LAKELAND, Fla. -- As hard as it may be to visualize for my generation, who has grown up visiting its post apocalyptic desolation, Detroit of the 1950's was a great American boom town. Its population swelled to nearly 2 million, as people from all walks of life were drawn to the post-war hope, opportunity, and optimism of the bustling metropolis.
One of the many newcomers to Detroit in its greatest decade was, perhaps, the greatest Detroit Tiger of all -- Al Kaline.
He rolled into Detroit in the early summer of '53, a skinny 18 year old kid, straight out of high school from the inner harbor of Baltimore. Just typing his name sends a bit of a chill down my spine.
Like many newcomers to the city in the 50's he found the going good.
"I lived downtown at the old Tuller hotel when I first got to Detroit," recalled Kaline, now 76, a Tiger in winter.
"The city was vibrant then with a lot of activity going on downtown. I could walk to the ballpark from my room. It was a big town, but it wasn't too big. I loved Detroit."
And the burgeoning city quickly fell in love with him. By 1955, at the mere age of 20, he was an All-Star, runner-up to Yogi Berra in the MVP voting, and the youngest player in the history of our national pastime to lead the league in hitting. A star on the rise for a city on the rise.
Longtime Tiger fan Ed Robinson, now 77, and sitting behind the Tiger's dugout in Lakeland Wednesday with his 6 year old grandchild Ben, remembered watching Kaline like a vision from another life. "Al Kaline ran like a gazelle," said Robinson, a native Detroiter who spoke with the assistance of an oxygen machine. "He was so graceful. Nothing got by him in the outfield. And he swung the bat with near perfection."
"I had a mad crush on him in 1953," recalled Kathy Lancaster, age 73, a feisty Detroiter who made the trip to Lakeland this spring with her sister and son.
"Al Kaline, Elvis, and my husband, all born in the same year," cheerfully volunteered Kathy. When asked how she would rank the three, she hesitated, but her sister chimed in. "Kaline would be number one."
"If you are going to print this, I probably have to say my husband," Kathy half-heartedly acknowledged, "but yeah, it's probably Al Kaline," she confessed, the smile now returned to her face. "I remember watching him run the bases...," she dreamily added, her voice trailing off into a memory.
The unassuming Kaline, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and currently a special assistant to the President of the Tigers, sits in front of his clubhouse locker every day in Lakeland, within mere feet of current Tiger stars like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.
Kaline, just a tad stooped, with a kind look on his eye, and a calming baritone voice only slightly sapped by time, does not, despite his proximity, appear to have a lot of interaction with the current crop of Tigers. Perhaps management thinks that Kaline's mere presence in the locker room will lend stability and stature to a team a little bit lacking in both categories. I've heard of worse strategies.
"He was always a perfect gentleman," noted Tiger fan Richard Cook, 67, a retired insurance salesman from Detroit. "It goes beyond just being a baseball player."
Cook, sitting in a mobile wheelchair, was taking in the game Wednesday in Lakeland along the sunny third base line with his lifelong friend and fellow Tiger loyalist, Gary Redulski, 63, also from Detroit.
Gary, wearing a Kaline jersey at the game Wednesday, recalled listening to Ernie Harwell's radio broadcast of the 1968 Tigers World Series victory while a soldier in the jungles of Vietnam. It was to be Kaline's only World Series ring, the capstone to a storybook career.
"A gentleman, a professional, a good guy, really an idol," summarized Gary about his childhood hero.
The Detroit dream that found Al Kaline at its center began to rupture right around the time of his lone World Series Championship.
Kaline, then nearing the end of his playing days, recalled the "tremendous shock" of the 1967 riots that accelerated the demise of the city. "It was a bad and terrible situation," said Kaline, "A lot of people though say that our '68 team helped pull the city together a little bit."
But the damage was done. The city began a rapid demise marked by rising crime, a crumbling infrastructure, and skyrocketing unemployment. Just Tuesday, census numbers showed that Detroit lost 25 percent of its population in the last decade alone, a slowly unfurling modern day Pompeii right in our own backyard.
"It's very, very difficult to see Detroit go through what it has gone through. Very tough," said Ed.
"The word pity comes to mind," said Kathy about the current plight of her hometown.
"It takes two hours for an ambulance to come, an hour for police. It's really sad." observed Gary.
"I didn't have the same struggles as a lot of people in Detroit, losing their house, losing their job," readily acknowledged Kaline. "I did in my life exactly what I dreamed of doing when I was a 10 or 11 year old kid, to become a major league baseball player,and be pretty successful right off the bat."
"But to me what makes Detroit really special, is that the people are special," continued Kaline. "Even though they've had hard times they find a way to survive. Detroit is going to survive. We have a lot of strong people. All they need is a break."
Kaline's belief in one last comeback offered a glimmer of hope to his fans.
"His faith in Detroit matters," firmly stated Gary. "As long as you have people like Al Kaline in Detroit, things will happen."
"Detroit's going to come back, and they're going to be proud, and they're going to say to the rest of the world, I told you so," prophesized Kaline.
Al Kaline is no politician. He's not an urban planner, nor an economist. But he is a hero. And just for a moment, I started to believe in a Detroit comeback too.
As my dearly departed grandmother, a Detroiter herself might say, "From Al Kaline's lips to God's ears."
For the Tiger faithful in Lakeland, there's not much distance between the two.