Henning: Tough competitor Kinsler, Detroit become fast friends

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Ian Kinsler has earned a reputation as a fierce competitor and a winner during his time with the Tigers.

When he got the phone call that Wednesday evening in 2013, telling him eight days before Thanksgiving that he was bound for Detroit, Ian Kinsler was, shall we say, less than ecstatic.

“No, I wasn’t happy,” Kinsler recalled last week, on the veranda of The Vinoy Renaissance, in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Tigers were housed during a forgettable three-game tumble against the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I wouldn’t say I was shaken. But I wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t like playing in Detroit. I honestly hated it. It always seemed cold and overcast. People would be screaming at you. It was a difficult place to play.”

Kinsler was wearing gray slacks and gray T-shirt on a glorious April afternoon, easing against a wicker chair’s blue cushion. A hundred yards distant, sunshine bounced against the blue water of St. Petersburg Bay. A ceiling fan spun overhead. Baseball at Tropicana Field was hours away.

“Obviously, the pitching staff didn’t help matters,” he continued, remembering those first thoughts about Detroit and the Tigers and men named Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, and Porcello, all right-handed starters who then could make big-league hitting a harsher ordeal, even for a second baseman with Kinsler’s prowess.

“But a couple of days later, I started thinking about that rotation. About Miggy (Miguel Cabrera), about Victor (Martinez), about Torii Hunter (then a Tigers outfielder). It changes your disposition.”

Not, perhaps, as much as a town and community, and a team, have helped reverse some early notions. A man who in two months turns 35 concedes he never understood in November 2013 the treasure, professionally and personally, he was about to uncover in a town called Detroit.

Tigers fans might say the same about Ian Michael Kinsler. They didn’t initially believe a guy they regarded as a thorough pain in the neck during his years with the Rangers could be someone Tigers Nation would essentially adopt and adore. They didn’t foresee, not fully, how a player with his deep palate of baseball skills, constantly displayed, would in fact beget a relationship with Comerica Park’s customers that now seems indelible.

In fact, he has become one of those rare knighted Tigers. A special brand of Detroit baseball player. A craftsman. A warrior who plays a wheelhouse infield position, second base, with a sentry’s vigilance. A leadoff batter who incites and excites. Who can quickly knock a pitch over the fence. Who with those lampblack streaks beneath his eyes has a bit of the outlaw in him, which is rather apt when you consider his love for thieving bases.

It happened mostly because the Tigers wanted out of a contract. Prince Fielder’s. They owed the 29-year-old first baseman $168 million for the next seven years. The Rangers, conversely, wanted a big left-handed bat. They called the Tigers, who hadn’t counted on finding a trade partner. In a matter of hours, the Tigers agreed to pay $30 million on Fielder’s balance and accept Kinsler, who was deep into a deal for which he was owed a minimum of $62 million through 2018.

It wasn’t money the Rangers cared to pay when Kinsler had batted .277 with 13 homers in 2013. Not when they had a hotshot prospect named Jurickson Profar they were aching to deploy at second. And not when they needed a booming bat Fielder brought (.305 batting average, .841 OPS in 2015) until his career crashed due to neck injuries.

“We were getting a guy who was playing at a high level, and still is,” said Al Avila, the Tigers general manager who was Dave Dombrowski’s assistant when Dombrowski and Rangers GM Jon Daniels nailed together the 2013 deal. “He brings everything to a game. He’s the complete package: great defense, great offense. He gives you leadership on and off the field. He’s a team player. He’s the complete product.”

Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, left, works with shortstop Jose Iglesias in the dugout.

All of these revelations to which Tigers fans have been treated the past four seasons had always been on display. And not only at Texas.

‘Don’t take plays off’

They were first sprung on the folks at Tucson, Ariz.

Kinsler’s parents lived there. His dad, Howard, was from the Bronx but had gone to the University of Arizona to play basketball as a freshman. Basketball didn’t last, but there was interest in education, psychology, and criminal justice, which led to a career in corrections and to an eventual post as warden at the maximum-security Wilmot Prison in Tucson.

Ian’s mom, Kathy, worked in Pima County’s health system. A younger sister, Tori, completed the Kinsler clan.

