Lakeland, Fla. — For sheer weirdness, nothing during decades of covering Tigers spring camps beat 1995.
It was the year when players were on strike. It was the spring when guys wanted so badly to be “big-leaguers” they didn’t mind taking the lockers of established stars who were in the process of guaranteeing the Major League Players Association was, and would remain, the strongest union in professional sports.
It was a March when then-manager Sparky Anderson was so disgusted at the thought of managing scabs, whether they deserved that ugly label or not, he decided he would go home rather than see his players betrayed and a sacred game cheapened.
In early March, 2021, that good, green oasis known as Tigertown wasn’t as dreary, as tense as it was in 1995, even after COVID-19’s arrival turned a world and a sport upside down. But it was different in a way that seemed to shift from unnatural to strange.
A public-address announcer’s voice echoed through Joker Marchant Stadium (make that Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, as sponsorship dollars now mandate) in kind of a reverberating stream. Noise bounces jarringly against concrete and plastic when there are only 1,500 or 2,000 bodies allowed for a Grapefruit League game that might otherwise be stuffed with 8,000 people soaking up sun and sound.
Coronavirus has eased enough to permit a few folks in the house. But, in Lakeland, there won’t be any of those old sellout crowds until next year, should a global scourge at last be given the heave-ho.
Scenes can be stark at Tigertown in March, 2021. Look at that lovely, pastoral berm beyond the left-field fence. During springs before the bug showed up, the berm would be loaded with blankets and umbrellas and people lounging in the sun and grass. It was baseball, beautiful baseball, in all its innocence and peace.
Now, the berm is subdivided into sections. It looks like garden rows where plants are linear and spaced. Give everyone credit for helping fight a transmissible virus, but the carefully delineated, rigidly distanced blankets and bodies that now are arranged there speak to a level of constraint a miserable pandemic has visited upon all of us.
And yet …
There is baseball. At other spring-camp sites, as at Lakeland, baseball is back.
The big-leaguers show up, swinging bats, twirling pitches, running bases, reminding us that, unlike 2020 when everything was shut down in early March and then nearly collapsed for the entirety of a star-crossed year, games and players have returned to revive our baseball-loving souls.
Some things remain different, achingly so. Coronavirus is the culprit: A scattering of fans at games. Everyone wearing masks. Zoom interviews with managers and players. Everything is arranged and coordinated and pretty much impersonal. And that’s what stings.
Always in past years, spring camp, blessedly, was an exercise in informality. You went from clubhouse to press box to practice fields amid weaves of short paths and familiar faces. The faces belonged to fans who showed up every year, or to those marvelous men and women wearing orange that the Tigers’ Lakeland office has hired and retained, sometimes for decades.
Screen-door baseball, I’ve always called it. You get the connotation: warm weather, trappings that are more grass than concrete, security people who do their jobs but know you’re OK and don’t get overly officious. It’s a day-by-the-lake atmosphere.
Another feature, at the core of spring training’s bliss, is that everything is new. Grass is fresh. Days steadily warm. Birds and wildlife along Lake Parker’s shores are active and noisy.
Best of all, for the baseball follower, and for teams that are filled with hope and with new flesh, no one has yet lost a meaningful game. The slate is clean.
That part remains, thankfully.
Look at the Tigers. They’re different from a year ago, so much different.
The fresh look begins with a new manager, AJ Hinch, who is everything a team could want in a skipper. Super-smart. Pleasing personality. Documentable and discernible, Hinch is good at leading men and players.
Listen to him speak. Read his quotes. Notice the substance. The packaging of so much insight and analysis into whole sentences and paragraphs that reveal a man’s personal and professional depth. It is Hinch, who some time ago was in the vanguard of baseball’s move toward science, who is processing and executing all that data and implementing it into game policy after the Tigers, at general manager Al Avila’s order, finally caught up with the 21st century.
The Tigers are in good hands with Hinch.
Whether they can be a good team is not a question best answered in 2021. They’ll probably fight to win 75 games, which isn’t going to be a manager’s failing. Rather, it’s another measure of how long a process it can be to reconstruct a baseball team as bottomed-out as the Tigers became following their airy 2006-14 run.
In some aspects, they’ll be better. Better than last year, better than in some of those earlier years when deconstruction of a decaying, hyper-expensive roster was as necessary as reconstruction. And better, for sure in 2021, implies that this team will be more entertaining.
Key word — entertaining. Spencer Turnbull, Tarik Skubal, Jonathan Schoop, Wilson Ramos, a kid who can hit in Willi Castro – these are either new faces, young faces, or familiar players of skill in the case of Schoop, who could mesh with Jeimer Candelario, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris to offer Hinch and Detroit’s fans something of a basic roster shelter.
Where things will turn interesting, and more entertaining, is when a combination of kids and surprises show up. And the Tigers probably are getting close there.
Isaac Paredes isn’t far from everyday work. Casey Mize will in time iron things out and become a very good pitcher, as will young Matt Manning. Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene will get a full taste of the minors and probably bid for jobs sometime in 2022.
Even a spring-camp novelty, Akil Baddoo, who the Tigers grabbed in December’s Rule 5 draft and who could be a steal, has a chance to spice a roster that’s been begging for a lift since the team began its tear-down four years ago.
There will be another early pick in this year’s draft, and very probably, a heavy trade, maybe at mid-season. All before the Tigers almost certainly jump seriously back into the free-agent sweepstakes this autumn. That’s not a hollow suggestion. It’s pretty much been on the schedule since this lengthy remodeling job, way overdue, began when Mike Ilitch died in 2017.
The 2021 team has too many issues, pitching as much as any in a sport where pitching typically is a problem, to think Hinch’s gang this year can play even break-even ball. But, again, one reason people fought to buy a ticket to those Grapefruit League games in Lakeland this month was because a baseball-savvy fandom understands when life is on the uptick.
In that sense, a baseball team from Detroit mirrors this COVID recovery. The comeback is slow, it’s irksome, and so much must yet get better before people will feel restored.
But as restorations go, spring training has always been a time to ponder how good things are, and with any luck, how good they soon might be.
It’s a better, brighter March at Lakeland in 2021. A year from now, with COVID perhaps a memory, with those Marchant Stadium seats filled and with more new blood pumped into Hinch’s lineup, most of the Tigers crowd should find that life back to normal, life again hopeful, has never felt so good.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
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