THERE’S ONLY ONE FIRST TIME (Al Kaline, R.I.P.)

One of the few I wish I’d met…here’s why.

If you’re a lifelong sports fan, you end up having a lot of “favorite players.”

Al Kaline was my first.

Who knows why?

I wasn’t from anywhere near Detroit where he spent his entire 22-year career (which by the way wasn’t nearly as common in the pre-free agent era as some people would have you believe). I’d never even been north of the Mason-Dixon line. I was Scottish, but I didn’t know “Kaline” was, and it wouldn’t have made much difference if I did…being Scottish in America isn’t like being Jewish or Mexican or Irish or African-American.

If somebody had asked me to explain, my ten-year-old self probably would have said something like “I like how he plays the game.” Heady, controlled, hit to all fields, quiet, not flashy. As someone who got benched when I was eleven (after going 5 for 12 in four games with two doubles and two triples) because my manager knew I wouldn’t bitch to my parents about playing time and later got very used to coaches telling me, “I didn’t know you were having that good a year,” whenever the first batch of league-wide stats came out and I was hitting north of .500, let’s just say I related to the not-flashy part.

When people talked about Al Kaline they talked about his fundamentals, his lack of weaknesses, his consistency, week-to-week, month-to-month, season-to-season. That was the way I wanted to be talked about and the way I wanted to play. He set the model in my own mind for the athletes I would admire most (Chris Evert, Henry Aaron, Pete Sampras, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Glavine, Walter Payton, Tim Duncan) the ones who, at least as they played their sport, would best embody what I believed then, and believe now, are sport’s highest ideals of stoicism and courage, in all weathers.

Kaline never spent a day in the minors, still holds the record as the youngest American League batting champion, was a 15-time All Star and a 10-time Golden Glove winner, hit .379 in the only World Series he played in (one of only two Series the Tigers have won since 1945). He passed away this week after 85 years on this mortal plane, 66 of which he spent married to the same woman, 67 of which he spent working for the Detroit Tigers, who I haven’t specifically rooted for since the day he retired.

That’s another lesson I took to heart.

It’s not the uniforms that matter. It’s the people inside them.

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