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Gibson has D-backs buying in
I walked into Kirk Gibson’s office with an idea for the start of this column already in my head:
“Either Kirk Gibson will get sick of the Diamondbacks or the Diamondbacks will get sick of him. It’s just a matter of which happens first.”
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Fifteen minutes later, after engaging in a spirited conversation with Gibson, I had almost completely changed my mind.
Oh, my first instinct might prove correct. The Diamondbacks look awful. Losing teams exhaust the patience of everyone — players, managers, executives, fans. Talk to me in June, when the D-backs are hopelessly out of it, and we’ll see if Gibson is still on message.
Still, the memory of Gibson at 25 should not cloud the perception of him at 53. Known as “The Caveman” as a player, Gibson is anything but a glowering, quick-tempered intimidator now. He raised four children with his wife JoAnn, whom he married in 1985. Of his players, he said, “I don’t get mad at these guys. I know they’re trying.”
Gibson acknowledges that he has run a tough camp in his first spring training as manager, drilling his players relentlessly on pickoffs, bunt plays, cutoffs and relays, you name it. But he makes no apologies for trying to teach the D-backs to play better baseball.
“We have thrown a lot of them, but in the end, if you want to compete, you have to work towards that. You just have to,” Gibson said. “You have to have a way to compete into good situations and a way to compete out of bad situations. You can’t just throw your arms up and hope.”
Makes sense, particularly for a team that lost 97 games last season, a team that set a major league record for strikeouts last season, a team that had the highest bullpen ERA in the majors by more than a run per game.
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The question is how well Gibson’s players will adjust to his style — and whether the D-backs are talented enough for their manager to make even the slightest difference.
Spring training results are largely meaningless, but the D-backs started 5-17 and have since “rallied” to 9-20, still worst in the majors. One of those wins was a comeback from a 10-0 deficit against the Reds, a rally fueled mostly by reserves. One scout puts it best: The D-backs have no apparent strength.
When I visited the club last week, one veteran player expressed irritation with Gibson’s intensity, telling me that the manager needed to “dial it down.” Another veteran, however, said Gibson is just what the team needs, contending that the Diamondbacks’ young players had it too easy in the past.
“We did. I buy that,” right fielder Justin Upton said. “Not that it was too easy. We just never had it that hard. It wasn’t overly demanding before. It may be a little over-demanding (now), but that’s what you need to change the culture of a clubhouse.”
Make no mistake, that is the goal not just of Gibson, but also new general manager Kevin Towers.
Gibson took over last July 1 for A.J. Hinch, who had been the Diamondbacks’ farm director when many of the team’s top prospects ascended through the minors. The D-backs also fired general manager Josh Byrnes that day, then hired Towers at season’s end.
Towers proceeded to sign a number of veterans who should help instill professionalism — infielder Geoff Blum, catcher Henry Blanco and utility man Willie Bloomquist; third baseman Melvin Mora and closer J.J. Putz.
“My understanding is that things needed to change around here,” Bloomquist said. “A lot of times, games are won and lost by six inches or a foot. It goes back to paying attention to detail. If you’re too good for that — too cool for school — then maybe you ought to think about going somewhere else.”
Bloomquist said it would be “foolish” for the D-backs not to listen to Gibson and his accomplished staff — bench coach Alan Trammell, hitting coach Don Baylor and pitching coach Charles Nagy; first base coach Eric Young and third base coach Matt Williams.
For the most part, the players are getting with the program, Bloomquist said, but it’s only March. Towers will need time to fix the bullpen, upgrade the roster, work the same magic that he did with the Padres. The ride almost certainly will be bumpy.
Towers inherited Gibson, then signed him to a two-year contract. The D-backs finished 34-49 under Gibson after starting 31-48 under Hinch. If Towers doesn’t like what he sees this season, he could look for his own guy.
Gibson, though, is not the type to start worrying; he hit one of the most dramatic home runs in baseball history on one leg, remember? He will ramble on occasion; he spoke for nearly three minutes when I asked about his approach to baserunning during one of his daily news conferences. But speaking with him privately, I was struck by his passion, his intelligence and yes, his patience, too.
When I asked him how today’s players would respond to his approach, Gibson said, “I kind of disagree when people say today’s players are different. I hear people say that they feel entitled. I disagree. I think they’re great kids, great men. But there are certain things from the quote, ‘old-school game,’ that are still relevant. I don’t go beyond that. I’m not trying to teach them the game exactly how I learned it.”
Still, Gibson said he was taught that a player’s level of concentration should be so high, he should be “mentally fried” at the end of a game. The Diamondbacks, hardly known for their execution, would seem like almost the last team to which that description would apply.
Again, Gibson disputed my contention.
“When you introduce a way of playing, a way of competing, it’s outside of their box. It’s different. They’re somewhat uncomfortable,” Gibson said. “I understand that. I respect it. But we have to change our comfort zone sometimes if we want to get better.”
Upton, for one, does not disagree.
“He expects a different intensity level. That’s something we’ve missed here,” Upton said. “It was something where we would lose three or four in a row and the mentality of the team would just start faltering. What he’s trying to do is get us to play the same way and the right way every day. That’s something he’s pounding into us.”
Gibson will continue pounding until the D-backs get it right. The players won’t always like it, but I learned my lesson, and maybe they will, too.
With Gibson, it’s wise to keep listening. First impressions go only so deep.