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Jeff Daniels 'could've been killed,' and Al Kaline 'thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

As a kid, Jeff Daniels idolized Al Kaline. He still remembers his first Tigers game, in 1963 or '64, and he happened to get the Kaline model on the then-popular Bat Day. It still hangs in his exercise room.

As a young adult, Daniels, then a rising star in Hollywood, found himself relating to Kaline, the soft-spoken Tigers superstar whose performance on the baseball field looked effortless — but was far from it.

Jeff Daniels has been a lifelong Tigers fan.

"In acting, I have come to learn that the best, for me, the Meryls, the Nicholsons, the Clints, and all those people, it's effortless — and then you learn that it's not effortless, it's not just by some grace of God," Daniels said. "You have to work at it, and Kaline had that. He had that effortlessness, so there never seemed to be a wasted move. You talk about the corner, and the spin, and all you see is the No. 6, and boom, the ball's on a line all the way to third or all the way to home. That took the practice, the fundamentals, the hard work.

"I've had to work really hard to stay where I'm at, and when you're in scenes with people of the caliber of those I mentioned, you better have worked really hard.

"I think Al Kaline was the first guy where I got the sense he really worked at it."

Kaline, the legendary "Mr. Tiger" whose career in Detroit spanned an amazing 67 years — from bonus baby to Hall of Fame right fielder, to TV broadcaster, to front-office executive — died April 6 at the age of 85. His death sent much of Michigan into mourning — Daniels, one of Kaline's biggest fans, among those.

Last week, Daniels' musical tribute to Kaline, simply titled "Al Kaline," was shown on WDIV Channel 4 by his friend Devin Scillian, an anchor and fellow musician who convinced Daniels to make it public.

Originally, Daniels wrote it just for him, a way to remember his childhood hero.

"It was just going to go into the notebook," Daniels told The Detroit News in a phone interview Monday. "What made it work was that, for whomever your childhood hero is, there is a moment where that person passes away, and what did he or she mean to you? Did they make you better? Did they live up to who you thought they were? All that stuff, when they pass away, all that gets laid out on the table. 

"For me, Kaline lived up to all of that, not only just the way he was on the field, but off the field."

Watch: Jeff Daniels' musical tribute to Tigers legend Al Kaline

'What am I going to say?'

Daniels is 65, born in 1955, two years after Kaline debuted with the Tigers. Two of the state's most famous men had a few interactions over the years.

The first was in the mid-1980s, and Daniels had just moved back to Michigan from New York, after filming the likes of "Terms of Endearment" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo." He was going to head back to New York, to do some Broadway, and he wanted his first baseman's glove signed by Kaline. Everyone in New York had their Mets and Yankees stuff, and, frankly, he was a bit sick of seeing it. Mantle and Maris? Enough already!

"So I stood in line at some mall near Detroit like everyone else, and paid $10 bucks for an autograph," Daniels said. "I never said a word to him. I'm an actor. What am I going to say?"

The next came in the fall of 1993, when Daniels, then operating his Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, was opening "The Vast Difference." In it, there's a scene with a father and son on the field at old Tiger Stadium, watching batting practice. The son has to use the bathroom, so the father takes him, at a security guard's suggestion, to the old urinal that used to be right off the Tigers dugout. In the scene, a man wearing No. 6 walks by and says, "Hi, fellas." (The first time he saw that urinal, it stuck with Daniels: "Kaline peed here, Cash peed here, Harvey Kuenn ... perhaps Ty Cobb, I don't know.")

Then, in a later scene in the play, the father and son are on the field, and the son says to the father, "He's the only player I ever saw who could make the ball come to him."

Through his connections to Jim Price and Ernie Harwell, Daniels got Kaline to attend the play. They had dinner before, and Daniels felt Kaline was a bit wary, that perhaps Daniels might make fun of him. 

"I remember peeping out from behind the curtains in the lobby and watching Kaline watch that scene," Daniels said. "And he wiped a tear from his eye. It was pretty great."

