Last week a colleague, working on an article about Coco Crisp, pointed out that the outfielder had been a 20-20 player for the first time in his career. Being somewhat disoriented most of the time, my first thought was to ask when Crisp had gotten his eyes fixed, my second to say that the writer must be confused; no one goes 20-for-20 . When it was explained to me that what was intended was to signify Crisp's 22 home runs and 21 stolen bases, my response was to shrug. I am from the 1980s, when 30-30 seasons happened with regularity and 40-40 happened for the first time. A 20-20 season doesn't impress; since the turn of the 20th century there have been 379 20-20 seasons, but only 60 30-30 seasons.
Twenty-five years ago Tuesday Kirk Gibson hit one of the most famous and greatest home runs in World Series history, a walk-off shot off of Dennis Eckersley that rescued the underdog Los Angeles Dodgers from dropping the first game against an A's team that had them heavily outgunned. It was a justly celebrated moment, Gibson, already voted the National League MVP (though that award wasn't yet public) almost literally rising from his sickbed to rally his team one more time. Fighting two bad legs and a stomach virus, Gibson's home run was his first and last appearance of the Series, but one that had maximum impact.
That Gibson is best remembered for limping around the bases is simultaneously an appropriate way to remember a player who was frequently injured and sometimes platooned
-- he got into as many as 130 games only four times in a major league career that lasted 17 years -- and one that loses the man's versatility. He was one of the kings of the 20-20 season, getting there five times, tied for the most in the decade of the 80s (see below). A great all-round athlete who was an All-American wide receiver at Michigan, Gibson was the 12th-overall pick of the 1978 amateur draft and probably the best player selected in that round (which included Bob Horner and another power-speed threat who would be even more severely hampered by injuries, Lloyd Moseby). He blasted through the minors in a little over a year, hitting 17 home runs and stealing 33 bases against just three caught stealing in 143 games, and took his place in the majors as part of a franchise-reviving Tigers youth movement that included Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Steve Kemp, and Jack Morris. That core (minus Kemp, who would be dealt to the White Sox for center fielder Chet Lemon, Gibson proving to have the speed for center but not the arm) finally coalesced into a championship team in 1984.
|20-20 Seasons by Decade|
|1910-1919||1||Wildfire Schulte (1911)|
|1920-1929||3||Ken Williams (2)|
|1930-1939||1||Chuck Klein (1932)|
|1950-1959||11||Willie Mays (5)|
|1960-1969||23||Hank Aaron (6)|
|1970-1979||47||Bobby Bonds (9)|
|1980-1989||59||Kirk Gibson (5), Darryl Strawberry (5)|
|1990-1999||99||Barry Bonds (9)|
|2000-2009||97||Bobby Abreu (7)|
|2010-2013||38||Carlos Gonzalez (4)|
Throughout the decade, Gibson flirted with the 30-30 mark without ever making it. This was mostly due to the 416 days he spent on the disabled list during his career. A good percentage basestealer with a 78 percent career mark (in the top 50 all-time for players with 200 or more attempts and comparable to the rates for players better known for stealing bases such as Rajai Davis, Jose Reyes, and Michael Bourn), Gibson topped out at 29 home runs in 1985, so even though he surpassed the 30-steal mark on three occasions, 30-30 somehow eluded him even as lesser players like Howard Johnson and Joe Carter made the list. Bill James developed a stat called power/speed number that rated players by, unsurprisingly, their blend of home runs and stolen bases. Gibson led the AL in 1984 and was in the top five in five other seasons. He ranks 39th on the career list, sitting between Jimmy Rollins and Darryl Strawberry.
Since Gibson's day, players have become more versatile and even in our deflated, post-PEDs time, hitting 20 home runs and stealing as many bases is no longer special. The spectacular has become commonplace. Gibson will always be remembered for hitting a home run at a moment when he couldn't run, but running in combination with hitting homers was what he did well. When you think back to that 1988 game-winner, you're seeing Gibson's best moment, but paradoxically, you are seeing only a facet of the skills that made him one of the best players of his day.