Al Kaline signed with the Detroit Tigers a day after graduating high school. He never played a game in the minors. At 18, he was patrolling right field. He'd stay there for 22 years, staking his claim to the corner with the overhang and playing it masterfully. At 20, he'd lead the American League in batting and make the first of his 15 All-Star Games. His 22-year Major League career and subsequent second act as a broadcaster always reflected a youthful spark.
Kaline was the consummate Tiger, and forever young. The most beloved player to ever don the English D. He was Detroit through and through. An eternal optimist and Hall of Fame person who not a person could say a bad word about.
And that's not hokey or revisionist. That's the truth. Kaline was the platonic ideal of the athlete kids wanted to be and parents wanted their kids to become. Though he, like everyone else, aged, he retained that veneer of a sweet-swinging kid from Baltimore for decades.
Kaline died today at his Michigan home, the place he loved, at age 85.
He retired in 1974, but his legend lived on through grandmothers' stories or remembrance from an older cousin. His appeal was generational, even for the generations who never got to see him play. Growing up near The Corner came with an innate inclination to respect and revere Kaline, to almost be able to see him out there with closed eyes and big dreams.
Perhaps that's a bit unfair to Kaline, who was proactive and purposeful in cementing a legacy.
Consider September 27, 1999. The final game at Tiger Stadium. As every living hometown player who made memories there took to the field for a final goodbye, the crowd cheered loudest for Kaline.
And then, at 64 nearing 65, he ran to his position in right field with all the purpose of a man 45 years younger. It was a small thing that reflected a big thing. It was a jog through time and left a lasting impression to those who finally got to see him on that field, with that uniform on, bringing the fans to their feet once again.