It might be time to start getting concerned about Kirk Gibson.
Not for his health -- at fifty-five years old, Gibson is one of the younger managers in baseball and while he's no longer in playing shape, he's reasonably fit for his age. Not for his job, either; Kirk Gibson may not have the tenure that Mike Scioscia enjoys in Orange County or Ron Gardenhire is currently testing in Minnesota, but the Arizona Diamondbacks organization clearly has confidence in him moving forward as the manager of their big league team, something they've made clear through their actions multiple times this offseason.
Former players turning into managers is nothing new, but Gibson differs from the general template in that he was not a catcher and that he was a reasonably successful major league player in his time. It's not the same as hiring Ted Williams to manage your club, but Gibson had a far better career than, say, Joe Girardi or Mike Matheny. (It's hard to tell yet if this is becoming something of a trend or if Don Mattingly's succession of Joe Torre in Los Angeles, the startling hire of Robin Ventura on Chicago's south side -- Ventura having no managerial or coaching experience at any level of baseball -- and Jason Giambi's ultimately (and sadly) unsuccessful campaign in Colorado to become the first player/manager in professional baseball in quite some time are unrelated outliers.) So far, the experiment has produced decent results. The Diamondbacks won 94 games under Gibson during his first full season in 2011, a far cry from the 65-win team he inherited halfway through the 2010 season, and as is customary for the skipper of a team that experiences a sudden, seemingly-inexplicable turnaround in the standings, Gibson was named the 2011 National League Manager of the Year. So despite last year's .500 finish, by all outward appearances there's no issue with Kirk Gibson managing a baseball team.
Except, that is, for things like his problem Monday afternoon with Reds manager Dusty Baker. In Spring Training games, the manager of the home team is allowed to choose whether or not the game will be played with the designated hitter rule or without. Generally this is a formality; the managers of both teams get together, work out which rule they'd like to use, and the game gets underway without fuss. Very often, even two National League teams playing each other will use the designated hitter rule so that some player or another can get some extra reps in at the plate while allowing another player at that same position to get some experience fielding it in a game environment. In this case Baker, whose Reds were the visiting team, wanted to get outfielder Shin-Soo Choo some at-bats without having him play the field due to a sore quadriceps. So he asked Gibson, managing the home team Diamondbacks, to play the game under the American League rules.
The two men met at home plate and had a heated discussion about the matter, and when Gibson offered his hand to Baker to shake, Baker declined. The game was played under National League rules, with the pitcher hitting.
Gibson's stated reasoning for not allowing the use of the designated hitter was that he wanted to get his starting pitcher for the afternoon, Brandon McCarthy, some time at the plate as he came to the Diamondbacks in the offseason from the American League and hadn't gotten many at bats. This raises the question of how well Kirk Gibson understands the designated hitter rule: in any game where the DH is in effect, the manager is free to surrender his team's right to use the DH by simply not listing one on his lineup card. Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays showcased this very much by accident in 2009, when he submitted a lineup card listing Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria both playing third base, with no stated DH; he was forced to put starting pitcher Andy Sonnanstine into the lineup instead (Sonnanstine went 1-3 with an RBI double, allowed five earned runs, and ended up winning the game, so it worked out in the end). Gibson was more than free to just write McCarthy in as the pitcher in his lineup and go about his business, while allowing the Reds a chance to give Choo some work. But misunderstanding the rule isn't why Gibson did it. He made his reasoning quite clear to MLB.com's Steve Gilbert after the game:
"I had it happen last year with a team, they tried to put the DH in there and that's not the way it's done. I wanted to play a National League game. I notified them several times and they just wanted to do it their way and they couldn't do it. So they didn't like that. But we play by the rules here, that's the way it is. We go over there, we play by their rules. It's very simple."
One might assume the team Gibson's referring to from last year was Baker's Reds, but there's no particular reason to believe that's the case. It doesn't really matter even if it was. Gibson wasn't pointlessly intransigent to Baker because he has any personal animus against the Cincinnati manager; by his own words, he refused to let the Reds have their way simply because he was opposed to the very idea of it. All the hardnosed old school baseball-speak -- the passive "that's not the way it's done", the obfuscating "we play by the rules here" -- is just window-dressing for the real issue at hand: Kirk Gibson wanted to play a National League game. Kirk Gibson gets what he wants. And if he doesn't, he's not about to let anyone forget it.
