I grew up in north Alabama in the late 1960s and early ’70s. My favorite teams were the Atlanta Braves and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Now, some of my friends were Auburn fans and one – Grady Coble – was a Big Orange supporter. We had a lot of fun with him.
But everyone in these parts was a Braves baseball fan – or so I thought. The Braves came to Atlanta in the mid-1960s and marketed themselves as a regional fran-chise, meaning they sought fans from the sur-round-ing states.
The Falcons, mean-while, began play at about the same time and marketed themselves as a City of Atlanta team. That’s why there are more Braves fans in the South than Falcons fans, though the Falcons’ fan base in Atlanta is solid.
Anyway, what I didn’t know until later was, there was a large segment of St. Louis Cardinals fans in the Southeast, mainly to our west. Those fans grew up listening to the Cardinals on KMOX. The Cards were the closest thing to a Southern team until the Braves came along.
Well, I also later learned there are other fan bases distributed throughout the Southeast. One in particular is partial to the Detroit Tigers.
I learned this while living in Montgomery, the home for 16 consecutive seasons of the Class AA Southern League affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, the Montgomery Rebels. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell groomed their double play combination. Mark Fidrych once pitched there.
I didn’t know this at the time, but one of my youth baseball league teammates, Chris Leak, also was (and is) a big Tigers fan. An even bigger fan is his older brother, Rhett.
They grew up in Michigan. Their dad, the late Bill Leak, went to work in Detroit in the automobile industry, as many in the South did.
The Leaks returned to their Southern roots in 1969 or 1970, but they already had formed life-long roots with the Tigers.
So, when I learned the great Tiger Al Kaline had died Monday, I was interested in the memories of Chris and Rhett.
“Mr. Tiger” was signed by the Tigers the day after he graduated high school and went right to the big leagues. He never played in the minors or for any other MLB team.
The 1968 World Series between – you guessed it – the Cardinals and Tigers, is one of my most vivid early memories as a sports fan. I was just 9, but I remember Bob Gibson’s strikeouts in Game 1, Curt Flood’s misplay in center field in Game 7, Mickey Lolich’s three World Series wins and all day games.
But I especially remember a throw Kaline made from the right-field corner to home plate. It was a special throw, the one memory of the series I can’t forget. I don’t think it bounced and I don’t think it retired a runner, but it was one of those moment you just have to say to yourself, “Wow. Did he just do that?”
Anyway, I knew Kaline meant a lot to Rhett and Chris, who likened it to how Braves fans might feel if the great Hank Aaron passed.
“Needless to say that this old Tigers fan will recall Kaline for many reasons, not the least of which is that he was one of my first two real heroes: My Dad was the other,” said Rhett. “Al was a gentleman, and an old-school player who played the game the ‘way it was supposed to be played’ and kept his mouth shut.”
Chris had more even more to say.
“It is a strange, strange feeling to hear the news about Kaline’s passing,” he said. “It affects me in a similar way as when Coach (Paul) Bryant passed.
“Strange how someone you never met meant so much to you, even without realizing it. For a kid to grow up in Detroit, Mich., in the ’60s, he was bigger than life.
“I don’t remember life without Al Kaline being a part of it! That’s representative of something. I am not sure what.”
Baseball, Chris continued, is special for many of us.
“We grew up with it. The whole country did. To one degree or another, we all played it,” he said. “I believe there is a little part of all of us that regrets the end of their baseball ‘career.’ Maybe it signified the end of childhood?
“By all accounts, Al Kaline was a gentleman. Spent his entire adult life with the Detroit Tigers. Not many can say that.”
• The Masters will be played the week of Nov. 9-15. Tennessee plays Georgia that weekend in Athens. That’ll be quite the dilemma for CBS.
For what it’s worth, Bama plays UT-Martin and AU plays UMass so those games will be non-factors. LSU-SC is probably the only game that has a chance to bump UT-UGA from CBS.
The PGA Championship will now take place Aug. 6-9 at TPC Harding Park, San Francisco, with the U.S. Open following Sept. 17-20 at Winged Foot.
The Open – British style – has, indeed, been canceled for 2020.