GRAND RAPIDS -- Every year, the Detroit Tigers Winter Caravan trades uniforms for ties and suit jackets and just like that, household names are suddenly as accessible as your neighborhood mailman.
As the Caravan rolled into West Michigan on Thursday evening to take part in the 22nd annual Whitecaps Community Foundation Winter Banquet, the evening carried a deeper significance than just another session of preseason appearances.
For Cameron Maybin and Don Kelly, it meant returning to the community where their journeys began; only this time, they were returning as inductees into the West Michigan Whitecaps Hall of Fame.
Since its inaugural class in 2009, the Whitecaps Hall of Fame has inducted 10 players and three staff members, including Fernando Rodney, Andy Van Hekken, previous Whitecaps manager Bruce Fields and West Michigan's original head groundskeeper (and current Tigers groundskeeper) Heather Nabozny.
"This is where it starts," former Whitecaps shortstop Don Kelly said, "To be asked to come back here and be honored this way is tremendous."
Fresh off Tommy John Surgery last July, the eternally amiable 35-year-old utility guru first signed with Detroit as an eighth-round selection in 2001. As a gangly 22-year-old in 2002, Kelly hit .286/.368/.360 with 21 doubles and 59 RBI, earning him the starting shortstop position in the Midwest League All-Star game.
Currently a free agent most recently with the Miami Marlins, the winner of more Heart and Hustle awards than we can count spent six seasons with the Tigers organization before transitioning to Miami.
Fast-forward four years from Kelly's time in Comstock Park and enter a fresh faced 19-year-old outfielder, Cameron Maybin. He signed with Detroit as their No. 1 selection in the 2005 draft before debuting with West Michigan the following year. He hit .304/.387/.457 with a .153 ISO and .844 OPS, drove in 69 RBI, and proved to be instrumental in West Michigan's eventual capture of the 2006 Midwest League title. His effort also earned him the title of Midwest League Prospect of the Year and a selection to the 2006 MLB All-Star Futures game.
Maybin cycled his way through three major league clubs before returning to his roots in the Detroit organization as a piece to the trade in December that sent pitchers Ian Krol and Gabe Speier to Atlanta in exchange for Maybin.
The effort of West Michigan to set the tone for the now 28-year-old veteran center fielder has left an impact that won't soon be forgotten.
"I'm just happy to have made the full circle to be back here where I had the opportunity to showcase my talent here in West Michigan," Maybin said, "Again, I can't say enough about the fans and how great they were. There was like 6,000 every night and you can't beat that."
Maybin couldn't help but add a joking observation of the video montage tribute dedicated to the high school stand out.
"I was hoping they were going to leave out the video with the braces," Maybin chimed in with a laugh during his acceptance speech, "Not my proudest moment."
Both Kelly and Maybin made a genuine effort to work the room, mingling with guests and posing for pictures with an effortless charisma that would make even the most seasoned statesman envious. To the two young men, it was simply a way of returning the appreciation that was shown to them so many years ago.
For Maybin, it's a new chapter with a community and organization that is accepting him the same today as they always have.
"This may be the only Hall of Fame I'll be in," Maybin said, "But it's definitely a cherished one."