It's a special kind of man who pisses on your leg then asks you to smile and shake on it, but the only thing really new to Gibson's schtick is the power of his position in Arizona. As a player, when Gibson didn't get his way -- a frozen rope liner off his bat being caught instead of falling in, a pitch on the black sitting him down on strikes, even a routine grounder to first properly handled -- he turned his fury into a low art form of slammed helmets, broken chairs and dented lockers, all with his trademark incendiary glare. Of course, we still see such behavior today; during his short stint in the majors, Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie has shown even less ability to control his temper, and veteran pitcher Carlos Zambrano has worked a similar angle most of his time in the big leagues. In Gibson, as with Lawrie and Zambrano, there are good qualities buried in the outbursts: not only an unwillingness to settle for something less than excellence, but a complete inability; it's an ongoing war with imperfection fought in the context of a game where even 40% would be a legendary rate of success. An allergic intolerance for failure is a good quality in an elite competitor, providing it is properly focused. But there's a reason scouts have extreme concerns about Lawrie's make up; there's a reason no one's talking about making Zambrano a manager once his playing days are over. No one who walks the road professional ballplayers walk to make it to the big leagues tolerates personal failure on the field. But most of them handle it without violence. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, have not only made Gibson their manager -- they might have made him the most important decision maker in their organization.
To his credit, Baker incident non-withstanding, Gibson's tantrum days appear to be over, and he has focused most of that former energy into the legitimate duties of the major league manager. His first spring training with the Diamondbacks was legendary for how hard and how fast Gibson pushed everyone on the roster -- everyday players and non-roster invitees alike. He coordinated the camp with military precision; Gibson was one of the first to bring the now-ubiquitous Navy SEALs into the clubhouse to impress upon his players the seriousness of their collective endeavor. This is hardly surprising; being white-hot furious at failure isn't childish. Destroying a chair over it is. Properly directed and controlled, that anger can fuel great things.
And for the most part, the Diamondbacks bought into the program. After all, as far as baseball is concerned, there is nothing particularly wrong with being an authoritarian leader who micromanages your domain with an obsessive fixation on the perfect execution of a comprehensive, well-considered plan -- so long as the plan works. There is no management style in baseball that cannot be justified by the team winning games. None whatsoever. So when the Diamondbacks added almost thirty wins in Gibson's first full year from the year before, it was because of his intense, all-consuming approach to team preparation and construction. It's hard to tell how much of that's just post-hoc Manager of the Year talk and how much of that is legitimately earned. Catcher Miguel Montero, for instance, loved the new, demanding approach his manager took to baseball; he responded by turning in one of the best seasons behind the plate in the majors. Swapping 200 innings of 5.00 ERA ball from Rodrigo Lopez for 222 innings of 3.49 ERA ball from Daniel Hudson probably had less to do with Gibson's influence. But Ian Kennedy cut a full run off his ERA between 2010 and 2011 and Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter both were very effective when they generally shouldn't have been, so perhaps there was something to it -- or perhaps the infield defense improved under the tutelage of Gibson's bench coach, Alan Trammel. If so, Gibson takes credit there, too; he's responsible for bringing Trammel aboard.
Let's say the narrative at the end of 2011 was true and Gibson took a team, got them to buy into his system and led them to the playoffs. What happened in 2012, when the team finished 81-81? There's a couple different reasons regression happens, and they're not at all mutually exclusive: either the team wasn't as good as it played last year, the teams around it got better, it was hurt by a number of departures, or it just got unlucky with injuries. Unfortunately, there could also have been a fifth option: players in the Arizona clubhouse no longer responded to Gibson, and they had to go to make way for players he could win with.
The general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kevin Towers, is one of the most respected talent evaluators in baseball. So when he does something like trade one of the top young outfielders in baseball to Atlanta for an aging hardnosed super-utility player with the rationale that he'll take over full time at a position he hasn't played regularly in years, then spends all the money he saved on the deal on an extension for that player, it's reasonable to ask what's going on. When he trades the organization's top pitching prospect to the Cleveland Indians in order to get a middling shortstop prospect because the pitcher doesn't get along with Miguel Montero and was insufficiently humble for a rookie, it's reasonable to ask why Montero, a veteran and a professional, is unable to handle the situation with the grace his years of service are supposed to entail. And the answer is that neither Justin Upton nor Trevor Bauer (nor presumably Chris Young) fit into Gibson's idea of what his clubhouse should be. Justin Upton didn't slam into enough walls. Trevor Bauer wanted to call his own pitches. And with the way both players' dramas unfolded with the Diamondbacks this offseason, both culminating in trades, there are some warning signs that, as well as Gibson can manage the sort of player that thrives on strict intensity and a near-military demand for self-sacrifice, he is either uninterested in or unable to handle certain elite, young talent -- the sort of player who's been so good throughout his short, ascendant career that he doesn't respond well to a guy like Gibson micromanaging his game.
So out go Upton and Bauer, in come guys like Cliff Pennington and Martin Prado and Tony Campana, and the Diamondbacks embark on their next great experiment, replacing physical tools with discipline, belief, and singularity of purpose. Will it work? Gibson thinks so. Towers thinks so. Managing partner Ken Kendrick, who so often showed up in the sports page last year to blast one of the handful of players from the 2012 squad who no longer call themselves Diamondbacks, thinks so too. On the other hand, the NL West is going to be harder than ever next year -- and on paper, Arizona's only gotten worse.
One thing's for certain, though: this is what Kirk Gibson wants. And Kirk Gibson gets what he wants.