25 years ago today, one of the biggest and best examples of an immediate gratification free agency signing occurred. On Jan. 29, 1988, the Dodgers signed star Tigers outfielder Kirk Gibson. Yeah, this turned out to be a good move. Behind Gibson, the Dodgers would win the 1988 world title—still the last one in franchise history.
Gibson had become a free agent under unusual circumstances. By “unusual circumstances” I mean collusion. In the 1980s, owners conspired to keep salaries down by refusing to bid for free agents. Only if a team didn’t want their veteran player would other franchises make a play on him. Only under extreme circumstances did someone switch teams. Most notably, Andre Dawson was so desperate to leave Montreal’s turf field behind him to save what was left of his knees, that he offered the Cubs a blank check. Name their price, and he’d play for them in 1987.
The problem for baseball was that collusion was rather blatant. When even established stars like Dawson couldn’t find any takers, it was clear that the free market wasn’t so free. The players’ union took legal action and repeatedly won. The collusion cases finally came to a head in the 1987-88.
During that period, several star players were awarded status as free agents even though they were still technically in the midst of their signed contracts. Those contracts, however, were considered to be unfairly low salaries due to collusion. The players could agree to stay with their old teams, or they could move elsewhere. One of the players given this special free agency was Kirk Gibson.
Off he went to Los Angeles. Gibson had a mighty fine year, winning the NL MVP. Going by the numbers, Gibson’s award is an odd one. Not only is he lacking in sabermetric-friendly numbers, but he also doesn’t have the big numbers in traditional counting stats that MVPs typically have. He hit .290 with 25 homers and 76 RBIs. All nice numbers but not what you’d expect from an MVP.
Gibson won as much for his demeanor as his numbers. We can all have a nice debate on how much intangibles matter and what role leadership actually plays, but in this case the BBWAA voters clearly thought it mattered. After all, as much as sportswriters like to talk about those things, they don’t typically give a guy an MVP with those Triple Crown numbers.
The story people loved to tell about Gibson in 1988 came from spring training. Early in the preseason, someone played a harmless joke on Gibson, putting shoe black in his cap. Typical locker room stuff. Gibson didn’t have the typical attitude, though. Infuriated, he stormed out and blasted the team for its lack of professionalism. Put up or shut up time—Gibson became the team’s leader after that. They’d finished in fourth place the year before with their second straight 73-89 record. With Gibson, the underachievers became overachievers and won the pennant.
Well, that pennant had more to do with the bullpen than any shoe-blacked cap. But what can’t be denied was Gibson’s World Series performance. He only came to the plate once, but my golly was it ever a memorable once. He famously hit a pinch-hit homer off Dennis Eckersley allowing the Dodgers to win Game One. That keyed an unlikely October upset. Gibson had nothing to do with what happened on the field in the other three wins, but he was the star of the World Series anyway. Just like the regular season, Gibson got plenty of credit, more than you’d think if all you knew were the numbers.
So plenty of Dodger fans were mighty happy Gibson came to their team in 1988—and they still are, 25 years later.
Aside from that, many other baseball items today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.
1,000 days since Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts dies at age 83.
1,000 days since Texas blows an 8-0 lead against the Royals, but comeback to win, 13-12.
1,000 days since Nationals pitcher Scott Olsen takes a no-hitter into the eighth, retiring 22 of the first 23 batters. He loses the no-hitter, but the Nationals hold on for the win, 3-2 over Atlanta.
4,000 days since Jeff Loria becomes the official owner of the Florida Marlins.
5,000 days since Curt Schilling hits two batters in one game—it’s the only time he ever does that.
5,000 days since Brady Anderson sets a record by getting hit by pitch twice in one inning. Baltimore scores 10 runs in that first inning offensive explosion.
7,000 days since Colorado signs free agent Ellis Burks.
10,000 days since Alan Trammell’s worst game, according to WPA. He goes 0-for-5 with a GIDP and a –0.334 WPA as the Tigers fall to the Orioles, 6-4.
1900 The American League officially forms in a meeting in Chicago. It will become a major league the next year.
1915 Brooklyn releases one-time star pitcher Ed Reulbach.
1918 Bill Rigney, long-time manager, is born.
1919 Bill Voiselle, pitcher, is born. He’ll be an All-Star in 1944 when he wins 21 games with the Giants.
1919 Hank Edwards, outfielder, is born. He’ll lead the AL in triples with 16 in 1946.
1930 The Yankees purchase Ken Williams from the Red Sox.
1948 baseball commissioner Happy Chandler fines the Yankees, Cubs, and Phillies for signing high school players.
1949 The Pirates purchase pitcher Murry Dickson from the Cardinals for $125,000. He’ll win 20 games for the Pirates in 21, but then lead the NL in losses in 1952, 1953, and 1954. The first two years are with the Pirates and the last one with the Phillies.
1951 Baseball signs a six-year All-Star Game TV/radio rights for $6,000,000. Some owners criticize the deal, saying TV rights will be worth a lot more in six years time.
1955 New A’s owner Arnold Johnson sells his ownership share in Yankee Stadium.
1958 Cleveland selects Mickey Vernon off of waivers from Boston.
1960 Steve Sax, second baseman, is born.
1963 General Quesada sells the expansion Washington Senators to James H. Johnston, James H. Lemon, and George M. Bunker.
1963 Lee Meadows, the first modern player to wear eyeglasses, dies at age 68. He led the league in losses twice, 23 in 1916 and 20 in 1919.
1966 Atlanta drafts Tom Seaver, but the league offices will later void this player move.
1969 Washington fires manager Jim Lemon.
1970 Seattle Pilots player Miguel Fuentes is killed in a bar fight in Puerto Rico at age 20. He tossed the last inning ever in the history of the Seattle Pilots.
1973 Jason Schmidt, NL starting pitcher, is born.
1977 Hod Ford dies at age 79. He played 15 years as an infielder in the NL.
1981 George Argyros buys 80 percent of the Seattle Mariners.
1981 Baseball leaders approve the sale of the White Sox to Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn for $20 million.
1982 The Yankees name Graig Nettles as their team captain.
1985 MLB and the Players’ Association come to terms. There will be no drug testing in the new contract. Instead, a joint program will be developed together on the matter.
1986 Jair Jurrjens is born. He’ll be an All-Star in 2011 with the Braves.
1987 Alex Avila, Tigers catcher, is born.
1989 After nine years, major league baseball opts to drop the lousy stat, game-winning RBI.
1991 The Twins sign free agent Chili Davis.
1998 Baltimore signs free agent Ozzie Guillen, ending his playing career with the White Sox.
1999 Jimmy Key retires, ending his pitching career.
2000 Boston signs free agent Shea Hillenbrand.
2000 The Mets announce that Garth Brooks will participate in spring training with their team. He was with the Padres the year before, going 1-for-22.
2007 Art Fowler dies at age 84. He pitched for the Reds in the 1950s.