June 1, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
The schedule nearly worked out, but the Arizona Diamondbacks had to leave San Francisco Wednesday night following a three-game series against the Giants just as the Michigan State baseball team was arriving.
If the Diamondbacks were in town for the weekend, their manager - Kirk Gibson - would almost certainly have made the short trip to Palo Alto to see his former Spartans.
Gibson has had a great run as the figurehead of Michigan State baseball, but even he would agree the time to pass the torch is long overdue.
After all, it's been more than 30 years since he took the handoff from the likes of Robin Roberts, Steve Garvey and Rick Miller.
Perhaps the newest generation of Spartans, playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1979, will put a fresh face on a rejuvenated program, thus allowing Gibson to gracefully move on as MSU baseball goodwill ambassador and senior statesman.
"It certainly has always been a goal of mind to have Michigan State's baseball program be of more national prominence," Gibson said. "This is the first step toward many more opportunities."
Gibson was a football phenom coming out of Waterford (Mich.) Kettering High School in 1975. A bone-jarring wide receiver by trade, Gibson the baseball player had perhaps the most astounding meteoric rise of any athlete in MSU history given the fact he played just one season.
As a junior in 1978, Gibson earned first-team All-America honors while batting .390, blasting 16 home runs and driving in 52 RBI. The Spartans finished second in the Big Ten and lost both of their NCAA Tournament games - 7-2 to Illinois State and 7-6 to Oklahoma State.
Nevertheless, Gibson's staying power rivals that of Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Bubba Smith and George Webster in the pantheon of Michigan State athletics. Gibson's jersey was honored at the 2012 First Pitch Dinner in January, and his No. 30 now adorns the right-field fence at McLane Baseball Stadium along with Danny Litwhiler (No. 1), John Kobs (No. 25) and Roberts (No. 36).
To be sure, MSU has produced baseball stars in the years following Gibson's departure. Outfielder Bob Malek and pitcher Mark Mulder were also All-Americans and Jeff Holm, the first baseman on the Spartans' 2011 Big Ten championship team, was named conference Player of the Year and third-team All-American.
But team success begets individual success, and Gibson, who had a stellar Major League career with the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers, is excited about the future of Spartan baseball under fourth-year head coach Jake Boss Jr.
"He's been successful everywhere which is why he was hired at Michigan State," Gibson said. "He's a real steadying influence for these young kids. He does a great job of recruiting quality individuals. He has set a great standard for work ethic and accountability in their academics. You can see how it plays out with their performance. He is certainly a guy we want to keep around for a long time at Michigan State."
With major infrastructure upgrades and solid administrative backing, there's every reason for Gibson to believe even better days lie ahead for MSU baseball.
"We have had great support from president Lou Anna Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis as well as many other supporters," he said. "We rebuilt the old baseball complex, McLane Baseball Stadium, as well as softball's Secchia Stadium and DeMartin Soccer Stadium.
"It's brought a different type of attitude and direction to the program. It is good they can be rewarded for everybody's hard work by making it to the Tournament."
The next Kirk Gibson may already be waiting in the wings.