The virus is raging, especially here in Michigan, which ranks third among states in the US in COVID cases (but only tenth in population). The thing is, Detroit is getting hammered, and the farther you get from Detroit, the less bad it gets. Just to set perspective, the City of Detroit has a rate of 85 COVID cases per 10,000 population (about one in 120 people); the three counties of the metro area (not including the city itself) are between 25-30. Two other counties adjacent to the metro area are at about 15. Other 'urban-ish' counties within 100 miles or so of Detroit (including the one I live in) are at 6-7 cases per 10,000 population (about 1 in 1500). The rest of the state is 2 or less. . .
We have friends who live in Detroit; the wife/mom is a nurse, and daughter of good, long-standing friends of ours. Their whole family came down with the virus, and their next-door neighbor died of it. They are all recovered now, or well on the way to recovery. For them, it was like a not-too-nasty flu. Obviously, for their neighbor, it was considerably more than that.
Watching the numbers, it looks like we are at or just past the peak of the pandemic. Which, of course, is the exact wrong time to relax. No one wants to be the last soldier to die in the war. . .
It is perhaps ironic, but these recent weeks have brought a lot of death into my life. A man who filled a significant 'mentor' role in my life for several years, who helped me through some major rough spots with my kids (partly because he'd been through similar rough spots with his kids) died a couple weeks ago, just before the panic hit. He was as wise and joyful a man as I've ever known. He was 91.
About a week after that, a good friend's wife died. I had known her for years, even before she married my friend. She was kind and gracious, the kind of woman who made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. She'd suffered from Alzheimer's for the past few years, and in her last days, she declined precipitously.
A week after that, my aunt, my mother's older sister, died. Her family and ours had always been close, and we took several memorable vacations with them over the years. She had been in declining health for a while; she was 88.
The thing is, none of them died from COVID (at least, COVID wasn't given as the cause of death). It was just their time. With so much death swirling about the public consciousness, it all just reinforces the truth that we are all born to die, "as sparks fly upward" (Job 5:7). To put it more crassly, none of us gets out of here alive. My own advancing age, together with recent health issues, which are more like 'really annoying' than 'scary', have me thinking of my own mortality more than I used to. . .
And yesterday brought the news that Al Kaline had died.
How do I explain what it means to me that Al Kaline died? He was my boyhood hero. In that way that boys do, he was the sun of my solar system for many of my formative years. He was the best baseball player that I had the opportunity to see even somewhat close-at hand. It was a long way from my hometown Up North to Tiger Stadium in Detroit, and I only saw a few games live-and-in-person that Al Kaline played in. But I remember the first Tiger game I ever went to, as a boy probably 11 years old. We walked into the stadium, and saw the great green expanse of the field. As we walked along the concourse to our seats, some of the players were warming up - stretching and playing catch - and there he was - Al Kaline! I was mesmerized to see the great man in person, playing catch just like I did in my Little League games at home!
Al Kaline had been the Tigers' best player for many years before I was even paying attention. His first major-league game was in 1953, three years before I was born. His breakout year was 1955, when he was the youngest player ever to lead the league in batting average, and I was in utero (at least, by the end of the season). By the time I was really paying attention in '65 or so, his best years were mostly behind him, although he was the Tigers' best player even still.
In 1968, when I was 12, the Tigers won the American League pennant, and the World Series. Kaline spent much of the season injured, and by the time the pennant was clinched, it was hard to find places for him to play, because the young guys who had replaced him were all playing well. Even still, he scored the winning run in the bottom of the 9th against the Yankees in the pennant-clinching win in September. And then, in Game 5 of the World Series, with the Tigers down 3-games-to-1 to the Cardinals, and trailing 3-2 as they came to bat in the bottom of the 7th inning, Kaline came up with the bases loaded and singled, driving in the tying and go-ahead runs to stave off elimination so the Tigers could live to play another game. They went on to win games 6 and 7, and thereby, the World Series Championship, which is, to this day, still a high point in my young life. Kaline had a terrific World Series, batting .379 with 2 homers and 8 RBIs in 7 games.
Kaline was a consummate defensive ballplayer, blessed with good speed, an other-worldly sense for reading the batter's swing and anticipating the flight of the ball, and an amazing arm. He was a right-fielder, and so was I. Of course, in the major leagues, the right-fielder typically has the strongest arm of the outfielders, since he has to make the long throw to third base, whereas in Little League, right field is typically where you try to hide the slow, fat kid, because fewer balls get hit that way (the majors have more left-handed pull hitters than Little Leagues do). But no-one ever made the throw from right-field to third base any better than Al Kaline. In that same Game 5 of the World Series, Lou Brock was on third base for the Cardinals, with a chance to add to their lead. The batter hit a medium-depth fly to right, which, especially with Brock on third, would almost always score a run. Kaline played the ball in textbook fashion, lining himself up a couple steps behind where the fly was coming down, so he caught the ball on the run and fired a 300-foot strike to the catcher. Lou Brock, to his credit, never even moved off third base, and his run never did score. There is another story of a time Kaline threw out a runner while sitting on his butt in the outfield.
The thing is, as great a ballplayer as Al Kaline was, he was an even better man. Quick to deflect accolades to his teammates, or even his opponents, humble, self-effacing, he was the epitome of quiet grace, and leading by example. He hated drawing attention to himself, even years after his playing career was over. All he ever wanted to do was play ball as well as he possibly could. And that was incredibly good.
When I was in college, his son was a student at my university, and even lived in my dorm for a year. From time to time, we'd see Al and his wife dropping off their son in front of the dorm, which was a special thrill, the few times it happened.
For a man, even an old man like me, his boyhood hero holds a special place in his heart, his soul, even his concept of himself. I know that I have aspired to the same kind of quiet, gracious excellence as Al Kaline exemplified (it probably helped that my dad was cut from similar cloth; maybe that's why I latched onto Al Kaline). The world will seem a poorer place without him.
Rest in Peace, Al Kaline; you were one of the best there ever was. . .