a concentrated effort to project your voice. Parkinson's naturally stifles both, so essentially you retrain yourself. Big. Loud.
Four times a week for nearly two months, he underwent therapy with Lea, his "voice girl," as he calls her, and Kerri, his movement therapist.
"They worked on my posture, taught me how to have big movements, and I do my voice," Gibson says. "Aaaaaahhhhhhhh. You've got to do that as long as you can, and keep your tone. AAAAHHHHaaaahhhh. AaaahhhhAAAAHHHH. You have to practice all of those things, and say sayings. Because when it sets in, you're mostly talking in monotone. See, now when I talk I have inflection.
"And your face, you can't smile. I had to learn how to smile again."
On each of the past two days, Gibson and JoAnn, his wife of nearly 30 years (their anniversary is Dec. 21), have driven nearly two hours each way from their home to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a symposium called Grand Challenges in Parkinson's Disease. There were two different sessions, one for researchers and one for patients. They talked about the proteins in the Parkinson's equation, how they accumulate in neurons, how they spread, where the research is going.
He has learned what causes "off days" (lack of sleep, poor diet, too much alcohol) and takes care to avoid those things. Exercise is vital, so he and JoAnn walk three miles or so each day, stop in the gym where Kirk does his movement exercises and some light lifting, and then walk another three miles or so.
Earlier this summer, because patients must take what they learn in therapy and practice on their own, he sent a video shot by his son, Kevin, to Lea. It is of the Gibson family driving somewhere, Kirk doggedly working on his voice exercises, conducting a family "group voice therapy" session in the car. The Griswolds have nothing on the Gibsons.
"See, you can have fun doing these things," JoAnn says wryly. "It's a blast."
Not long after JoAnn pours a couple glasses of wine, Kirk bounds up off of the family room couch, hammering home a point he is trying to explain.
"Watch me when I walk," he says. "Walking like this, my normal way would be to have my left arm here."
"Here" is his left arm bent at the elbow, arm fairly close to his body. But now, as he strides across the room, he swings his left arm like a sprinter pumping toward the finish line.
For most of the past four years, he could not do this. His left arm didn't move well, and his left hand usually was clutched up. Often, he would need help buttoning his shirt. And forget something as simple as picking up a coin off a table with his left hand.
Now? What a difference a diagnosis and a summer have made.
"I feel way better than I did the last couple of years," he says. "Light-years."
Kirk Gibson's new normal.
"Come on back here," he says, leading me toward the back door. "I want to show you something."
Alas, when we arrive…it turns out JoAnn removed the BIG and LOUD sign just a couple of days ago. She figured the way her husband is attacking this thing, visuals are extraneous.
It was in the broadcast booth on Opening Day in Detroit this season when he knew something was terribly wrong.
Preparing for the start of the broadcast with play-by-play man Mario Impemba, he suddenly had difficulty speaking. And he couldn't smile.
Anxiety is another symptom of Parkinson's. But the irony is, until that moment in the TV booth, Gibson throughout his life had treated anxiety exactly the way he treated Gossage in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the '84 World Series, when the Padres failed to intentionally walk Gibson and he drilled a three-run homer, his second of the game, to put things out of reach as the Tigers clinched.
"I'm standing in the box knowing what he's thinking," Gibson says of Gossage, who had struck him out on three pitches in Gibson's first major league plate appearance in 1979. "And I'm thinking, 'I'm taking your ass up there, this is my time.'"
In the booth, a producer talked into his earpiece.
"Hey Gibby, man, smile. You look like you saw a ghost."
"But the reality," Gibson says. "Little did I know. I called JoAnn and said, 'Something is wrong.'"
He scheduled appointments and tests right away, across the state from Detroit in Grand Rapids.
"I didn't want to go around town," he says. "I wanted to go a little out of town for privacy reasons."
It was no secret that physical erosion was nipping at him over the past few years, especially when Gibson was managing in Arizona from July 2010 through 2014. He had undergone neck surgery in 2010. Left shoulder surgery in 2013. Left knee surgery in 2014.
