He’d be hooping with a bunch of friends, enjoying all the boundless energy and bravado that comes with being young. They’d run end-to-end without tiring, drain 3s and dribble circles around defenders. And yet, every time they’d square off against some old dudes -- a group of men in their mid-40s -- they’d lose.
“We would have cool dunks, but they would always beat us,” Kinsler told ESPN.com. “Because they understood when to force us to shoot the 3-pointer, how to position their bodies, how to make an easy shot. Whether they were getting dunked on or not, they knew how to win the game.”
It may have seemed inexplicable at the time, but now it makes a bit more sense, and it applies to baseball, too.
“Maybe an older player isn’t throwing as hard or hitting as many home runs or whatever that may be, but they understand how to win,” Kinsler said. “And I think that’s invaluable.”
None of this is to suggest that Kinsler now empathizes with that demographic. Kinsler, at age 33, is not old. He is not facing the twilight of his career. Not even close. He remains one of the most spry and well-conditioned athletes in the game. He’s meticulous about his habits and training, and it shows (according to ESPN Stats & Info, his 315 games played over the last two seasons are the most he’s played in any two-season span of his career).
But, by virtue of both his experience and his personality, Kinsler has taken on a prominent leadership role with these Tigers. Whereas previously he led by example, a frustrating 2015 season saw him take a much more vocal role in the clubhouse. He didn’t have to shoulder it all, and that helped. Guys like Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander all chipped in when the team went into a tailspin after the trade deadline last season, but Kinsler stepped up in areas he might previously have not.
When things are going poorly, fissures become apparent. Losing often threatens a team’s morale. Kinsler takes pride in the fact that, despite all of last year’s difficulties, the Tigers showed few signs of fracturing.
“The season was not a fun season. When you’re losing, guys tend to separate, go their own ways. And that’s ... I really don’t like that. So that kind of forced me [to take on a bigger leadership role]. I felt like I had to stay focused,” Kinsler said. “It wasn’t just an exhibition game. We were still trying to win games.”
Kinsler, a consummate professional who has earned the nickname “Everyday Ian” for his sturdiness, wanted to set an example in being steadfast in his commitment. Always work hard in the cage, always prepare, always play as hard as possible. Wins and losses are tough to control, especially when injuries begin to mount, but work ethic is not.
“When those things start to slip, it bothers me,” Kinsler said. “Because those are things you can control.”
Kinsler was not immune to struggles. After a tough stretch in May and early June, he convened with hitting coach Wally Joyner to refine some areas in his swing to help stoke his production. It wasn’t the type of undertaking that was ideal midseason, but Kinsler trudged on regardless. He put in the work, taking 500 swings in the batting cage daily until it started to yield results. Talking a big game about working hard is easy, but he knew it would be rendered meaningless if guys didn’t see him doing the same thing.
“Basically, it comes down to you have to practice what you preach,” Kinsler said. “If you think games should be played a certain way or you should act a certain way off the field, and you’re struggling and you all of the sudden aren’t doing that anymore, that automatically subtracts from your leadership qualities.”
Eventually, that hard work paid dividends for Kinsler, who went on a tear during the second half. He hit .366 and .362 in July and August, respectively. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Kinsler’s .296 BA last season was his best since 2008, a year in which he made the All-Star team, and his second-best ever.
When the team was really starting to take a nosedive, Kinsler remained one of the most consistent players day in and day out. This did not go unnoticed, as Kinsler received MVP votes for the first time since 2011.
Those numbers mean little now, but Kinsler carried over the midseason fine-tuning and continued to tweak this winter. The repetition that wasn’t always easy to accomplish with games every day became much easier to achieve during the offseason.
And already this spring, Kinsler is producing at a torrid pace. He is 22-for-55 with a .400 batting average and 13 RBIs in Grapefruit League play. The 10-year veteran is shrewd enough to not start celebrating yet. Spring success does not necessarily translate into strong regular-season numbers.
But Kinsler is encouraged to see the work he’s put in this offseason bear results. He can at least hope that means that he can pick up where he left off.
“When you’re working on something and you see a result, you definitely get confident, right? And you believe that it works quickly. Or you believe what you’re doing is correct, so that’s always a positive,” Kinsler said. “It makes the days go by a little bit easier."