The news of the Tigers signing Prince Fielder on Tuesday was … well, it was mind-boggling, stunning, almost too much to comprehend.
If it had happened in New York, Los Angeles, maybe Boston, it might have made sense or seemed understandable. A Detroit Tiger signing to make $23.78 million a year to play baseball? The Detroit Tigers paying a guy $23.78 million a year to play baseball?
Where have you gone, Rusty Kuntz?
Detroit is the baseball hometown of Ty Cobb, arguably the greatest ballplayer of all-time (and considered almost unanimously to be so during the first half of the last century). But it is more familiar to area baseball fanatics as the proud franchise that produced Al Kaline, praised by locals as the nearly-perfect human who roamed the right field grass of Tiger Stadium like a lord patrolling his estate.
There are no stories in local lore of Kaline muffing a play, or making even one clumsy move during his 22-year reign at Michigan and Trumbull. Yet what mattered more to Detroiters — and what continues to this day to constitute the bulwark of the affection in which he is held — was the perception of Al Kaline as a great man, a modest and selfless example of a great modern hero. Like Gordie Howe, Kaline’s hockey contemporary who also maintains almost a spiritual grasp on the soul of our town, it was the human qualities of #6 and #9 that have meant the most to the minds and hearts of local fans.
Part of the legacy of Al Kaline — and a story that resounds with even more impact and irony on the heels of the Fielder signing — is the legend of Kaline, the longtime local king of his sport, refusing to accept $100,000 a year to play for the Tigers in the early 1970s, near the end of his Detroit career. Some locals under 40 may not be familiar with the tale — though I would bet many have heard of it, knowing how baseball lore is handed from generation to generation in Detroit — of Kaline rejecting a raise in his own salary. The story has been handed down in two forms — one, that Kaline felt no player was worth that much money just for playing baseball; secondly, that he had a ‘down’ year the previous season and was refusing a ten grand raise to $100,000 by a Tiger organization that felt he was worth that then-magical figure.
I have to state, in the interest of honesty, that I don’t know if either story is true, or if both are apocryphal. I have never heard the basis of the story denied — that Al refused the figure — but Kaline has rarely been a player or man to talk of his private life or personal dealings. If he did refuse the payment as being too high, more power to him … but Mickey Mantle had reportedly been making $100,000 a year since 1963. I do know, from a very limited amount of personal dealings, that Al can be very careful with a buck, and I find it hard to imagine he would deny his young family the extra $10,000 that the Tiger organization wished to add to his $90,000 pay in the early ‘70s.
Kaline had played two decades’ worth of hard quality baseball for the Tigers, and was certainly worthy of much more than even the controversial $100,000 that was discussed back then. He had one ‘off’ year — in 1973, the year before he finished his career in 1974. He may have, back then, remarked that he felt unworthy of $100,000 after a disappointing season at age 37, but I would still have doubts that he outright rejected the Tigers offer.
Certainly Kaline’s teammates believed that he had. Pitcher Denny McLain, that avatar of selfless team play, has criticized Kaline for effectively helping management hold down player salaries by refusing to accept the 100 Gs back then. Ironically, Kaline’s onetime business partner, Gordie Howe, was resented by some NHL players for similarly depressing hockey contracts by refusing to demand top dollar when he was the top player in his sport in his day. (Howe was shocked in 1969 to discover that he wasn’t even the highest paid player on the Red Wings’ roster; when the millionaire team owner, playboy Bruce Norris, finally caved and signed a Howe contract worth $100,000 in 1970, he shoved the document across his desk to Gordie with the surly remark, “Here … I hope this will make your wife happy.”)
Whatever the facts in either case, and I confess that my knowledge of the Kaline situation is second-hand and hearsay at best, the examples of Al Kaline, and Gordie Howe … and the history of their service to our community and their places in local hearts … are in no way diminished, or degraded, by the Fielder announcement.
The free-agent first baseman signed a nine-year deal worth $214 million … working out to a cool $23.78 million a year. Fielder is only 27 years old, and has averaged 40 homers and 113 RBIs over the past five seasons. Baseball veteran and ESPN commentator John Kruk calls Fielder the best free agent signing of this off-season, a “high energy guy” worth more to the Tigers than Albert Pujols will be to his new team, the Los Angeles Angels. And speaking of ESPN, the jerks there were already leading off their hourly news updates overnight Tuesday with the headline … “Are the Tigers a lock for the 2012 World Series?” Oh yeah, right … fer sure.
The numbers dazzle. The prospects are enticing. If Al Kaline is silently bemoaning the year of his birth (and he is estimated to have made a little over $1 million in his 22 years of play) it is very understandable.
What remains untouched is #6’s place in our hearts, and his everlasting high and holy regard among the legions that hold the olde English D among the sacred symbols of our lives. May Prince Fielder, under the ever-watchful and supportive eye of Al Kaline, attain his own piece of Tiger immortality. And may we all take part in the celebration of a new Detroit Tigers legend … one that will announce itself with the first flicks of the bat this April … one that began with a few flicks of the pen this January of 2012.
Nine years. $214 million. Almost $24 million per season.
And where have you gone, Coot Veal?