They crossed paths again sometime in the 1990s, at Tiger Stadium. Daniels was attending a game, probably around the time his hit with Jim Carrey, "Dumb and Dumber," was coming out. (This scene would've fit right in.) He got the typical celebrity treatment, including up to the broadcast booth with Price, Harwell and Kaline.

An Al Kaline autographed picture and the bat from Bat Day in the 1960s still hang in Jeff Daniels' home.

The Tiger Stadium broadcast booth seemed to be right on top of the field, and was a magnet for foul balls. (That's why Harwell, in his radio days, always preferred his so-called "chicken wire.")

Sure enough, a ball came screaming straight back.

"Two feet in front of my face, it was heading right between my eyes. I ducked to the right, and the ball went off the back well and bounced down," Daniels said with a chuckle. "And I turned to Kaline, and he was laughing his a-- off. I could've been killed, and he thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen.

"There would've gone the second half of my career. It wouldn't have happened. I can just see the headline in the newspaper: 'Al Kaline present when unknown actor takes foul ball between the eyes.'"

There were other brief encounters throughout the years, when Daniels was able to make it to the ballpark. It was infrequent, because he typically was living in California or New York. But he always tried to find time to make it back for some playoff games. In 2006, he came out with "The Lifelong Tiger Fan Blues," just as Daniels' favorite baseball team was re-emerging as a candidate after nearly two decades of hibernation. He performed a revised version of the song during the 2012 World Series. But he hasn't been back nearly as much over the last decade, given his years working on the popular HBO series, "The Newsroom." (Asked about a possible reboot given all that's been going on in the United States and around the world, Daniels quipped, "I don't think Aaron Sorkin and Will McAvoy could keep up.")

The first encounter, though, stands out the most — and it wasn't even a real encounter, just Daniels as a kid from Chelsea, walking into Tiger Stadium for the first time and seeing that green grass, and then No. 6.

That one Bat Day will never be forgotten, especially considering that Bat Day is long a thing of the past.

"Can you imagine?" Daniels said, laughing. "Too many beers and I've got a Little League bat in my hand!"

Buy: Jeff Daniels' musical tribute to Al Kaline

Jeff Daniels performing at the 2012 World Series.

'And then, there he is'

Daniels, like so many of us, is missing baseball. Sports are shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, and nobody knows when they're coming back. The Major League Baseball season hasn't even started, and nobody knows when or if it even will. There are talks about playing before no fans in Arizona and Florida, though that won't seem the same. Nor do the classic replays, which Daniels has been watching, too.

Daniels is an avid follower of the game and the Tigers. He reads Detroit's two dailies regularly, and devours other sites like Bleacher Report and minor-league websites to keep track of the prospects. Actor friend Michael Kelly ("House of Cards"), a big Atlanta Braves fan, turned Daniels on to certain websites.

"I miss it. Every day, there's a game. Every day it's, 'What are the Tigers doing?' 'Who's playing well, who's not?' 'How are the kids doing?'" Daniels said. "You've gotta know what Toledo's doing and Erie and Lakeland.

"I'm trying not to miss baseball too much, because I just don't know how soon we're going to be able to sit shoulder to shoulder at a ballpark.

"I think we're a long way from that."

The coronavirus shutdown also is keeping Tigers fans from paying their proper respects for Kaline, like they did with the death of Harwell, who was at Comerica Park for a public visitation that drew tens of thousands of fans.

The Tigers have said they will have some public memorial, when it's possible to have large gatherings again.

Until then, Daniels' song, "Al Kaline," is the tribute Tigers fans have, and certainly appreciate.

He was just a ballplayer, and I was just a kid;

All I ever wanted was everything he did;

Just like him I reached for more than I could ever be;

My childhood hero died today along with a little bit of me.

"You're listening to Ernie on your AM transistor radio, and it's Kaline that gets the hit that wins the game, it's Kaline that makes the catch, it's Kaline that makes the throw that gets the guy out," said Daniels, who will performing a live-stream unplugged show from his home studio at 7:30 on April 27, with "Al Kaline"

"I do remember when I first walked through the tunnel, and it's like this spectacular thing, like the curtain going up on the Rockettes at Radio City, and there's just this spectacular, 'Wow.'

"And then, there he is."

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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