Published April 4, 2017

He doesn’t have a legendary nickname, like “Sweet Lou” or “The Mechanical Man.”

He doesn’t play the game with the efficient use of energy like Whitaker or in complete silence, like Gehringer.

The Tigers haven’t flown any pennant flags on his watch.

But Ian Kinsler could have played second base in either of those men’s time.

Kinsler would have fit in nicely with Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Jack Morris and the boys of 1984. And, more impressively, Kinsler’s dusty trail would’ve been right at home in the flannel, daytime baseball era of Gehringer. Kinsler would have given the 1930s Tigers a bit of Gashouse Gang swagger and attitude.

Kinsler is 34 years old so that means his skills, especially as a middle infielder, are supposed to be waning. He should be on some team’s bench, lucky to get 200 at-bats.

The bat should be a tick slower. The power should be a thing of the past. The defense is supposed to be suffering right about now. Each week on a big league roster should be in danger of being his last.

There should be some young stud being seasoned in the minors, ready to take his job. An unconditional release should be slipped into his locker this July.

Not happening. Kinsler keeps going. Strong. He currently ranks in the elite of second basemen.

Kinsler’s starting his fourth season in Detroit, which is enough, as far as I’m concerned, to group him with the two greatest second basemen in Tigers history.

One of Gehringer’s former managers said about the quiet second sacker that Charlie “Said hello to you on Opening Day, goodbye on the last day of the season, and in between he hit. 340.”

Gehringer’s stoic nature and his amazing consistency lent him the moniker of “The Mechanical Man.” He was, in some ways, the Tigers’ best player on those 1934-35 pennant winning teams (World Series champs in ’35). If he smiled it was only a rumor—an urban legend.

But Charlie could play second base like no one else of his era. He came back to be the Tigers’ GM in the 1950s and let’s say that as an executive, Charlie made a great second baseman. And leave it at that.

Thankfully, Gehringer’s turn in the front office didn’t smudge his legacy as a player. After all, is Elvis Presley’s legend hurt by his bad movies?

Lou Whitaker got the tag “Sweet Lou” as a teenager. It was one of baseball’s more appropriate nicknames.

Not for his warmth and fuzziness, but for his play, which he did so effortlessly that it almost looked like, well, that he wasn’t giving enough effort. Sweet—because you can’t see sugar but you know when it’s there.

But Whitaker had range that belied his perceived lack of hustle. He had “bag to bag” range, meaning that he could get to balls that were hit anywhere between first and second bases. It just didn’t look like he was trying when he did it.

Like Gehringer before him, Whitaker swung a lefty stick that was made to order for Briggs/Tiger Stadium. Not always in terms of home runs—though both men hit their fair share—but for those gap shots that cleared the bases.

If Gehringer was just plain quiet, Whitaker was enigmatic. I’ve often called him the Tigers’ Garbo: at times aloof, and not one to wear his heart on his sleeve.

Lou was hardly a media darling. He didn’t spend time in Detroit in the off-season. At all. You waved goodbye to him in Detroit in October and hello to him in Lakeland in February. In between, Whitaker’s existence was in the ether.

Whitaker’s odd personality was made more stark because his shortstop partner Alan Trammell was almost the exact opposite. Tram was gregarious and sunny. Whitaker was a little weird.

Yet I firmly believe that had Whitaker played in New York, the media would have eaten up his enigmatic ways. They loved it with DiMaggio. Jackie Onassis moved to Manhattan and she was far more fascinating to the media when she went all Howard Hughes, than when she was First Lady.

But enough about history. This is about today.

Add Ian Kinsler to this very exclusive club of Great Tigers Second Basemen.

Kinsler could only have been a baseball player. He could only have been a second baseman. He should change his legal last name to Kinsler (4). He likely came out of the womb wearing eye black.

The Tigers got him for Prince Fielder, straight up, after the 2013 season, and on the day it was made the deal was lauded, if only for the jettisoning of Fielder’s albatross-like contract.

But now, some three years later, the trade has grown in its stature. It was a swap that was good from Day One and has only gotten better.