Sports, though, became the family’s fifth member. Particularly for a father who loved coaching and teaching. Howard saw not long after Ian climbed from his crib that his son had, if not an identical makeup, one that was closely tied to his own. There was a passion for sports, sure. But also in the kid the dad could see the desire to optimize, with some proper pushing, whatever level of talent Ian owned.

“Psychologically, he was really good,” Kinsler says of his dad, who coached some of his son’s teams. “It was, ‘Don’t take plays off.’ No matter what I was doing.

“His belief was, if you’re not giving your best effort, there’s no sense in playing.”

Kinsler nods when asked about a classic story from his teen days. He hates it, but concedes it’s true. It was the day Ian’s and Howard’s Pony League team was playing for a championship. During one of Howard’s pregame tutorials, Ian, who wasn’t buying the General Patton reincarnation, rolled his eyes.

Howard benched him. The team lost. A lesson, among many a dad and coach imparted, has lasted.

“He’d blow us off the field if we weren’t performing,” Kinsler recalls. “He’d pull the whole team off the field, if we weren’t crisp or showing energy.”

Think of Kinsler today. At the plate, at second base, or steaming around third base. You see Howard right there with him.

What wasn’t clear, not immediately during those years, was if baseball would beat soccer as Ian’s serious pursuit.

He was a soccer center, midfielder, or forward, and was, of course, exceptional. He also was a shortstop in baseball who occasionally pitched and even caught. And because he also could hit, Kinsler’s dad had seen that a teen with Ian’s talent could not serve two masters.

“You need to pick what you want to play,” Howard decreed.

Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler makes the throw to first from his knees but not in time to get Boston's Brock Holt on April 7.

Ian’s decision. Easy.

“I loved swinging a bat,” he says.

But even if he was 6-foot, he was on the light side then, topping out at 170 pounds as he wended his way through Canyon del Oro High School, which won state championships and saw Kinsler make first-team All-State squads.

The problem was, at Canyon del Oro he was part of a crowd. Four teammates made it to the big leagues: Brian Anderson, Scott Hairston, as well as Chris and Shelley Duncan. Kinsler wasn’t recruited by a four-year school and instead enrolled at a junior college, Central Arizona, where he played a year before Arizona State finally decided the kid from Tucson was worth chasing.

Not that it went particularly well.

“I don’t know if I was really prepared,” Kinsler now says. “I took a semester off because of NCAA (transfer) rules. There was a little setback.

“Then I played shortstop for the first six, seven games, but I didn’t play well at all. Made some errors. Struck out. When conference play started, they put me on the bench.”

His replacement at shortstop: a kid named Dustin Pedroia.

“I just sat there and watched,” Kinsler remembers. “It definitely was a learning experience. I never had to do that before. It was a weird stage.”

He wanted out. A transfer was 2002’s surest baseball bet.

“I knew I had to go somewhere else,” Kinsler says. “I wasn’t concerned where. I just wanted somewhere I could get drafted.”

Off to Missouri

Tim Jamison, the coach at Missouri, had seen Kinsler during a summer league game. Had seen him grab ground balls. Had seen his future shortstop.

“I didn’t even know where Missouri was on the map,” Kinsler says. “But (Jamison) was aggressive. And I thought about the Big 12 (conference), all those Texas schools. I thought it would be good for me to get away from the security blanket of Arizona.”

Part of that security had to do with romance. Tess Brady went to Salpointe Catholic High but had met a Jewish guy from Canyon del Oro when Brian Anderson, Kinsler’s prep teammate and best friend, talked his buddy into watching him play in a summer league basketball game.

They have been together since, but for a time “when she broke up with me when we were 17,” a briefly scorned Kinsler recalls. The parting didn’t last. The relationship, now into its 11th year of marriage, has, although the Missouri transfer didn’t help.

Kinsler, with a sly smile, says: “She couldn’t do my homework for me anymore.”

The Tigers' Ian Kinsler hit .288 with 28 home runs and 83 RBIs in 2016.

He had never been a great student. But neither had he been a flunky. He had been somewhere in the 2.7 grade-point range during high school and stuck there — thank you, Tess — during those early college days.

