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Our Humble Legend

Amidst the somber loss dealt to us by a global pandemic came another gut punch - word on April 6 of the death of my childhood hero and enduring standard. It was a death, at age 85, unrelated to Coronavirus, though nonetheless a stunner for those of us who admired him. And who remember him as a most decent and unpretentious human being.

He was “Mr. Tiger.” He was #6. He was a dominant figure roaming his right-field turf at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium during his 22-year career. He did not grandstand. He did not pursue accolade or fortune. He played the game of baseball with vigor and purpose. And he did it for the fans. He was a good and honorable man. He was Al Kaline.

I was to write on a different topic this time, but Kaline’s death stopped me in my tracks. Author and Detroit stalwart Mitch Albom, in his April 7 Detroit Free Press tribute, wrote, “Heartbreaking. Yet if Kaline saw the end coming, so many of us did not. Consumed by the pandemic that is rattling the globe, we were sideswiped by the news and left scrambling to put his life into some perspective.”

On the national scene, he was often a secondary figure during his baseball years of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, with the sports headlines commanded by players and teams more prominently covered. Willie Mays. Mickey Mantle. The Yankees. Kaline did not seek out the headlines. That was not his nature. He was respectful of his fame. That is what made him exceptional, that was his enduring quality to his many fans here in Michigan. This was Mitch Albom’s remembrance, that Kaline “never announced himself to a room and would often go unnoticed in it, until some observer with his mouth dropping open would gush, ‘Hey, isn’t that Al Kaline?’ It was. He would offer that bright smile, and a handshake, maybe an old story. And another fan would forever be in awe.”

I was one such fan in awe. I look back at the summer of 1962. Ten years old. My first trip to Tiger Stadium, a memorable day trip across Michigan with my dad. It became an annual excursion throughout my childhood years. That ballpark. That beautiful diamond. The raucous crowd. It was surely a field of dreams. It was perfect.

Back home, on those long-ago summer evenings, when the Tigers were on a West Coast trip, I would turn on my transistor radio, under the covers of my bed, listening to Ernie Harwell’s play-by-play late into the night. When the Muskegon Chronicle arrived on our doorstep each afternoon, I would turn to the box scores in the Sports section to check Kaline’s stats from the previous day’s game. 

I was mesmerized by Kaline’s prowess in the outfield, his smooth, masterful swing at the plate. Though, as I grew out of childhood, I began to understand, and appreciate, not just the player but the man. And, now, as the years go by, that appreciation deepens. The lasting impact of his example. The standard he set. The sorrow in his passing.

And, the lessons we can take from his life as we face the challenges and changes presented by a pandemic, providing us with an opportunity to inspire to a higher plateau. Wherever we land on the other side of this crisis, whatever that may look like, whatever form it takes, let us embrace the finest qualities of our Detroit Tigers legend. Determination. Humility. Grace. Kindness.

Mitch Albom lamented at the end of his tribute piece: “In this season of global sickness, another death might be easy to dismiss with a depressed shrug. But it’s not Al Kaline’s dying that makes us sigh. It’s the life he led, and the fact that we may never see its likes again.”

Let’s prove that wrong. Let us, instead, move forward - through Kaline’s example.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com

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