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Jamestown Native Lunetta Had Grown Close To Legend Over Years

Jamestown native Dan Lunetta had grown close to Hall of Famer Al Kaline during his time in the Detroit Tigers' front office. P-J photo by Scott Kindberg

When Dan Lunetta was growing up in Jamestown in the 1960s, he and his buddies were “huge into baseball cards.” Like any kid, he would rip into the wax packs, hoping against hope there would be a Major League all-star tucked inside.

Al Kaline, the Detroit right fielder, was one of those desired players.

So even when the Tigers were playing the Yankees — Lunetta’s favorite team as a youngster — he always paid attention to Detroit’s No. 6, whether it be on a piece of cardboard or via radio or television broadcasts.

“He was an icon,” Lunetta said. “There’s a reason why he was called ‘Mr. Tiger.'”

Sadly, Kaline, one of Detroit’s all-time greats and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, died Monday. He was 85. For Lunetta, who has served as the Tigers’ director of minor league operations for 16 years, the loss cut deep.

“This is a huge loss for Detroit, for the state of Michigan and for baseball,” he said Monday night in a phone call from his Lakeland, Florida home.

“It’s almost inconceivable that someone would spend the entirety of their baseball life with one team,” Lunetta added. “He was with the Tigers for 60-some years, from a player to his most recent position as special assistant to the general manager.”

But for Lunetta, his relationship with Kaline went beyond job titles.

“I had a great relationship with Al,” Lunetta said. “I loved spending time with him.”

In fact, it wasn’t unusual for Kaline to stop by the Tigers’ facility in Lakeland, when he and his wife were in town. One of the places he would visit was Lunetta’s office.

“We probably spent an hour or two once or twice a week just talking baseball,” Lunetta said, “because that’s what you did. … Our conversation would always be about baseball in general, but about 90 percent was about the Tigers. He always had that undeniable passion for that Old English ‘D.’ It was unmistakable.”

Lunetta said Kaline’s final visit to Lakeland was two weeks before the COVID-19 crisis forced the cancellation of spring training last month.

“I didn’t know if he was going to be able to come to spring training or not,” Lunetta said. “We knew his health was failing, but he made it and got to spend time here. It was hard, because he didn’t look well.”

Less than a month later, Kaline is gone, yet hardly forgotten by Lunetta.

“I had the opportunity to be with Al in 2006 and 2012 when we went to the World Series,” he said. “I can remember how the losses of those World Series impacted him. It was very difficult for him to accept those losses. I could see it in his face the sheer disappointment of not having won either of those World Series. That was a reflection of how much of a passion and how much of a drive he had to see this organization win. That’s something that will always stay with me.”

Lunetta added: “I remember in 2006 when we were playing San Francisco … in San Francisco. We played terribly in that series. I don’t remember after which game it was, but we had gone out, just a few of us, and we were enjoying a glass of wine and a cigar, and sitting around and talking about World Series memories. It was just a wonderful time to be around him and listen to him share his life story, because his life story was all about the Tigers.”

In 22 Major League seasons, all in Detroit, Kaline played in 15 all-star games and was a member of the 1968 World Series championship team; was a 10-time Gold Glove winner; and collected 3,007 hits, including 399 home runs. Yet for all of Kaline’s accomplishments on the field, Lunetta said being in his presence was like being with a dear friend rather than an all-time diamond great.

“We had that opportunity to spend a good amount of time with him,” Lunetta said. “I’ll always cherish that. He was one special individual.”

That feeling wasn’t reserved only for those working within the Tigers’ organization.

Upon learning of Kaline’s death Monday afternoon, Jhoanna Lunetta, Dan’s wife, posted the following on her Facebook wall:

“No! He has become one of my best buddies over the last few years,” she wrote. “Like a Dad to me.”

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