Exhibition a Kaline family affair

Exhibition a Kaline family affair

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Al Kaline is known as Mr. Tiger, but he's also Mr. Kaline. So on Tuesday, he couldn't help pulling just a little bit for Detroit's opponent, even if he wouldn't wear red or sit on the visiting side.

The Tigers have had a long relationship with Florida Southern College, the NCAA Division II baseball powerhouse based in Lakeland, and they've made a tradition of opening the Spring Training schedule against the school. This year, however, it was family. Kaline's grandson, Colin, is the starting second baseman for the Moccasins.

What has always been a thrill for Florida Southern's players -- getting to face Major League competition -- was a special thrill for the Kaline family.

"I'm going to enjoy it, no matter what happens," Al Kaline said beforehand.

The Tigers won, 17-4, and the younger Kaline went 0-for-4. But it was impossible to wipe the smile off of his face. He and his family had anticipated this game ever since Kaline committed to the school, but he didn't know how it would feel.

"It is kind of like a dream," Colin Kaline said. "It's kind of surreal. I couldn't really take it in until the end of the game, like, 'I'm actually doing this.'"

It was one time when the family's Tiger history and his baseball present could blend in perfectly.

Growing up in suburban Detroit, Colin was an all-state selection and a four-year starter at Groves High School. He hit .535 as a senior and had struck out just three times in 187 at-bats over his final two seasons. All along, he was following the Tigers and spent a good portion of summers going to games.

He made his grandfather very proud, but it wasn't easy for Al Kaline to see him play. Up in Michigan, blending in at a game just isn't that simple.

"I had to go hide in center field or down the right-field line, left-field line," Al Kaline said. "The funny part was it wasn't the kids. It was the coaches, because they're the ones that know me.

"I remember when my kids were playing Little League and I would hear some of the parents say, 'Well, he's not as good as his dad.' Can you believe that? So I stayed away [sometimes]."

So far, college has been the combination of the right place at the right time. Kaline's face isn't so familiar in Florida as it is in Michigan, and he's been able to attend just about every one of Florida Southern's home games so far, since he has a home in the area. Coincidentally, their home ballpark, Henley Field, is where the elder Kaline and the Tigers used to play Spring Training games.

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He's even been able to attend a few practices, though he tries not to make a habit of it. He wanted his grandson to be able to say he made it on his own.

So far, the younger Kaline has. He's started in 11 of the 13 regular games the Mocs have played.

"I'm very proud of him as a freshman getting the chance to play," Al Kaline said. "I said, 'If you can play 15 games as a regular, as a freshman, that's really good.' And he's doing well."

At the same time, Al Kaline is playing the traditional grandfatherly role, not just the baseball great in the family. He has given Colin his space to experience life as a freshman away from home, but the invitation is open if Colin wants to get away for the weekend. They'll go out to eat, but baseball doesn't dominate the conversation.

"We'll just go out to dinner, and if I approach him about it, we'll talk about it," Colin said. "But he doesn't like to pressure me and critique that. He's just my grandfather, going out to eat with him and my grandmother. If I approach him, he's more than willing to help."

On Tuesday, Colin Kaline was ninth hitter in Florida Southern's order, but near the top of the list on players the Tigers wanted to watch. A couple of them that he had met last year said hello during batting practice. Later, as the Mocs took the field for the bottom of the first inning, Tigers closer Todd Jones -- who had retired the side in order in the top half -- wandered towards second base on his way out.

"I've met Mr. Jones before," Colin Kaline said. "He's a very nice guy. He's close to my grandfather, so he was kind of just [saying] good luck. It's kind of a special feeling."

From there, the game sped by. Miguel Cabera's home run that inning soared over Kaline's head on its way towards the top of the backdrop in center field. The Moccasins answered back with three runs of their own, but weren't expected to keep up. The team Colin Kaline followed back home was too much for his new team.

As rough as it was for his grandfather with rooting interest, even he had a slight twinge of conflict.

"That was kind of weird," Colin admitted. "All the guys that I looked up to back at home, I'm playing against, so I'm rooting for my pitcher instead of them. But it was special, and it looks like they're going to have a really good year. I'm excited for them and the city."

And his grandfather was understandably thrilled.

"I don't know if any of you guys are grandfathers," Al Kaline said to a small group of reporters. "You appreciate it when you have a grandson. It's amazing. It's a different feeling, because when you're a father, you're working, making a living and trying to do all the things that you can to help them in the future. But then, when you have grandkids, it's special. It really is.

"I'm proud of him. He's a good kid. He's going to be very successful in whatever he wants to do. He's very smart. He's got his head on. Everybody likes him. He's going to do well, whatever he decides to do."

For his part, Colin Kaline is majoring in physical education and exercise science.

"I want to stay in sports, whatever that may be," he said. "I want to stay close to baseball, whether I'm playing or coaching."

On Tuesday, he was close enough to take the same field as the team he grew up idolizing -- and the team with which his grandfather was an idol. And with a cap and a glove on, the younger Kaline's face looked strikingly similar.

"Yeah," Colin nodded in agreement, "I've heard that a lot."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.