Friday, August 3, 2007

Heroes - #1

Al Kaline

The first of my heroes is an athlete--for more than two decades the star of my "hometown" team, the Detroit Tigers: Al Kaline. This was a man who combined skill and class. Kaline was a gifted player, a triple threat: he could run, throw, and hit. He was a reliable clutch hitter, an extraordinary right-fielder, and a smart, if not super-fast base runner. With Kaline patrolling right-field, players on opposing teams did not take the extra base. Kaline’s arm was extraordinary. He once threw a man out at home from the seat of his pants.

Al Kaline was the star of the Detroit Tigers—the only team he ever played for—from the time I first began to follow baseball as a ten-year-old boy, playing pick-up games on the sandlots of Ann Arbor, until I was a graduate of the University of Michigan; a jaded and cynical survivor of the ‘sixties; married, employed, and living in New York City. Al Kaline was a stabilizing constant throughout the manifold crises of that turbulent era.

Kaline never embarrassed himself or his team, either on or off the field. Although he was elected to the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible, I’ve heard it argued that Kaline wasn’t really a great ballplayer. His life-time batting average was just under .300 and, although he collected over 3000 hits, he finished his career one short of 400 home runs. But if Kaline was only a “good” ballplayer, he elevated good to the level of greatness by being consistently very good over a span of two decades.

Near the end of his playing days, his gifts finally beginning to fade, the Tiger management offered to reward Kaline’s long and stellar career with a $100K contract—superstar pay for that era. Kaline turned it down. He didn’t feel that his productivity in the previous season had earned him a raise. They don’t make them like that any longer.