Why: With his foot speed and mix of contact and power hitting, Kaline would have excelled on the artificial turf at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and a number of other ballparks in these days. Kaline never had the all-out power that came to define baseball in the 1990s, but then, neither did George Brett, Robin Yount, or most other Hall of Famers from their less offensive era. It’s why Mike Schmidt used to lead the National League with less than 40 home runs, one reason why Tony Perez and Jim Rice made Cooperstown with under 400 career home runs and Dwight Evans, Dale Murphy, and Dave Parker could follow suit eventually.
No one would begrudge Kaline hitting .330 with 20 home runs and 100 RBI on a team like the 1979 Pirates. In fact, these numbers and his defense would probably make him one of the best players in the National League. His presence might also make Pittsburgh better longer. For all the joy and warmth the “We Are Family” Pirates evoked beating the Baltimore Orioles in the ’79 World Series, their 1980 club was among baseball’s most historically dysfunctional teams, beset with cocaine abuse. Players like Rod Scurry, Bernie Carbo, and mercurial then-superstar Parker would later figure prominently in the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials of the mid-’80s.
Perhaps a steady, non-assuming person with no hint of scandal during his career, someone like Kaline could have a calming effect on that clubhouse, even if a leader as graceful and respected as Willie Stargell seemingly lost its hold. Who knows, maybe Stargell needed help and someone to assume his mantle with his career winding down. I’ll concede, of course, that Kaline could easily get swept up in the times when players rode the white horse as much as a later generation dabbled in performance enhancers. But I’d like to give Kaline the benefit of the doubt.