Gibson teaching the art of baserunning

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When the Arizona Diamondbacks sprint down the first-base line this season like a bunch of caffeinated Rex Hudlers, you can chalk it up to attentiveness to detail and inherent professional pride.

And if their minds ever wander, rest assured that bench coach Kirk Gibson will be standing in the corner of the dugout with his arms folded, making mental notes.

Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, a top Arizona prospect, recently learned about Gibson's powers of observation after hitting a routine grounder and running like a fourth Molina brother. Gonzalez later received a visit from Gibson, who calmly inquired if his leg were sore (the answer was no), then posed a hypothetical question.

"If that ball takes a bad hop and bounces three feet to the right of the guy, are you out or safe?" Gibson asked. "Because I think you're still out."

In his next plate appearance, Gonzalez ran as if jet-propelled.

"You could tell it kicked into his head that, 'I better get going here,'" Arizona manager Bob Melvin said. "Every time since, he has run hard and run balls out."

"Knowing the group we have here right now, this guy could be a big influence on how we play the game. You can see the intensity he brings the minute he walks in the door. These guys got it from day one."
-- Bob Melvin, Diamondbacks manager

Gibson's influence is not the only reason ESPN.com picks Arizona as the National League team most likely to spring a surprise this season. Now that Randy Johnson, Livan Hernandez and Doug Davis have joined Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb in the rotation, Arizona has an experienced big four ready to soak up 850 innings and take some pressure off a hard-throwing but erratic bullpen.

The Diamondbacks ranked seventh in the National League in runs scored last season and lack a classic leadoff hitter or cleanup man. But they have three outfielders (Eric Byrnes, Carlos Quentin and Chris Young) with 20-homer potential and two middle infielders (shortstop Stephen Drew and second baseman Orlando Hudson) who could hit at least 15, so that could be good enough.

Finally, they have a slew of young players with the "phenom" tag who are ready to step forward and assert themselves. Expose those talented kids to the world view of a coach who was Bo Jackson before Bo came along, and there's a definite synergy in the air.

Byrnes, Hudson and the universally respected Tony Clark are adept at policing the Arizona clubhouse and adjusting attitudes if necessary. But the Diamondbacks think Gibson has a thing or two to teach the kids about competitiveness, hustle and the value of the "little things." And did we mention competitiveness?

"Knowing the group we have here right now, this guy could be a big influence on how we play the game," Melvin said. "You can see the intensity he brings the minute he walks in the door. These guys got it from day one."

Flash back 22 years and Melvin was absorbing similar lessons as a rookie catcher with Detroit. Sparky Anderson set the tone as manager, and Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and friends dispensed old-school homilies about the importance of respecting the game and grinding until the final out.

"It was almost like your university," Melvin said. "You just felt you belonged to a certain organization, and this was your schooling."

Melvin and Gibson became good friends and talked wistfully about working on the same staff one day. The opportunity finally arose when Jay Bell stepped down as Arizona bench coach in November. Melvin placed a call to his buddy.

The "Motown reunion approach" didn't work so well in Detroit from 2003 to '05, when Trammell reassembled Gibson, Lance Parrish and the old gang on his coaching staff and lost his job as manager after three seasons and a .383 winning percentage. But Gibson's mystique endures.

Several Arizona players were kindergartners when Gibson won the Most Valuable Player award for the 1988 Dodgers, then homered off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series despite practically needing a walker to circle the bases. But they've seen the replays.

"It follows him everywhere," Quentin said. "It's basically ingrained in baseball history forever."

While Melvin is ultimately responsible for player discipline in Arizona, the good cop-bad cop dynamic on the Diamondbacks' staff is hard to ignore. Melvin is the thoughtful, approachable, congenial man in charge -- a young Henry Fonda type -- and his new bench coach eats nails for breakfast.

"Gibby has been a real good presence," Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes said. "As far as running a tight ship, you can definitely sense the reins have been pulled back a little bit. We have a lot of younger guys still learning and developing, and things are getting a little stricter around here."

As Arizona's new baserunning guru, Gibson is big on alertness and opportunism. Gibson cites a quote from Jim Leyland, who observes that not everybody can be fast, but everyone can hustle. He also recalls how former Tigers Darrell Evans and Parrish were slow afoot, but adept at taking the extra base because of their aggressiveness and good secondary leads.

You never know when Gibson might toss out a trivia question. He recently asked the Diamondbacks if anyone has ever scored on a sacrifice fly to the second baseman to win a World Series game.

The answer: Kirk Gibson, who flew home on a popup to San Diego's Alan Wiggins to score the tiebreaking run in the 1984 World Series clincher.

It's not a case of Gibson dredging up old heroics for the sake of ego fulfillment, or romanticizing the past while bemoaning the attitude of the modern player.

"He's not hypercritical of young players like some veteran coaches can be," Byrnes said. "He genuinely likes them and roots for them to succeed."

On the contrary; Gibson simply wants the young Diamondbacks to be ready, and he uses personal anecdotes to convey his message.

"The point is, if you prepare yourself and 'think the game' when you're on the bench, these situations tend to come up," Gibson said. "I'm trying to help these guys develop a mentality to go along with the great physical talent they have."

In Arizona, some tradition-bound fans are still smarting over the departure of local favorites Luis Gonzalez and Craig Counsell and the switch from purple and black uniforms to the team's new Sedona red look. But they'll come around once they get used to seeing Young, Drew, Quentin, first baseman Conor Jackson, catcher Miguel Montero and infielder Alberto Callaspo bond as a unit.

That list doesn't even include outfield prodigy Justin Upton, who has undeniable talent, but displayed questionable attitude and effort in the Midwest League and is still at least a year away. Upton has been so anxious to learn in Arizona, Gibson calls him a "19-year-old sponge." The Diamondbacks also talk about how Upton mis-hit a ball in spring training and still drove it 400 feet for a home run. The at-bat caused jaws to drop.

The Arizona front office, looking to counter conventional wisdom, recently studied teams from the past 40 years and found that an emphasis on youth doesn't necessarily mean putting winning on the back burner. The Diamondbacks discovered that 12-15 clubs -- from the mid-1960s Orioles to the George Bell-Jesse Barfield Blue Jays to the Barry Bonds-Bobby Bonilla Pittsburgh teams in the early 1990s -- had an extended run of success while featuring players age 25 or younger.

The catch is, Los Angeles and Colorado are also loaded with young talent after years of astute drafting and player development, so Arizona's fortunes will hinge in part on how it competes in a rugged National League West. Who could have envisioned that plot twist?

Gibson imparts his lessons to the players in a quiet, even tone of voice, and he stresses that he's in Arizona to educate rather than intimidate. But the expectations are clear, and now it's up to the players to fulfill them. Those big draft signing bonuses and glowing paragraphs in the "Baseball America Prospect Handbook" don't give anyone license to coast.

"The first time somebody doesn't run a ball out, there's not going to be a fight in the dugout," Melvin said. "That's going to take a while."

If the young Diamondbacks know what's good for them, they'll run out every ground ball as if it mattered. You never know who might be watching.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.