Fielder has retired, number one. You’re usually on the right side of a trade if the dude you dealt isn’t in the game anymore and your guy is.

Kinsler isn’t just still in the game, he’s a huge part of it.

He came up with one big hit after the other in the World Baseball Classic last month, a key member of Team USA, the WBC’s eventual champions. Tigers fans shouldn’t have been surprised. Few are better in the clutch than Kinsler. He batted .351 in 2016 with two outs and runners in scoring position (RISP). For his 11-year career, Kinsler is a .293 hitter with RISP.

But those are numbers. Just black ink on a white page. The better gauge is the black dirt on his white uniform. Before the first pitch, the threads are clean, like the others, but as soon as he crosses the white line to take his position, Kinsler suddenly looks like Pigpen from the Peanuts comic strip.

Kinsler comes to play, complete with scowl. He’ll come at you for nine innings and never let up. There may be more talented men who play his position, but there aren’t any who are more resilient. He’ll come to a gunfight armed with a knife and think that he’s got the upper hand.

He’s played three seasons in Detroit and every year the fans cozy up more to him, which at first blush would seem to be unlikely because Kinsler isn’t exactly Dale Carnegie. But Carnegie never blasted a double to right center late in a tight ballgame, plating two key runs.

The fans in Detroit are fond of Kinsler because they like their baseball players scruffy, dirty, unkempt and full of fight. Think Kirk Gibson and Steve Kemp.

It didn’t hurt that the Tigers got Kinsler from Texas for Fielder, who never seemed to truly feel the fans’ pain.

Kinsler “gets it,” the fans think, and they’re right.

Image result for ian kinsler
Portrait of a ballplayer.

About halfway through Kinsler’s second season as a Tiger (2015), it looked like Father Time was gaining on him. Kinsler was 32 but a year after a solid campaign (.275/17 HR/92 RBI), things weren’t going so well. He was an “old 32.”

At the All-Star break in 2015, Kinsler was batting .275 but the power had vanished and it was a quiet .275. By the eye test, he just wasn’t quite the same player as he was in 2014. The effort was still there, but the body didn’t seem to be cooperating. The apparent decline was all the more nerve wracking because the Tigers didn’t have a suitable replacement waiting in the wings.

Kinsler came back from the break hotter than a firecracker. He had five straight multiple-hit games in late-July and even though his team was fading, Kinsler was being resurrected. He turned 33 but suddenly he was a “young 33.”

Kinsler was back over .300 before long and finished the year at .296, though the home run total was just 11. Oh well, everyone figured, we won’t see those 20 home run years anymore, that’s all.

Wrong.

In 2016 Kinsler re-established himself as among the elite second basemen in baseball. He scored 117 runs. He batted a solid .288 with a robust .348 OBA. He slugged 28 home runs, many of them clutch. His .831 OPS was his highest mark since .832 in Texas in 2011.

Kinsler appeared to be getting younger the older he got.

The WBC last month did nothing to dispel the notion that Kinsler is still elite.

The only thing that separates Kinsler from Gehringer and Whitaker is the brass ring that each of his predecessors won in Detroit.

Kinsler came close in Texas, losing back-to-back World Series, including a heartbreaker to the Cardinals in 2011.

Those were the days of his supposed prime that were thought to be behind him just a couple of years ago.

This year, Kinsler will again bat leadoff for manager Brad Ausmus, get his 600-plus at-bats, bat his .280-.290 and probably pop about 20 dingers and score eight or nine dozen runs. He’ll play elite defense, even if not in spectacular fashion. Kinsler is substance over style.

He’ll do all these things with the same boyish enthusiasm as he exhibited in his rookie year of 2006. The calendar continues to flip but so far, Kinsler isn’t flipping with it.

He’s a baseball player’s baseball player—baggy pants shoved into high stirrup socks, a sneer for the pitcher, a disdain for the runner barreling down toward second base.

If David’s team had nine Kinslers, it would beat nine Goliaths in a best-of-seven series.

Kinsler is made for Detroit—gritty, proud and with an edge. He’s not a human highlight film, he’s more film noir. He might be baseball’s first ever hardboiled second baseman.

 

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