Number Six has always been willing to share his expertise and today what started out as a general conversation about outfield prospect Nick Castellanos turned into an interesting session about Al's career and what drove him to become one of the great outfielder's in the game.
One of the things Castellanos will have to master as he makes the transition to the outfield is to apply himself mentally on defense. Kaline believes that most young players tend to concentrate on their at bats. He was able to succeeded because he had the ability to separate the two.
Kaline was a fixture in the Tigers outfield starting at a very young age. At 18, he broke into the big leagues and carved out a career that lasted 22 seasons before he retired at age 39.
By the time Kaline called it a career, he had played in 18 All Star games, won a batting title in 1955 at the age of 20 and won 10 gold gloves. Those numbers landed him in the Hall of Fame in 1980. Not bad for a high school kid from Baltimore.
The one attribute that often separates a big leaguer from a prospect that fizzles in the minor leagues is mental toughness. Kaline had it by the truckload. It was that mental toughness that made him a gold glove outfielder.
We've all seen the little leaguer picking dandelions in the outfield waiting for a ball to come his way. It's no different in the big leagues, minus the dandelions.
"You have to push yourself," he said. "You can get bored in the outfield and you have to tell yourself that the next ball is coming to me. It's not easy because you can take your at bats out to the field with you. The really tough individuals separate a bad at bat and their responsibilities on defense."
That mental toughness and focus is also necessary if a player has any thoughts of being a quality major league hitter.
"I used to drive to the games at Tiger Stadium with Bill Freehan and he would tell me that I wasn't a good driving partner because I never said a word the entire ride," Kaline said. Truth was, I was thinking about that night's pitcher and how he pitched me the last time I faced him. We'd arrive at the stadium and I wouldn't remember anything about the drive. I's a miracle I didn't get us killed,"
Kaline had a reputation as being stoic at the ballpark and it was a reputation born from focus.
"I was always criticized because I never smiled on the field," he said. My wife always used to ask me why I would never wave to her in the stands. That's how focused I was."
Kaline's focus and mental toughness was also the result of a fear of embarrassing himself on the field. So to was his decision to retire when he did, instead of prolonging his career and collecting a paycheck.
He finished his career with 399 home runs and instead of coming back for one more year to reach 400, Kaline called it quits. "I could see that I had lost my skills and I didn't want to hang around and embarrass myself," he said. "I never wanted to take a paycheck if I felt I didn't earn it."
It's a refreshing attitude that isn't always prevalent in today's game.