Tiger Stadium in Detroit is one of the last of the old, majestic, steel-girdered ball parks and everything in it is painted a dark forest green. But the grass is no longer green, and in right field it is dying.
Starting when he was 18, Al Kaline roamed gracefully through the seasons over that grass, but in this, his 22nd year with the Tigers, he has not played one inning on it. As if in mourning, the grass has withered, turned brown. Kaline is the team's designated hitter now, and he spends most of his time in the dugout, waiting. During pregame practice he does not go out to the dying grass in right. He prefers to shag fly balls and chat with the pitchers in left field. When he played right field for the Tigers, Kaline was selected to 15 All-Star teams and won 10 Golden Glove awards for his fielding excellence. He says he is glad he doesn't play there anymore. "I can't reach balls I used to catch," he says, "and I don't want to embarrass myself."
When he was 20, Kaline hit .340 and became the youngest player ever to win a batting championship. He never won another, nor did he ever hit as high as he did that year, 1955. Because of his inability to recapture that golden season, some baseball fans believe that he never truly fulfilled the potential he exhibited in his youth. "I was lucky that year," Kaline maintains. "Everything fell in place." Still, he has a lifetime average of .299 and batted .379 in the 1968 World Series. Now, in the December of his career, he needs just 22 hits to become only the 12th player and the first American Leaguer since 1925, when both Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker did it, to amass 3,000 or more career hits.
Three thousand is a number that eluded Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and others more renowned than Kaline, and that is why he did not retire last year, as he had wanted to, but returned for one more season of waiting in the dugout for each time at bat. He thought he was a cinch to get his 3,000th hit this year, but now he is not so sure. He might have to begin another season, he says. If he has to, he will, because he is determined to reach that goal. It is the first and only one he has ever set for himself as a major league ballplayer.
"People ask me was it my goal to play in the majors for 20 years, was it my goal to get 3,000 hits someday? Lord knows, I didn't have any goals, I tell them. My only desire was to be a baseball player. I never wanted to be a flashy personality or anything like that. I'm a straight actor, that's the way I am and the way I played the game. I was' blessed with a good body that didn't put on weight, and that helped, too. But most of all I never looked ahead at anything else. I had no desire to have a big job during the offseason. My only concern was to keep myself in shape for the spring. You can't blame guys today for always looking ahead to what they'll do out of baseball. But you can look ahead too often and forget what you should be doing now. You forget what got you there. I could hang on for a few more years, but I won't. This is a young man's game and like everything, it comes to an end."
Now that there is something he wants out of baseball beyond playing each game, Al Kaline no longer enjoys it as he once did. In his younger days he used to play a little boy's game, a game in which he raced flies to the warning track with such obvious relish that his attitude was infectious. He says of that younger self, "I knew I had certain skills then and that made me unbelievably relaxed and confident." Now that he no longer has those skills, now that he no longer plays the game, but must sit and wait each night in the dugout merely for his turns at bat, he has grown edgy. "He's moody a lot these days," says a Tiger executive. "He's anxious to get his 3,000th hit and then retire. But there are other things bothering him, too. Like many athletes who have to retire someday, he doesn't know what he wants to do next." "Baseball is the only job I ever had," says Kaline. "It got me out of the slums of Baltimore. It gave me everything I have in life. It gave me a challenge every day of my life. What do I do without that challenge? I've always been realistic about the outside world. It's a real jungle. Here I am in this little padded room where everything is great. Out there it's different. Oh, I could take a job with the Tigers or in business, but I don't know if I want that. I only know that I'm not worrying so much about getting my 3,000th hit as I am about what I'm gonna do after it."
On a day last week when the Tigers were to meet the Angels in an eight o'clock game, Tiger Stadium was all but deserted. It was a hazy, muggy afternoon and Al Kaline fidgeted and sweated in his uniform as he stood beside the visiting team's dugout and watched three men set up a television camera that would soon film him and a fourth man in a commercial for Ford Motor Company. The fourth man, holding a microphone in his hand, stood beside Kaline and nervously tried to make small talk. Finally, the men behind the camera called out "O.K." The man beside Kaline raised the microphone to his mouth and said, "Every Tiger fan who is more than a teen-ager remembers how Al Kaline won a batting championship in only his second full season in the major leagues. He is a living legend in Detroit and a sure bet...." Kaline rotated his neck, stretching his muscles, limbering up while standing still. The man with the microphone said something about "the thrill of his 3,000th hit." Kaline just stood there, his right foot slightly forward, hands on hips, the hips tilted down to his right, shoulders tilted down to his left. Somehow, the thrill was absent.