If Austin Jackson was coming to town to learn the guitar, you’d send for Eric Clapton. If you needed to teach him baking, you’d put out an APB on Betty Crocker. If he needed a quick primer on parting seas, you’d check Moses’ calendar.
But Jackson needs to learn center field, and quick—so the Tigers will be calling for Al Kaline.
It’s an annual rite of spring in Lakeland, FL—Hall of Famer Kaline, under the Florida sun, learning young Tigers outfielders how to get the best jump off the bat, where to go once the ball comes their way, and—perhaps most famously—how to catch and throw in the most fluid motion possible.
Kaline’s been traipsing down to Lakeland with the rest of the team since 1975, his first year in retirement. His charge has been to do his best to keep the young fly chasers from turning into butchers.
Kaline becomes even more important this spring for two reasons: rookie Jackson just might be designated as the Tigers’ starting center fielder as a true freshman; and the team no longer has Andy Van Slyke on board to coach the outfielders on a day-to-day basis during the season. Van Slyke resigned after last season, and let no one dismiss the work he did with Curtis Granderson, especially, in Andy’s four years as a Tigers coach.
Jackson is about to get a crash course on how to play the outfield—specifically, the vast center field at Comerica Park—from perhaps the most qualified man alive.
No. 6 has been teaching Tigers outfielders in spring training since 1975
Van Slyke had his guru, too. He told me a few years ago that Bill Virdon, the old Pirates center fielder and former manager who was no slouch as an outfielder, worked with Van Slyke when Andy was with the Pirates. Virdon helped turn Van Slyke into one of the best outfielders of his time.
But Andy’s off to other pursuits, so Kaline will have to take the lead. What a shame.
We have no idea, really, how this kid Jackson, acquired from the Yankees organization in the Granderson trade of December, is going to manage the Grand Canyon-esque outfield of CoPa. It can be unforgiving terrain.
And there won’t be much help, it doesn’t look like, coming from the corner outfielders. There’s Magglio Ordonez in right, mainly because the rules dictate the Tigers play someone in right field. And there’s either Carlos Guillen or Ryan Raburn or the flavor of the day in left, which might be good news only if you’re an opposing right-handed pull hitter.
That leaves Jackson to patrol more ground than a park ranger.
Center field in Detroit was a battle of attrition for the entire 20th century, and it’s not getting any easier in the 21st.
When the team played in Navin Field/Briggs Stadium/Tiger Stadium, center field meant 44o feet straightaway and gaps that had to be covered in matters of seconds, with as fast as the ball got out there in that hitter-friendly ballpark.
You had to be part outfielder and part track and fielder. On any given batted ball, you might be asked to run a country mile or dart into left or right center with the quickness of a jackrabbit. It was baseball meets the Summer Olympics. Half the time, the Tigers needed Kaline. The other half, they needed Michael Johnson.
It took a man to play center field at Tiger Stadium. In Comerica Park, it really takes two men.
You think Tiger Stadium’s outfield was vast? CoPa’s lawn extends as far as the eye can see, and continues even beyond that. If a ball is hit into the gaps, the great outfielders get on their horse. The smart ones call for a cab.
Young Jackson isn’t going to get much help from Ordonez in right or (fill in the blank) in left. If the Tigers sign Johnny Damon, that won’t help either. Now, if they could play a fourth outfielder, like in softball, then maybe we wouldn’t have to worry so much.
Enter Kaline, who started as a center fielder until someone found out that Al had a howitzer for an arm and, as you know, cannons are best reserved for right field.
We don’t know if Jackson is up to the task. Perhaps Kaline doesn’t even know—at least not until he gets his meat hooks into the kid. And even then it will be in the hands of God, eventually.
But in spring training, at least, the Tigers will have Jackson in the care of the next best thing.