Gibson clear-cut choice for NL Manager of Year
'We over I' skipper takes D-backs on journey from worst to first
LOS ANGELES -- Kirk Gibson becomes very uneasy when broached about the subject, but the truth is no matter what happens to the D-backs the rest of the season, he's the top candidate for the National League Manager of the Year Award.Don't just rely on one writer's view of it. None other than Don Mattingly, the Dodgers' manager, wholeheartedly agrees. Mattingly and Gibson are in their first full seasons, which gives the former American League batting champion a unique perspective. "They were a last-place club last year, right?" Mattingly said this week at Dodger Stadium. "There's been a major transformation there, it seems, in attitude as much as anything. I look at that transformation very closely when I determine who should be Manager of the Year. "You look at the job Bud Black did in San Diego last year. That club may have overachieved. But like those Padres, these D-backs are a talented crew and Gibby has simply helped them find it." Black won the NL Manager of the Year Award for 2010 and the Padres were eliminated from postseason contention by the eventual World Series-winning Giants on the final day of the season. There's a seeming inevitability about a playoff run for the D-backs, who are 7 1/2 games ahead of the Giants with 12 left to play. Their magic number is six, but Gibson is loathe to get too far ahead of himself. Gibson has stayed away from weighing in on individual achievements such as All-Star berths, the Cy Young Award and MVP Award. So it would be anathema for him to reflect on his own chances to be the NL Manager of the Year. The only goal is winning the World Series, which he did as a player in 1984 with the Tigers and '88 with the Dodgers. Walk through the corridor toward the field by the Dodgers' dugout and there's a full wall -- ceiling to floor -- embossed with a sepia-toned photo of that iconic pinch-hit homer Gibson hit off Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Despite a gimpy knee, Gibson is pictured leaping high into the air after launching the blast into the right-field pavilion. Gibson looks toward the seat where that ball landed every time he returns to Dodger Stadium. "I remember it vividly," he said about his only at-bat in that five-game series. Gibson was named the Most Valuable Player of the NL in 1988, but he also vividly remembers not putting any credence in that award at all until the title was secured. "I never thought about it," he said. "Now, after we won the World Series, they could give me anything they wanted." Gibson's ethos is most definitely team goals over individual awards. He'd much rather have the focus on the ballclub than himself. He was that way as a player and it's the same as a manager. "That's not something he worries about," said Kevin Towers, the first-year D-backs general manager, whose initial major decision after a 97-loss 2010 season was to retain Gibson. "What really matters is going deep into the postseason. That's job security. There have been a lot of guys who have won Manager of the Year awards, Executive of the Year awards, who have never been to the postseason." Black is one of them as a manager. That's why Gibson bristled this week when asked about the talk around baseball that he's a shoo-in for the NL Manager of the Year Award. "Come on, are you kidding me?" he said. "That's the last thing on my mind. I'm insulted you would ask me about that." Later, he was candidly apologetic when explaining that the philosophy of "we over I" was instilled in him by his dad at a young age, and any talk to the contrary hits a raw nerve.
Certainly, it was further ingrained by Sparky Anderson, who managed the 1984 Tigers, said Alan Trammell, Gibson's bench coach.Trammell played shortstop and Gibson played right field on those 1980s Tigers teams. "Sparky was tough on us," Trammell recalled. "These days, the players ask 'why' about everything. It wasn't like today. We pretty much did as we were told, although Gibby would question it every once in awhile." Gibson was the D-backs' bench coach last year and replaced A.J. Hinch as manager when Hinch and GM Josh Byrnes were dismissed on July 1. Gibson presided over a fractured clubhouse and the team finished the season 34-49 under him. Towers resisted the usual penchant of new GMs to bring in their own manager, primarily because he didn't have one. Towers only had two managers during the 14 years he was GM of the Padres -- Bruce Bochy and Black. "One of them had just won the World Series [with the Giants] and the other was named Manager of the Year," Towers said. "My first inclination was to keep Gibby. I never even interviewed anybody else." Gibson talked incessantly during Spring Training about changing the culture in the D-backs' clubhouse. Towers took care of rebuilding the bullpen. The team was 17-23 and in last place on May 16, and then it all began to click. They are 70-40 since. And that's Manager of the Year material. "I don't really think about him getting the award or not, I just know he's done an incredible job for this organization," Towers said. "For a first-year manager to completely change the culture and the way our guys play the game is to a large part due to him and his coaching staff. His preparation. His focus. His ability to lead through the tough times we've had. Very rarely do you see that in a young manger."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.