If there was anyone who might know, it would be Mr. Willie Horton.
So on Monday afternoon, a few minutes before 3 p.m., I called Mr. Horton.
He had just finished up some yardwork. The last he heard from Mr. Al Kaline was a couple of days ago, when they talked on the phone.
Five minutes after hanging up with me, Mr. Horton called back. He had just received a phone call. He was crying.
On Monday, the Detroit Tigers lost their franchise player. Al Kaline, nicknamed “Mr. Tiger” — one of the remaining figures you instinctively address as “Mister” — died at his home in Bloomfield Hills.
Kaline, who sits on the Mount Rushmore of Detroit sports figures and spent all of his adult years in the Tigers organization as a Hall of Fame player, broadcaster and front office figure, was 85 years old.
As the baseball world remembered Kaline — with acknowledgments from Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, players association director (and former Tiger) Tony Clark, and countless former players whom Kaline had affected — Horton mourned his friend’s passing.
There is the story about the time in Milwaukee in 1970, when Kaline collided with Jim Northrup in center field at old County Stadium and Kaline was knocked unconscious. He turned blue and nearly died on the field.
Horton couldn’t talk about it now. He was still coming to grips with the fact that Kaline, someone he grew up idolizing in Detroit, starring on the most influential Tigers team in history, was gone.
When Horton first met Kaline, he addressed him as “Mr. Kaline.” Soon enough, he became “Al.” But to multiple generations of fans, he was the consummate Tiger, one who not only made his impact felt on the field but off it as well as a first-class personality who was humble to the core.
“I have him on a pedestal,” Alan Trammell said Monday afternoon. “That’s just how I was raised.”
From Trammell to Buck Farmer to Nick Castellanos, Kaline made an impression.
With Trammell, there was the bond of being a franchise player in Detroit and receiving the torch from the 1968 World Series title team to 1984.
“Al Kaline is at another level, as far as I’m concerned,” Trammell said. “Just a special, special person that will obviously never been forgotten but will be sorely missed.”
Beginning with his breakout season as a 20-year-old in 1955, Kaline made 13 consecutive American League All-Star teams, and 18 in all. He won 10 AL Gold Gloves in right field and hit .297 with 399 home runs and 1,587 RBIs in 22 seasons, and was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.
But he will be remembered in Tigers history not only for his on-field play, but for the way he represented the franchise for his entire adult life: His impact is felt in the spontaneous breakfast meeting with Farmer, a reliever since 2014, and in the improvement of Castellanos, who chose uniform No. 6 after getting traded to the Cubs, partly to honor Kaline.
For Farmer, that morning in Baltimore began at the coffee shop at the team’s hotel. Kaline was waiting for his ride.
“He sat down and we had a cup of coffee, for I want to say, at least an hour,” Farmer said. “He told me all about how he grew up and it was really cool to sit there and talk about stuff away from baseball and get to know Mr. Kaline on a personal level. It put a whole new meaning to seeing him in the clubhouse every day.
“Having an actual, genuine friendship or relationship with him beyond just knowing him and his stats and knowing that he was a Hall of Famer and stuff. It was just something that, not a lot of people get to sit down with a guy like that and talk about just life in general.”
Kaline was a fixture in the Tigers’ clubhouse, with a locker on the back wall. His name and number are painted on the brick wall beyond the left-center field fence at Comerica Park, denoting him as one of the team’s all-time legends.
But to Castellanos, he was more than that.
“A role model,” he said. “He’s somebody who’s the face of the Tigers. Just a stand-up gentleman and a phenomenal baseball player.”
Castellanos met Kaline when he was 18 years old, when he visited Comerica Park after signing with the Tigers in 2010. In the years that followed, Kaline took him under his wing and helped him through tough times.
“The older I got, the more comfortable they made me feel because I was really able to understand and use him more,” Castellanos said. “Sometimes when you’re young, you don’t realize these things. Yeah, you know who these people are but if you’re not in a place to realize things, it doesn’t matter.
“He was just the epitome of ‘stay the course.’ Through the whole rebuild thing, he was a big reason why I wanted to stay. Because he played 10 years with the Tigers before they made the postseason. Just hearing the stories of where he was at when they started, just taught me patience more than anything.”
Kaline’s presence was felt for generations; through Trammell and the 1984 “Bless You Boys” tand beyond. But perhaps no one could sum up Monday afternoon better than Horton, who is immortalized next to Kaline as a statue in left-center field at Comerica Park.
Nothing more needed to be said about Mr. Kaline, one of the few remaining “Misters” who commanded a Hall of Fame kind of respect. There were only tears for a friend we all lost.