John Hancock FanFest kicks off

John Hancock FanFest kicks off

DETROIT -- Two days after his high school graduation, Al Kaline hopped the train from Baltimore to Philadelphia with his father and the scout who signed him to a Tigers contract. Entering his first big league clubhouse, Kaline couldn't find a uniform that fit his skinny 18-year-old frame, forcing the future Hall of Famer to make his professional debut in the batboy's clothes, without a number on his back.

More than 3,000 hits, 18 All-Star Game selections and one World Series ring later, Kaline sat back, legs crossed, and reminisced on a small stage Friday morning to help open the John Hancock FanFest.

"Oh, I was terrified. I was nervous," Kaline said, flashing back to 1953. "I really never have been away from home for any length of time. Now here all of a sudden, I'm going to be traveling and living in hotels."

Equal parts shopping mall, arcade and museum, FanFest combines that sense of baseball history with rows of interactive games and toys. At Detroit's sprawling Cobo Center, the past hung over the present like the gigantic Hank Aaron banner draped from the hall's ceiling. In this mixture, video game consoles share exhibition space with Negro League artifacts from Satchel Paige and James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell.

"The day I joined the ballclub, I got to know Ray Boone very well," continued Kaline, a FanFest spokesman. "He grabbed me, he says, 'Kid, if you're able to buy your own home when you leave this game, you've had a great career.'"

Like player salaries, the pageantry surrounding the All-Star Game has escalated dramatically since Kaline's era. FanFest, which runs through Tuesday, overwhelmed Tigers owner Michael Ilitch last year in Houston with all the merchandise and memorabilia.

"Oh my goodness," Ilitch said at the event's kickoff ceremony. "I've never seen so much baseball."

This edition of FanFest also overloads visitors with attractions. Television booths allow fans to become announcers and recreate great baseball moments. A wide timeline details more than 100 years of Detroit baseball. A replica wing of Cooperstown displays jerseys and plaques from legends such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.

And the video batting cages projected an image of Roger Clemens. The Rocket winds up and fires a pitch, the ball released through a small hole in the screen to a surprised batter.

With the Midsummer Classic, the sports world's spotlight once again turns on Detroit. After two consecutive NBA Finals appearances by the Pistons, Ford Field will stage next year's Super Bowl and the NCAA men's basketball Final Four in 2009. On Friday morning, workers even applied a fresh coat of red paint to the doors of nearby Joe Louis Arena, perhaps a sign octopi will soon be sliding across the ice in Hockeytown after Red Wings goals.

All-Star Game 2005

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick viewed the attention as a chance to ignite the city's economy.

"Spend some money while you're here in Detroit," Kilpatrick told the crowd, setting a target of 100,000 FanFest guests to top last year's attendance figure in Houston.

Indeed, there seemed to be numerous ways for children to coax their parents for more money. Vendors displayed lines of bobblehead dolls, team pennants from the Brooklyn Dodgers and Montreal Expos and throwback jerseys of Detroit icons like Steve Yzerman, Isiah Thomas and Barry Sanders. One table even offered an autographed photo of John Rocker for $59.

For Kaline, it represented a scene he couldn't have envisioned making $5,000 a year before the free agency boom and the explosion of televised sports. But Kaline, now in his 53rd year with the Tigers organization, expressed little regret.

"I did exactly in my life what I wanted to do," Kaline said.

Patrick Mooney is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.