It was like an assembly line of procedures. Physically, when the Diamondbacks fired him last September after the team had gone 63-96 in 159 games, he was a totally different man than when he was named National League Manager of the Year in 2011 while leading the D-backs into the division series against Milwaukee.
Because he played football and was an All-American wide receiver at Michigan State, and because he plowed through 17 seasons of major league baseball (most notably with Detroit from 1979-87 and again from 1993-95, and with the Dodgers from 1988-90), well, the surgeries were no surprise.
Nor was his blase reaction over the past couple of years to what he since has learned were some early warning signs of Parkinson's.
Sriram's diagnosis came quickly, following blood work and an MRI of his brain.
"The weirdness really came because we thought he was dealing with old sports injuries," JoAnn says. "That's what we believed. That's what I believed.
"When you believe that for a period of time, when you're thinking that somebody is dealing with a beat-up sports body and then you're standing in the doctor's office and they're telling you that, you're thinking, 'No, you don't understand. He is really beat up.'
"And I did say that to the doctor: 'No, you are wrong.' He had had neck surgery. Shoulder surgery. So there was kind of some denial.
"But yeah, it was the real deal. And I think if maybe he hadn't had all of those sports injuries, when symptoms came up it would have been, 'Oh, gee, what's that?' But he just dismissed it as something it actually ended up not being."
Who knows how and why these things strike any of us? Family genes? Did the hard knocks he took on the football field trigger something?
"For the most part, I don't think it's hereditary," Gibson says. "There might be a person or two who thinks it could be, but overall I don't think it is. And that's why they took an MRI on my brain, because I took a lot of hits.
"It cracks me up when they ask football players how many concussions they've had. If you've played long enough, how do you know?
"We were taught to use our helmet as a weapon. I'd catch the ball and come right at you. I'd put my helmet on yours. As hard as I could. And I had a good, hard head. I saw lightning, stars, and I got up and ran back to the huddle."
Says JoAnn: "Most people we've spoken to, doctors, there's no definitive reason why. Hereditary, football, there is no way to tell. At least, thus far."
Absolutely, the Gibsons believe, as does Sriram, that he had been living with Parkinson's disease for a time before it was diagnosed.
"There were little hints you can think back on," Gibson says. "But this year, there were overwhelming hints and evidence.
"Looking back, the last three years for sure. It's pretty easy to see it. And yet, I'm still in the early stages."
In September, Gibson's old boss in Arizona, former Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, visited for a day at the 1,300-plus-acre ranch in northern Michigan that Gibson owns with former pitcher David Wells and San Francisco's Jake Peavy.
"He's doing a lot better than he was when I had him as a manager," says Towers, who remains a close friend of Gibson's.
People with the Diamondbacks noticed it over his last couple of seasons managing: the slow gait, the occasionally slurred words when he talked with players, the way his eyes stared straight ahead, not moving, sometimes when the bright television lights were in his face. Some feared: Had Gibson suffered a small stroke?
For a time back around 2010, Gibson, Towers and then-Diamondbacks coach (and recently fired Nationals manager) Matt Williams were avid mountain bikers, working out so fiercely their motto was, "Go 'til you blow." Like most things with Gibson, it became a competition. That sort of drifted away, especially following Gibson's neck surgery.
"That's what I thought it was," Towers says. "Because he kind of froze up, started walking more stiffly, slurring his words. I really thought maybe they hit a nerve [during the neck surgery]. It's a pretty significant surgery, and I'm not a doctor.
"You spend that much time with a guy, all of a sudden he stops doing some of the things he used to do…it doesn't feel right. You're around somebody so much, you notice changes. He's such a competitor, he's got so much pride.
"Last year…we had a conversation and I told him, 'Hey, if you and I both get let go, go take care of yourself. Go home and get healthy.'"
Now, here he was in April, in Sriram's office.
"Kirk is amazing," Sriram says. "I knew nothing about baseball before I met him. I wasn't sure what to expect. I got a phone call from a primary care doctor and he told me about Kirk and that Kirk was coming to see me.
"It's not unusual to see VIPs come into my clinic. It was almost 6 p.m. when Kirk and JoAnn came in. In the first few minutes I got a sense of what he's in for and where the discussion [was] heading. He did have some injuries, which were a little confounding for his diagnosis.
