Saturday, July 09, 2011

Compared to Jeter, Kaline’s Quest for 3,000 Hits Almost Done in Private

The 39-year-old outfielder reported to spring training in Lakeland, Florida—except he was an outfielder in your heart only, and a designated hitter in your program.

Al Kaline was prepping for his 22nd and final season as a Tiger. It was February, 1974, when no. 6, as much as it pained him, agreed to put his glove away for good, nearly two months before the season even began.

Now, Kaline shelving the glove ought not to have been allowed. This was Louie Armstrong agreeing to show up to a jazz festival sans trumpet so that he may be the designated singer.

But new manager Ralph Houk wanted Kaline’s bat in the lineup everyday, so it was determined by manager and outfield—oops, DH—that Kaline would make the American League circuit one last time lugging only a Louisville Slugger. Never would Al’s left hand slide into a mitt the entire season.

The designated hitter, a rotten invention, was actually a salve in a way, because it relieved many a butcher from the duties of defense. It’s like that old line, “He’s got a face made for radio.” In baseball, there were a bunch of guys with gloves made for DH.

But Kaline, of course, was not one of those butchers. Even at his advanced age, Kaline could out-glove half the league, and out-throw the other half. The kid from Baltimore who never played an inning in the minor leagues didn’t invent right field, but he perfected it.

All this was fresh on Tigers fans’ minds when Kaline showed up to Lakeland in ’74 and started limbering up, getting his old bones ready for one more season.

That, and the carrot on the stick that Kaline would be chasing for the majority of the year: the coveted career hit total of 3,000.

After 21 years, Kaline stood at 2,861 hits. He needed 139 for three grand, but for a few years prior to 1974, Al had settled into being a part-time player under manager Billy Martin.

Kaline collected just 285 hits from 1971-73, and now he needed half of that, just about, in one season to reach 3,000.

It would have to come in 1974 or it wouldn’t come at all. Kaline made it clear that ’74 was his last season, 3,000 hits or not.

Kaline’s march to 3,000 hits seemed to be played out in a vacuum, and only in Detroit. This was five years before the invention of ESPN. The Internet was nearly a generation away from infiltrating our lives.

The local papers ran subtle, oh-by-the-way countdowns of Kaline’s progress as the Tigers, a bad team in ’74, stumbled through the season.

As much as it pained folks to see the great Al Kaline reduced to half a player, it nonetheless was the best way for him to make his assault on 3,000 hits as realistic as possible. Even as the team’s primary DH, it wasn’t until late-September that Kaline finally was knocking on destiny’s door.

But there was little drama; hardly any national fanfare to speak of, really, as Kaline traipsed toward 3,000.

Not even the fact that the Tigers were fittingly in Baltimore, Kaline’s hometown, with Al sitting on 2,999 hits, could prompt local television to pick up the game.

Think about that for a moment. Arguably the greatest Tiger of them all was about to become only the second player in franchise history to attain 3,000 hits, and he was going to do it where he grew up, yet there was no local telecast of the big moment beamed back to Detroit.

Kaline got no. 3,000 off the lefty Dave McNally, a double into the gap, on September 24, 1974, with only about a week to spare in the season.

A quick check with reveals that the attendance that night at Memorial Stadium was a polite 11,492, about 20 percent capacity.

Apparently Kaline’s collision course with history didn’t tickle the fancy of his hometown baseball denizens, either.

Kaline collected seven more hits before the season ended, just to make sure.

When Kaline got no. 3,000, he was only the 12th player in big league history to accomplish that feat. It should have been a much bigger deal than it was.

I can’t help but think of Kaline’s low-key push for 3,000 hits as I see the hysteria over Derek Jeter and his quest for the same.

Jeter, maybe the greatest Yankee of them all, is poised to become the first player in that franchise’s glorious history to collect 3,000 hits. It’s hard to believe, considering all the Hall of Famers the Yankees have employed, that Kalamazoo’s Jeter, in baseball’s third century of business, is going to be the first Bronx Bomber to gather 3,000 hits, all coming while playing for the Yankees.

The magic hit could come this weekend; Jeter has 2,998 hits as I write this.

Jeter needed just 74 safeties to make history, entering the 2011 season. But his 37-year-old body has been stubborn, affecting his performance like no other time in his career. The 16 seasons Jeter has played as the Yankees shortstop have decided to catch up with him all at once, it seems.

So here it is, almost the All-Star break, and Jeter is chugging toward 3,000 hits like the Little Engine That Could.

And, playing for the Yankees in the biggest media market in the universe, Jeter has been followed by a caravan of media in recent days. His 3,000th won’t occur in a vacuum.

Fifteen players have crossed the 3,000 hit threshold since Kaline did it some 37 years ago—in the same year that Derek Jeter was born. It’s not as big a deal as it used to be.

But Jeter is a Yankee, and he’s not only going to be the first Yankee to do it, but very likely the last to do it for a very long time. Maybe the last ever, given the state of today’s game, with players not staying in the same city for much longer than the length of a Harry Potter movie.

Al Kaline put his glove away so he could be in the lineup as much as possible, the better to make 3,000 hits a reality by the end of the season. He did it almost privately.

Jeter, a Hall of Famer in his own right, is assaulting the mark with a cadre of media following his every move.

Those damn Yankees.


Blogger xman said...

A fantastic column...and brilliant contrast to the current Jeter nonsense! I've long said that Derek is a fine player, but would've had an entirely different career had he been drafted by the Royals or the Brewers.

11:04 PM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...


11:45 PM  
Blogger Benwoodruff said...

I only wish Kaline would have gotten that "one more home run" and been the first to 3000 and 400 instead of Yaz!

1:00 AM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

I know, Ben!! That used to grind me, too. But it never seemed to bother Al.

1:05 AM  

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