He had ideas of crashing the esteemed business school at Mizzou until it became clear something closer to a mid-3-point GPA was required.

So, of course, he majored in agriculture education.

“Corn and cotton and the restaurant industry,” he says, with one of those sarcastic smiles. “I didn’t mind it. I was there to play baseball.”

At Missouri, he became, from a baseball standpoint, Kinsler. Everything now on display at Comerica Park and elsewhere was on stage at Mizzou.

He had been picked deep in the big-league draft in earlier years and now believed, along with his coach, that he was going to be grabbed somewhere in 2003’s top 10 rounds. But what too few scouts knew is Kinsler had played his senior year with a stress fracture in his foot. Teams weren’t wild about his speed.

He remembers driving home from Missouri to Arizona on Draft Day 2003, riding with his teammate, Jeremy Hernandez, and stopping so they could listen (radio was one of the few outlets covering the draft in 2003) to the first 10 rounds.

No go. They got back on the road, heading through the southern Rockies, where radio reception or early Internet signals were bare. Not until they rolled out of the mountains did the phone messages light up: He had been taken by the Rangers in round 17.

“What a story,” Kinsler can now say. “Everything kind of kicked in. I was ecstatic. I was so ready to learn and to have that opportunity to play professional baseball. It was such a boost to my psyche. Sunrise to 3 o’clock — every day.”

Two years later he was in the big leagues. With the Rangers he made four All-Star teams, got his share of Most Valuable Player votes, twice had 30-plus home runs with 30 or more stolen bases, all before joining the Tigers, where he maintained the fury and last year won a Gold Glove.

A kinship with Detroit

He never saw this coming — affection for a town and for fans on an extraordinary level. It’s kinship a guy named Kinsler couldn’t envision in 2013.

“I’ve been surprised, really,” he said. “It’s a great place. Ballpark. Fans. Everything has really worked in my favor.

“Another reason it’s a good fit: Fans watch the game a bit differently in Detroit than fans do elsewhere. They watch with appreciation.”

His clubhouse friendships, likewise, are nearly universal. He is particularly close to Justin Upton, Alex Avila, and, of course, to sidekick Justin Verlander.

“Yeah, I think we’ve grown every year in our friendship,” Kinsler said of the Verlander bond. “We have a lot in common, as much as he’d probably cringe at me saying that. I really respect the fact he restructured himself at the midpoint of his career, after he had a couple of down years. It shows grit, what he’s done.”

Kinsler learned something else about Detroit. And about Michigan. And about a suburb he never before had experienced, Birmingham, where he, Tess, and the kids, 8-year-old daughter Rian, and 5-year-old son Jack, live in-season.

It’s an entirely different place from the big-league stop he knew when the Rangers stayed downtown, before bars and restaurants and businesses and young working people began forging an urban rebirth.

He and Verlander recently visited, at the behest of White Stripes artist, Jack White, a couple of downtown stops — Kinsler doesn’t recall names — for drinks and dinner.

He loved it. Saw all the more what was happening. Why people are back. Living there. Thriving there.

And yet there were no hassles. No interruptions. No autograph pads waved in their faces.

“The thing about Detroit,” Kinsler says, “is people recognize us as athletes. They’re not scared to let you know they recognize you. But they’re very polite.”

Another revelation: Blessed northern summers that, unlike Texas with its 100-degree habits, don’t wring out a player by mid-season. He and Tess and the kids, who are glued together when he isn’t at the ballpark, have been taken by “apple orchards and parks for the kids.”

And something else known in these parts as Up North.

“A couple of All-Star breaks ago, we went to Sleeping Bear Dunes,” said Kinsler, who like so many visitors had no concept of the “inland oceans” that are the Great Lakes. “We picked cherries near Traverse City.

“We’ve discussed having a summer place here.”

Then again, as Kinsler is the first to acknowledge, he already has one.

“I remember when John Lowe (former Free Press baseball writer) told me Detroit would be a great fit for me,” Kinsler said, a few minutes before the bus would leave for Tropicana Field. “He knew what Detroit fans wanted to see, what they gravitated to.

“And I feel the same way. I want to finish my career here.