Detroit Tigers honor Al Kaline in a simple, beautiful, classy way in Lakeland

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel
 
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — The Detroit Tigers have set up Al Kaline’s locker in the coaches’ office in their clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium.

A beautiful, touching, classy way to honor Mr. Tiger, who died April 6, 2000.

“It’s very simple right now,” Jim Schmakel, the Tigers clubhouse manager, said. “It’s the locker he has been using since we moved into the new Marchant facility.”

[ The legend of ‘Mr. Tiger’: Everything to know about Al Kaline ]

It was the idea of Tigers general manager Al Avila, who was adamant about wanting to remember and honor Kaline at this time — the first spring training since his death.

“We put in the jacket he wore last year, his BP (batting practice) or spring training jersey, and the home jersey he wore for team picture day,” Schmakel said. “We’ve got other things that we’re gonna put in there like his shoes. I think, somewhere, in all his stuff, we have a glove. but we’re just making it look simple.”

Schmakel let out a sigh, getting emotional. He has hung Kaline’s jersey for 43 years while working for the Tigers. And this was personal for him.

“In memory of him and all the good things he did for all of us, a remembrance of how simple he was and how good he was,” Schmakel said.  

His voice caught with emotion.

“It is sad not to have him around this year,” Schmakel said. “Because he was such a good man and a good friend, not only to me but to everyone.”

MORE FROM SEIDEL: Al Kaline was truly ‘Mr. Tiger’: A man of humility, humor and elegance

Kaline’s family was deeply touched, honored and thankful.

“This year, we all know he will not be there to wear his number 6, but out of their deep respect for the man, the player and their friend, the Tiger clubhouse staff readied his uniform and a locker as they have done for so many years,” Mark Kaline, Al’s son, posted on social media. “No fanfare. No big deal. Just the way dad would have wanted it. On behalf of the Kaline family, I would simply like to say thank you for such a thoughtful act of kindness and respect.”

It is the 67th straight year that Kaline has a locker in Lakeland.

“In February of 1954, a few years before I was even born, my then 19-year-old father traveled to Lakeland, Florida to experience his first spring training with the Detroit Tigers,” Mark Kaline wrote. “For the next 66 years, the Tiger clubhouse has had a locker with a uniform ready to go for number 6, whether while he was a player, a broadcaster, a special assistant to the team President, or an ad hoc hitting or fielding coach.”

MORE FROM SEIDEL: Why Kaline’s death stings more than other legends we’ve lost

Schmakel has been around Kaline since the 1960s. He worked at the Toledo clubhouse in high school. “We had an exhibition game, literally every year back then with the Tigers,” Schmakel said. “So I met him in ’67 or ’68. I was the clubhouse guy and he was one of the players. That’s the first time I ever saw him.”

Schmakel met Kaline formally in 1979. “He had a special locker at the old building down here that’s now torn down,” Schmakel said. “I put him right outside the manager’s office. That locker was there forever.”

Schamakel doesn’t remember Kaline ever missing a spring training.

That was Mr. Kaline — steady and consistent as the sunrise.

‘He’s just like your dad’

I know I’m supposed to be unbiased. But when it came to Mr. Kaline, it is impossible for me.

I’d get chills when I would see Mr. Kaline put on his uniform and walk out to the field during spring training.

It was like watching history walk by you.

And inevitably, he’d walk by and smile or say something nice.

“He was so well respected by everyone,” Schmakel said. “And everyone listened to him. He didn’t say much. He coached the players of course, but he was he was quiet. And I think he observed what was going on. … And it was to see him put the uniform nearly every year. Towards the last few years, he stopped putting it on but we had the uniform ready for him if he wanted to.”

It should be mentioned that his uniform never changed.

“The waist, the shirt size, was literally the same every year,” Schmakel said.

After Kaline’s death, the Tigers kept his locker last summer at Comerica Park.

“He’s just like your dad,” Schmakel said. “Even though he wasn’t my dad, he was so respectful of everything. Respectful of where he was at. He was respectful of the fact that he was highly successful but he didn’t flaunt it. He was respectful that a lot of the young players wanted to meet him and wanted to learn from him. He was just a good man.”

So let it be known, No. 6 still hangs in the Tigers clubhouse at spring training.

No frills. It’s simple and understated.

A jersey ready to be used.

Just the way Mr. Kaline would have wanted it.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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