D-backs' Gibson still brings intensity
Bench coach has Arizona's players always going all out
PHOENIX -- Eric Byrnes really didn't have time to stop. He had just finished taking some swings in the cage and was grabbing his glove to go shag some fly balls before Game 2 at Chase Field on Friday.
But with reporters floating around the sidelines like gnats circling street lights, Byrnes couldn't get by.
"What do you want to talk about?" he asked.
When the answer was bench coach Kirk Gibson, Byrnes stopped and perked up.
"Gibby?," he said. "He's the best coach ever."
All of a sudden, batting practice could wait.
"He's a real players' coach," Byrnes began. "He's intense when he needs to be, yet he's fun to be around. He's got all the experience in the world, yet he doesn't talk to you like the game's easy. He understands how hard the game is and that's one of the best attributes any coach can have."
And that was just the beginning.
Arizona manager Bob Melvin's decision to name Gibson to his coaching staff prior to the 2007 season came with the hope that the intensity with which Gibson played during his 17-year playing career would rub off on an impressionable group of young players.
Gibson has since made his mark.
"He knows how to play the game, and that's what he instills in us -- to go out there and play the game hard and let the chips fall where they may," said D-backs first baseman Conor Jackson. "At the end of the day, if you get no hits or whatever, you can go in the dugout, look yourself in the mirror and say, 'I played hard today, shake it off and come back tomorrow.'"
Jackson's respect and admiration for Gibson goes back further than that of many of his teammates. Growing up in Los Angeles, Jackson was 6 when he watched Gibson limp out to home plate and knock a game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series to propel the Dodgers to a championship in five games.
From then on, Gibson became one of a handful of players Jackson idolized. So when Jackson found out that Gibson would be sitting alongside him in the dugout, it's accurate to say that Jackson was a little taken aback.
"I was shell-shocked," Jackson said, looking back on that first meeting. "He was one of the only guys in baseball that I would say I was starstruck the first time I met."
He wouldn't have time to be that way for very long, as Gibson immediately brought the intensity and emotion with which he played and channeled it into a style of coaching that immediately garnered club-wide respect.
"I'm intense regardless, even though I'm 50 years old now," Gibson said. "Has it died down a little bit? Maybe. But this is an intense game."
And if there is any lesson he wants to instill in these players, it's just that.
"He's been a tremendous influence on these guys. Just from the minute he walks in the door, everybody knows who Gibson is, what he embodied, how he played the game," said Melvin, who was a teammate of Gibson in Detroit in 1985. "With a younger group, I think he's had a significant influence on mind-set, how we try to play around here, which is each and every day, every pitch, as hard as you can."
Nowhere more noticeable is Gibson's influence than in the way Arizona has swarmed the basepaths this season. The D-backs' 109 stolen bases this season are the fifth-highest total in the league, which is one byproduct of Gibson's work that the statistic sheet would point out. Not once in the previous four seasons had Arizona finished with more than 76 stolen bases in a year.
Nearly as impressive is the fact that Arizona runners were caught stealing just 24 times.
And then there are the intangibles that can't be boiled down to numbers -- going from first to third on a single, stretching singles into extra-base hits. It's those little things all combined, Gibson said, that have the D-backs playing in mid-October.
"Gibson's really instilled that in our minds -- to go in hard and try to give your team extra outs to play with," third baseman Mark Reynolds said.
Gibson also brings with him playoff experience, something that is hard to find very much of in the D-backs clubhouse. An outfielder on four different clubs in his career, Gibson played in 21 postseason games and was a member of two World Series championship teams (Detroit in 1984 and Los Angeles in 1988).
He has the big-game experience, has been in the big-game situations and has forever sealed a place in postseason lore. But now he'll tell you that those moments, some of which came over 20 years ago, shouldn't be the focus. In essence, he doesn't want to be the center of attention.
"I'm just the bench coach," Gibson said, shrugging off the fact that his postseason experience could be used to prepare a young team for the pressures of October. "I just think that overall, as an organization we all try to answer questions. We all work together to make this team."
It's not that Gibson isn't willing to have his brain picked.
"Whatever you ask him, he's willing to talk about," Byrnes said. It's just an area that the players generally feel is better learned through experience than reminiscence.
"I think we're trying to steer clear of the whole, 'This is what you've got to do in the playoffs,' because we're all kind of brand new to this experience," Jackson added. "We've had success not really talking about it."
Gibson has proven to be the perfect fit at the perfect time for a club stacked with young players eager to soak in anything they can. In the process, they've not only learned about intensity and aggressiveness, but they've seen it in the form of one of the best to exemplify it during the era in which Gibson played.
"I think he's right on time for this group, and that we do have some influence on younger guys," Melvin said. "And I think the way we want to do things here in the future, starting this year, he's going to be a big part of. He's had a significant influence on a lot of these guys, competitive desire, preparation, all the things he's always brought to the table."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.