"By the end of his visit, I was pretty sure what he [had] and I just wanted to test him to see whether he's ready for his diagnosis. And his spirit, this person is all positive."
Says Towers: "He is so much better now. His golf game is back, his frame of mind. To be quite honest, I think he's champing at the bit to get back into it. I think he'd love to manage again. In the right situation, I think he'd be a bench coach."
"Put your notebook down and do this," Gibson says, ordering me to stretch both arms straight out and then rotate each arm in small circles at the same time.
"OK," Gibson says. "Keep doing it. Now close your eyes and tell me every mammal that begins with the letter S."
This, too, is part of his new normal. It works motor skills and works the brain in conjunction with each other.
On the spot, in the moment, even on a quiet evening with only Kirk and JoAnn here on the couch, it is difficult to think.
"Snake," I say tentatively. "Wait, that's a reptile."
"We'll count it," Gibson barks. "Keep going."
"Sloth," I continue, eyes closed, arms out, rotating. "Saber-toothed tiger."
"He's going good," JoAnn says.
"But he's not," Kirk says, telling me to stop, and explaining why I'm not: "For me, it's a cognitive exercise. When you have Parkinson's, it's much tougher. You started thinking and, you know, you stopped moving your arms a couple of times.
"They give you various tests, and then they give you a rank on it. They do all kinds of things. But when you're in there the first day and you've got Parkinson's and you're all freaked out and they ask you a question like that, it's a bitch. I think I got two or three."
"So then," JoAnn says, picking up the story. "After the first time he did that, when he went home and he knew he had to go back in two months and the guy was going to retest him…"
"I studied the alphabet," Kirk says, grinning wildly. "Animals."
"Yeah, he just started reeling them off," JoAnn says.
"But that's not good," Kirk says, laughing. "They're giving you a test for a reason. It's just me f--king around, basically."
"The doctor was impressed," JoAnn says.
"He said, 'You've been studying!'" Kirk says.
Damn right Gibson had been—and is—studying. He is attacking "Parky's"—yes, he sometimes refers to it as if it is a friendly adversary—with the same competitive drive that fueled 6,656 big league plate appearances, 255 career homers, a career .352 on-base percentage and two World Series rings despite the fact that he played only one year of baseball at Michigan State.
"What I try to do is gather a team of guys together, talk to people all over," he says of the doctors and specialists who are his new teammates. "There's nothing out there you can unequivocally say will stop the progression, or cure it, right now. They're close."
He's met with folks from the Michael J. Fox Foundation on more than one occasion, and he plans to attend their annual gala in New York in November. His mind hungers for information. His spirit still thirsts for competition.
Lea and Kerri learned that as soon as his therapy began in April.
"They were really, I don't want to say in my face, but they realized what I expected to do," Gibson says. "How I've approached all of my endeavors through life, I approached that. I took it as a challenge.
"But when I was being foolish, I felt like it was Sparky all over again. They were teaching me the fundamentals."
Early in his baseball career, young and brash, Gibson clashed with Sparky Anderson, the legendary, old-school Tigers manager. Both men were competitive, stubborn and unrelenting, resulting in, as Gibson says, "some tough-ass times."
By the end of their run together, highlighted by that '84 title, they had reached a destination that neither had seen coming. In a frame in Gibson's office today, there is a handwritten letter from the late manager sent when both men were older and wiser.
"It basically says, 'I just want you to know, though you were a challenge, the memories that we made together were unforgettable,'" Gibson says. "And his favorite part of managing all those years were those type of memories where he built a relationship."
Teamwork. Though Gibson initially came at things differently than Sparky, he ended up in the same place.
You bet those lessons learned on the baseball field and beyond are being employed in his current battle.
"My deal is, I want to find something not only for my benefit, but for everybody's benefit," Gibson says. "I want to try to make a difference. I see it the way you look at a successful team. There are certain components, and really the top component is that they're pulling for each other, they want to succeed, and they don't care who gets the credit. Right?"
