Meet the only person to play for Tigers, Lions

January 26th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Matt Kinzer still remembers the booming voice of Bo Schembechler, the scowl on the legendary University of Michigan football coach’s face, as the new Tigers team president spotted the right-hander in Spring Training in Lakeland, Fla.

“Kinzer,” he remembers Schembechler saying, “I tried to get you in college. I don’t know why you’re even here.”

It was a strange road that brought them together on a baseball field rather than a gridiron. Less than three years earlier, Kinzer got a similar reaction from Detroit Lions head coach Darryl Rogers when he boomed a punt into Rogers’ offensive practice. The Lions were holding in-season punting tryouts, and an old college teammate had talked the former Purdue punter turned Cardinals pitching prospect into giving it a shot.

“I tried to recruit you to Arizona State,” Kinzer remembers Rogers saying.

When the Lions play Sunday at San Francisco for a chance at their first Super Bowl appearance, Kinzer will be watching closely. While the Lions could add a new chapter in Detroit sports history, Kinzer already has one: He’s the only person ever to play for both the Lions and Tigers.

Matt Kinzer, Lions punter, Tigers pitcher. One game each.

“I am on a list of guys who have done two sports,” Kinzer said Thursday, “and it’s flattering and it’s humbling. I’m blessed. I can’t believe it was that long ago.”

Baseball was always Kinzer’s first sport. He’d dreamed of pitching in the Majors since he was 8 years old. Football, it turned out, was an avenue for him to get there. Though he was a sixth-round Draft pick out of Norwell High School in Indiana in 1981, he wanted to go to college. He’d picked up punting in high school and was an all-state selection, and his coach told him he could get a scholarship somewhere if he took it seriously.

Though Schembechler, Rogers and other college coaches recruited him, Purdue was the only school to guarantee he could play both sports. He was a three-year regular punting for the Boilermakers, averaging just under 40 yards a kick, and had scouts from the upstart United States Football League watching him. But when the St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the second round of the 1984 MLB Draft, he made an easy decision.

“Baseball was my love,” he said. “Football got me to school for free, because [college] baseball didn’t have that kind of money.”

He’d gotten what he wanted out of football, and that was it. Or so he thought.

Kinzer was coming off a down season in the Cardinals’ system in 1987, and he was about to convert from starting to relieving. He took on offseason jobs for extra money and was preparing to coach eighth-grade basketball when he got the call from former Lions and Purdue linebacker Roosevelt Barnes.

“Rosie,” Kinzer remembers telling Barnes, “I haven’t put my right leg above my ear hole for three years, dude.”

After a couple weeks of practice, Kinzer boomed punts in the tryout and got a contract just before NFL players went on strike that year. When play resumed with replacements, Kinzer debuted against the Packers.

Instead of the indoor climate of the Silverdome, Kinzer had to kick at Lambeau Field with temperatures in the mid-30s and a wind chill of 28.

“I had a punt and something went wrong in my knee,” Kinzer said. “Turns out I couldn’t walk very well. Finished the game punting.”

Kinzer punted seven times that day, averaging 34 yards. But he had a bigger challenge he hadn’t considered: He had to hold for kicker Mike Prindle, something the backup quarterback did at Purdue.

“I didn’t do that in college,” Kinzer said. “The first one, I put it down and I forgot to spin the laces [out].”

Prindle made his lone extra-point attempt and four of his five field-goal tries, including a 31-yarder to win in overtime.

“I hope I don’t fumble the snap,” Kinzer remembers thinking.

Kinzer limped off the field in victory. It was his last time on the gridiron.

“I had one cup of coffee,” he said, “because the next week, the MRI showed bone spurs underneath my right kneecap and a partial tear.”

Kinzer’s football career was over, but his injury didn’t impact his baseball career. He debuted with the Cardinals in 1989 and was traded to Detroit with Jim Lindeman for prospects that December.

Kinzer didn’t make the Opening Day roster in 1990, despite the aforementioned encounter with Schembechler. But after a strong start at Triple-A Toledo, he got a callup in late May. He debuted at Tiger Stadium that May 26, replacing Jerry Don Gleaton with runners at the corners, and gave up an RBI double, two RBI singles and a walk over 1 2/3 innings.

It was his final Major League appearance. The Tigers eventually sent him back down before releasing him in July, and he retired after a brief stint in the Orioles’ system that summer. His post-playing career has included time as a coach, scout, agent and even a stint as COO of Major League Fishing.

Now back in scouting with the Mariners, Kinzer still has a soft spot in his heart for Detroit.

“The city is long overdue,” he said. “It makes me smile when I see the Honolulu blue and silver.”