PHOENIX — When Ian Kinsler used to chase foul balls for sodas, candy and Fun Dip at Dennis Weaver Park in Oro Valley, he never seriously thought about playing Major League Baseball.
Like all of the other 10-year-olds in Canyon del Oro Little League, Kinsler just loved being around the game. And it was a great way to spend some time until the postgame water balloon fights and Wallball tournaments.
“I just liked to play and be at the ballpark,” Kinsler said. “There was really nothing better.”
Eventually that innocent love became an obsession.
The 32-year-old second baseman for the Detroit Tigers is a week removed from his fourth All-Star Game and has made more than $51 million in his nine-year career.
The game is now his livelihood.
Monday, the former Canyon del Oro star was back in his home state playing the game he learned to love in Southern Arizona. Only this time it wasn’t about candy and sodas. Kinsler and the Tigers opened a three-game series against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field on Monday with a 4-3 win.
“It’s been a lot of fun, but it all started in Tucson,” Kinsler said.
Kinsler donned the CDO Little League uniform at parts of the same time as future big leaguers Chris and Shelley Duncan, Scott Hairston and Brian Anderson.
After they finished torturing their competition there, all five headed to CDO High.
It may be hard to believe now, but Kinsler was often the overlooked one of the group.
Anderson was the standout two-way star, who could throw no-hitters and hit grand slams. The Duncans, bigger, taller and stronger than everyone else, stood out, and everyone knew about Hairston, the son of a former big leaguer.
But Kinsler was the unassuming shortstop who was solid but undersized, and the furthest thing from a lock to one day play in the majors.
“I was never considered the best of the group, but I always thought I was,” a smiling Kinsler said Monday before Detroit’s game against the Diamondbacks. “We all had a bunch of success and what’s cool about it is we all came up through CDO Little League.”
In high school, Kinsler and Anderson were promoted to the varsity during their freshman season in 1997. They watched the Dorados claim a state title with a dramatic 12-11 win over Salpointe Catholic, and Kinsler started learning what it took to play at the highest level.
“We didn’t have a lot at stake in the game, but to see the emotions of the seniors is something that has definitely stuck with me throughout my career,” Kinsler said. “After that, it was just really good team after really good team. We were top 10 nationally the next three seasons. We won another title my senior year and it was some of the most fun times of my life.”
Kinsler has outlasted almost all of the other CDO stars. Shelley Duncan is preparing to be an undergraduate assistant at the UA in the fall. Chris hosts a daily radio show that airs in St. Louis, and Anderson hasn’t played in the majors since 2009. Hairston, on the back end of his career, is a part-time player for the Nationals and has just 43 at-bats this year.
But Kinsler is still going strong. He has a .293 average, 26 doubles, 11 home runs, 10 stolen bases and 53 RBIs.
“It is a little weird most of them are already done playing,” Kinsler said. “They are all really talented guys and had something to give. I think Chris got injured really fast and his body wouldn’t allow it, but he was super talented. Shelley was a big power guy, who had a pretty good career. I think he had more to give, but it just didn’t work out.
“Brian was as talented as any of us. I think he could have been a good fourth outfielder for a while because he was so good defensively and then eventually figure it out at the plate. It didn’t happen, but it was nice when we were all doing it.”
As the other four figure out what’s next, Kinsler may be in the best situation of his career. He was traded from Texas to Detroit in the offseason and has helped the Tigers build a comfortable lead in the AL Central.
New teammate Max Scherzer, who won the AL Cy Young Award last year and previously pitched for the Tucson Sidewinders and D-backs, referred to Kinsler as a “great teammate.”
First-year Detroit manager Brad Ausmus said this season that Kinsler “was a lot funnier than he expected, after seeing how serious he plays the game.”
Kinsler — who doesn’t have any immediate family in Southern Arizona anymore — has not forgotten about his CDO roots.
He proudly wears a green Dorados hat in the offseason at his Dallas-area home. He got it from a group of CDO players he met a few years ago at a spring training game in Phoenix. He asked if any of them had one in his size and traded his Rangers hat for a CDO one.
“I have that hat and I wear it all time in Dallas,” said Kinsler, who was in Tucson in January for a Shelley Duncan camp. “I’m proud of where I’m from. It’s home. It’s where I grew up. I’ll always enjoy going back.”