Al Kaline was the rare athlete whose influence stretched across generations. He wore the Old English D for the first time in 1953. My father had just turned four years old and my mother hadn’t quite yet been born. Even though he retired a full 15 plus years before I debuted on planet Earth, he was unquestionably the most famous baseball player of my childhood.
Al Kaline was above suspicion. Archetype of a professional. Gentleman. Signed a deal fresh out of high school and worked for one company his entire life. Not only was Kaline a no doubt Hall of Fame player, he was the greatest Tiger of his era without competition. His career essentially ran parallel with Detroit’s time as the engine of the American Dream, and it’s just hard to separate the two. Al Kaline was baseball in the third quarter of the 20th century, especially in Detroit, and his long shadow lingered over baseball in Detroit in the five decades that have come since.
Al Kaline was the kind of a ball player and person that everyone could appreciate. Old school, new school, flashy, understated? Something for everyone. I said on Twitter earlier that only Ernie Harwell stands as Kaline’s equal in terms of adoration among Tigers fans. Trammell, Verlander, and Cabrera will all certainly have flags flying on the Comerica flag pole with their initials when they pass, but Kaline’s death will ring loudest among them because of how long and how permanently he’s been a Tiger.
Yet today, at this benchmark moment in Tigers history, there was no on-field ceremony. No tribute on FSD. No Dickerson-Price remembrance. There is no baseball because there is nothing but despair. As I write this, more than 700 Michiganders have died from the novel coronavirus and hundreds, maybe thousands, more will join them. In the long line of horrible things we are living through and will continue to live though over these months, one of them is that Al Kaline will not get the curtain call he earned.
But it’s not just Kaline. We all know that. People are dying separated from their families. Families are coping with loss without the normal ceremonies and togetherness that typically comes with this kind of heartache. It’s a particular kind of cruelty to take loved ones away without the chance to grieve among friends.
Kaline’s loss is a poignant reminder, not only of the world we’ve lost but also of the hell we currently occupy. All men must die, and few have made better use of their 85 years than Kaline, but to lose someone this beloved by the entire community with no opportunity to be among that community is cruel in a way that gets to the heart of where we are.
We are surrounded by loss and unable to grieve. Some day this will be over. Some day they’ll raise a flag with “AK” above Comerica Park and a parade of former teammates and friends will eulogize Kaline. The stadium will probably be full, although it’s hard to imagine it now. The stories they’ll tell will speak to his greatness on and off the field. People will be comforted by the shared experience of having watched Kaline or grown up hearing about what it was like to watch him unleash throws from right field at Tiger Stadium.
Some day we’ll be able to think about that. Some day there will be time. Some day we’ll go to funerals.