Here, he tells a story about 1988, his iconic home run, the underdog Dodgers and him winning the National League MVP award while practically pulling his team by its throat to the NL West title.
"When I won the MVP, I lived north of here in the boondocks, and we probably had 60 media and friends there," he says. "We had a little press conference and I hated it. It was all about me and the MVP, and I was talking about myself and I hated it.
"When we won the World Series, we had a parade both times. That's over a million people. And that is fun, when you can influence that many people in a positive direction.
"When you think of the things you've done athletically, or the major things you've done in your life, what were the things that made you feel happy, like you've accomplished something? It's when you've sacrificed for a cause.
"That's kind of where I am now as far as getting involved in how to make people, first of all, know how to identify it, where to go, how to make it more efficient, how to make it cheaper and, most of all, find a cure."
It is why he has decided to take this fight public, and why he gave his doctor the green light to talk for this story.
And he is doing it all in his own inimitable way.
"I call him the Rammer because his name is so f--ked up to say," Gibson says of Sriram, grinning. "I told him, 'Now you're the Rammer. I'm not going to say your whole name anymore.'"
Over the telephone, the neurologist laughs. Hard.
"Yes," Sriram says. "And by the way, no one else calls me that."
When JoAnn walks upstairs for a bit to pack for a weekend getaway with a friend, Kirk lowers his voice. And, just for an instant, it catches with emotion.
"She's been unreal," he says. "She's a rock. Sweeter than sweet. She is such a good person as a mother and leader of our family."
Kirk and JoAnn have four grown children, Colleen, Kirk, Kevin and Cameron. It takes a lot to keep a baseball family together, and between them, Kirk's mother (his father passed away several years ago) and JoAnn's parents and siblings, there is even more heavy lifting when something as insidious as Parkinson's comes calling.
"It's been an interesting competition this summer," Gibson says.
He returned to the Tigers television booth in July following the three-month absence that gave him a chance at therapy and to regain his balance.
No, you wouldn't exactly wish for a summer like this. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been filled with some very special moments. Sometimes life calls a timeout so you can appreciate the little things. And you're reminded, they're not so little after all.
So, without a manager's job in the spring, there were family trips to watch son Kevin play hockey for Wisconsin-Stevens Point (jersey No. 23, of course). With extra time in April and May, Kirk and JoAnn saw several of Cam's baseball games at Michigan State. And in Kirk's words, they've had an "unreal concert season" seeing, among other acts, the Rolling Stones, Cheap Trick, the J. Geils Band, Kid Rock, Alice Cooper, the Foo Fighters, Brian Wilson, Rodriguez, Bob Seger and Van Halen.
In June, the Tigers drafted Cam, 21, in the fifth round, a moment that left his mother shedding tears of joy and his proud father video-recording the entire scene.
"Give me a hug," an ecstatic Cam demands of his father, walking straight toward the video camera. "Give me a damn hug!"
Oh, have there ever been hugs. Real and virtual. The outpouring of concern from family, friends and even those he barely knows in baseball has touched him in ways he didn't know he could be touched. Among the texts he's received, so many were unexpected, like this one from a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder:
Hey Gibby, it's Matt Holliday. I just wanted to pass along my admiration and support for you. I've always tried to play hard and tough like you did. I'm praying for your fight with Parkinson's. With much respect and love, Matt.
The response Gibson sent Holliday:
Thanks for your kind words. It's the only way to be. I'm going to kick ass and enjoy watching you.
"He's battling," Wells, the former pitcher and Gibson's close friend, says. "He's a tough son of a bitch. There's nothing that man can't conquer. He's got a very strong mind, a very strong will."
"He is in the best care, and he'll have to be on the medication for the rest of his life," says Alan Trammell, Gibson's old Tigers teammate and another close friend. "The best compliment I can tell you is, he seems normal. It seems like he's going to live a normal, productive life. He's probably not out of the woods, but he seems fine."
Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons, a Michigan native, was a guest in the Tigers broadcast booth on Opening Day, and his was among the many other texts that poured in after Gibson's announcement on April 28 with a statement he wrote himself. Because he wanted the public to hear it in his own voice.
