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Gibson's intensity, heroics make him Dodgers' top free agent

MLB.com

Before bidding adieu to the Hot Stove season, we asked our 30 beat reporters to look back at their club's past and answer the following question: Who is the best free-agent signing in the team's history?

We narrowed the choices with the following parameters: The signings had to be multiyear contracts, to exclude fluky one-year deals and to focus on players who got real commitments. And contract extensions don't count. Only instances when every team in the league had a chance to bid on the player were allowed, including international free agents who received Major League contracts.

Before bidding adieu to the Hot Stove season, we asked our 30 beat reporters to look back at their club's past and answer the following question: Who is the best free-agent signing in the team's history?

We narrowed the choices with the following parameters: The signings had to be multiyear contracts, to exclude fluky one-year deals and to focus on players who got real commitments. And contract extensions don't count. Only instances when every team in the league had a chance to bid on the player were allowed, including international free agents who received Major League contracts.

LOS ANGELES -- The Home Run turned around the 1988 World Series, but Kirk Gibson became the Dodgers' best free-agent signing that Spring Training when he turned around a franchise.

Since that magical season, the Dodgers have spent more than $1 billion on free agents, but none has had the impact of Gibson, whose dramatic limp-off home run against Dennis Eckersley is one of the great moments in baseball history.

But it was probably what Gibson said in February that made the October moment possible.

In April of 1987, general manager Al Campanis was fired after his "Nightline" appearance and the Dodgers finished 17 games out of first place. In his first offseason as the next general manager, Fred Claire tried to trade for Gibson at the Winter Meetings, but the outfielder's clouded status derailed talks with Detroit.

Gibson was awaiting an arbitrator's decision on a collusion grievance against the owners and Claire was insisting on legal protection if he traded away Pedro Guerrero and then lost Gibson to free agency. Gibson, in fact, was declared a free agent one month later, and Claire signed him to a three-year, $4.5 million contract. In his autobiography, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, Claire wrote:

"The foundation for triumph in the Fall Classic was established that Spring at Dodgertown. The team's season-long attitude was to be shaped before the very first exhibition game was played."

The passage refers to the prank played on Gibson before that game, reliever Jesse Orosco placing eye black on the rim of Gibson's cap, which when sweat-drenched left Gibson a greasy mess and furious with his new club's clowning approach. Gibson stormed off the field and laid down the law to his teammates in a meeting the next day.

"You guys have finished fourth and fifth the last two years and now I can see why," Gibson wrote in his autobiography, Bottom of the Ninth.

Video: Vin Scully Top 20: #1 Kirk Gibson's walk-off

That was the day the clowning stopped.

"The tone of our team was different from that day on," Gibson wrote. "My intensity became their intensity. On the field, I was vicious, and it was rubbing off on my teammates."

"Fred Claire did a tremendous job," manager Tommy Lasorda wrote in his autobiography, I Live for This! "He knew the pulse of the team. He knew I needed a guy to run things in the clubhouse. He knew we needed Gibson. It was the speech that set the tone for the season, and I didn't have to say a word. I knew then that my star player and I were on the same page. When that happens, when your best employee thinks just like the boss, then miracles can happen."

Playing hurt through September and the postseason took a huge tool physically on Gibson, whose torn hamstring suffered in the playoffs against the Mets ruined his final two seasons with the Dodgers.

After that season, Gibson won the National League Most Valuable Player Award, Lasorda the NL Manager of the Year Award and Claire The Sporting News Executive of the Year Award. Orel Hershiser also won the NL Cy Young Award.

Honorable Mentions:

Hideo Nomo: He reopened the Major Leagues to Japanese players, was Rookie of the Year in 1995 and went 43-29 his first three seasons before things soured. He originally signed a one-year deal, followed by a three-year contract.

Zack Greinke: Before opting out, he went 51-15 with a 2.20 ERA, two All-Star selections and earned Cy Young consideration each of his three Dodgers seasons.

Brett Butler: Filled two critical roles as center fielder and leadoff hitter and batted .303 in his first four-year stint with the club.

Kevin Brown: He rocked baseball with a $105 million, five-year deal. Injuries kept him from truly fulfilling expectations, but he still went 58-32 with a 3.04 ERA and was twice an All-Star.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com.