Growing up in the Detroit area in the 80’s, Al Kaline’s name was synonymous with the perfect ball player. To my grandparents, my Dad, my uncles, and everyone else who seeded a love for the game in me, Kaline was their Platonic ideal of a hitter and outfielder. The player that could do it all, and do it with perfect fundamentals. The one who didn’t make mistakes and never gave up on a play or a plate appearance.
While the ‘84 champs were “the team” of my youth, to most around me they were carrying on a torch lit by men like Al Kaline.
Coaches referenced him when trying to teach us footwork, or proper throwing mechanics from the outfield. They referenced his discipline at the plate. His ability to keep the bat on plane. His perfect turns around the basepaths. In short, as a kid growing up playing Little League in Detroit Tigers’ country, he was held up as everything you wanted to be on the baseball diamond.
That’s a long time ago now. Players from the ‘84 squad like Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, and Lance Parrish are the ones still directly carrying the spirit and memory of past championships today. They’re the ones who went into coaching, carrying on the Sparky Anderson lineage to bestow on the players of today. In any given Tigers broadcast, you might hear the 1-2 punch of the 1984 rotation, Jack Morris and Dan Petry, in the booth sharing stories of those glory days of their youth. Yet until quite recently, it was not an unfamiliar sight to find Mr. Tiger still out on the field working with a young player.
Al Kaline’s number speak for themselves. 3007 hits. 399 home runs. It’s possible he’d be even better appreciated in the modern era for his career .376 on base percentage. And of course he was regarded as one of the best outfielders of his day. Yet it was his life after baseball, and his embrace of the role of Tigers elder, that set him apart as more than just a great baseball player.
For the four full decades since he was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1980, it was Mr. Tiger who graciously acted as caretaker for the club’s collective memory and spirit. His personal recollections spanned almost a century of Tigers baseball, particularly when reminiscing about meeting now legendary Tigers when he was still just a young player breaking into the league nearly seventy years ago.
His presence in Spring Training or at Comerica Park tied together the soul of the franchise, something that goes well beyond any team owner, GM, or player, in a way no one else could. Meeting him was a rite of passage for young Tigers. Stories of 20-year-old ballplayers ready to take on the world who were just a little shook by his presence and the regard in which he was held by everyone around him, have long been a part of Tigers lore. To get a chance to hear his stories, or to glean some freely shared but not pushy advice, is a cherished memory for any ballplayer who donned the Olde English D.
Detroit sports fans have been fortunate to have some truly great athletes who were also outstanding people in the way they appreciated the fans. No one embodied that better than Al Kaline did. The number of fans who can remember a meeting or brief personal interaction with him is incredible, and the stories of his patience, charity, and grace with all the demands on his time are just as plentiful.
He lived a great life, and will always be remembered among the all-time heroes of Detroit sports. This feels like a particularly cruel time to lose him, and I hope everyone drinks a toast to number six and holds their loved ones close in this difficult time. Peace to his family, and to all the wider community of baseball fans who love him and will carry his memory forward.