"There are a lot of nice things that have happened," JoAnn says. "We were walking around last week. We've lived here for a few years but we don't know a lot of people here. A man, maybe our age, rode up on his bike while we were walking. He recognized Kirk and stopped for just a minute of local neighborhood chitty-chat stuff, and then he said 'See ya' and started pedaling away.
"And he got maybe half a house up and turned around and said, 'I'm praying for you.' And we didn't even talk about that. He just felt like he wanted to get that in there.
"It was really cute."
And in August, a couple of television analysts bumped into each other in a Comerica Park hallway when the Red Sox were playing in Detroit: Gibson and Eckersley.
"We had a great talk," Gibson says. "There are things you want to make sure are right, and my thing was when people talk about that home run, I feel like sometimes they kind of overdo what I did and they undermine what Dennis did."
That World Series night in 1988, Gibson was so hobbled by right hamstring and left knee injuries that he wasn't even on the Dodger Stadium field for introductions before Game 1. He wasn't supposed to play. But he sent word late to manager Tommy Lasorda that he had one at-bat in him, and up he stepped in the ninth with two out, a man on and the Dodgers trailing 4-3.
When Eckersley quickly threw two strikes, it looked like a mismatch. But Gibson battled to a full count and then, on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, remembering advance scout Mel Didier's report that Eck liked to throw his backdoor slider in this situation, lightning struck. Gibson sent one of the most famous home runs in Dodgers history screaming through the evening into the right field pavilion, a game-winner that launched Los Angeles toward a thrilling upset.
"In a year that has been so improbable," Vin Scully said so poetically on national television, "the impossible has happened!"
It was his only at-bat in that World Series.
Time passes and lives change. As the baseball drought continues in Los Angeles—the Dodgers have not played in a World Series since 1988—Gibson's epic feat has grown to mythic proportions.
"That strong body," Lasorda says. "That's the thing you think about. God almighty."
Eckersley was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004. Lasorda, in 1997. Each will remain inextricably linked with Gibson's force of nature willpower for as long as there is a World Series.
Gibson still owns a cassette tape of the Dodgers' radio broadcast that night with the late Don Drysdale on the call. Sometimes, when he's having a rough day, he still listens to it.
"You get embarrassed, because you want to be humble," he says. "But at the same time, I'll listen to that s--t any day. You know? It certainly doesn't make me feel sad.
"You've got to lift yourself up. You've gotta do it."
Right now, in that regard, he will use every weapon he has at his disposal. There is no telling what lies ahead, so he will do what he's done for most of his life: lean on teammates like the Rammer and charge full speed ahead into the great unknown.
"One thing about Parkinson's is, every patient is going to be different," Sriram says. "Every person with Parkinson's is like in their own little boats at their own speed.
"Kirk, even though he may have had the symptoms for a long time, he's responded very well. I wouldn't say he's 100 percent, but he's 90 percent better than when I met him in the clinic."
Much as he loves his television work, Gibson absolutely would leap at the chance to climb back into a dugout, under the right circumstances, and help lead another group of young men to another set of unimagined heights.
"You know, I really miss the guys," he says. "I mean, I have a bucket list, too. Would I like to win another World Series?
"Come on, I haven't changed that much."
At the same time, this isn't a man wired to just sit around. If that chance never comes, well, he'll just move on to the next items on his list.
"You know what?" he says. "I can honestly say that whatever I do, I'm going to have a good time and do it right.
"Do I miss doing what I was doing? Yes. I loved it. The camaraderie. The challenges.
"Did I have a great year even though I was diagnosed with Parkinson's? Yes. I did things I haven't done in a long time. Enjoying friends. Creating new experiences. Spending time with my family.
"I'm not the kind of guy who is going to sit there and not go out and find something fun and rewarding to do. That's just not my nature."
Why, you might even say that in a year that has been so improbable, Kirk Gibson is hell-bent on winning another battle with what some might think is the impossible.
It is October, and time to sacrifice for another cause.
You bet there are more fist pumps ahead. And so much happiness, still, along the way.
As JoAnn says: "It was the summer of finding our new normal.
"And we found it."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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