Lakeland, Fla. — Sunday at Marchant Stadium (Publix Field at Marchant Stadium, if you insist) became a rolling revelation in why there is no time in baseball, maybe no time in sports, as fetching as spring training.
This thought slammed home while walking from the press box to manager Ron Gardenhire’s office following a game against the Atlanta Braves — televised back home on FSD — which the Tigers won, 6-3.
Down on the field, just right of Detroit’s dugout, a man in Tigers togs was traipsing with players and with coaches along the perimeter’s gravel. Then he stopped. A gaggle of fans had pressed against the new netting that this year has been keeping customers from getting drilled by foul balls.
The man picked up a ball. He turned to the group behind the light-green mesh and tossed a high pop-up intended to clear the 40-foot-high net. It didn’t quite make it. The same man, his smile and sunglasses each alight in the late-afternoon sun, picked up the ball again. This time he heaved another pop-up that slipped over the netting’s suspension and fell softly among what looked to be a family with young kids.
The man engineering this spontaneous moment of spring-camp goodness was Ramon Santiago. He is the Tigers’ new first-base coach. And those who knew Santiago during his 10 years as a perpetual Tigers back-up infielder and clubhouse saint will not be surprised that it was he who decided to make some people’s day as the Tigers strolled from the field.
As snapshots go, spring camp offered an earlier jewel.
Kirk Gibson was in the TV booth with Mario Impemba handling Sunday’s FSD show for the back-home baseball folks. Midway through, in came a young man with long blonde hair and a body that one can tell has spent a hard winter in the weight room.
It was Cam Gibson, who has his dad’s profile and his mom’s eyes. He had just wrapped up his work on the back fields at TigerTown, where Detroit’s minor-leaguers are enduring a version of baseball boot camp before they head in three weeks to their farm-system outposts. Now he was sitting on a chair half-in, and half-out, of the tight Tigers TV booth.
He was watching his dad work, milking the moments for a son’s chance to spend some precious time with pop.
Good stuff, all of it — the kind of scenes that simply don’t happen once the regular season, and baseball’s all-business days, arrive.
The serious side of spring camp was there, also, Sunday.
Gardenhire sat at his desk in the Tigers manager’s office afterward, swiveling in a chair, hands clasped behind a white Tigers cap. He understands baseball seasons are a bit like rafting trips. They can be a great fun. But it depends on the water, and on who’s in your boat.
The Tigers are headed for their share of Grade-4 rapids in 2018 and can’t be sure how the craft or the crew will fare. It begins with pitching. And for the Tigers in 2018, pitching almost certainly will be a scary script.
Gardenhire was gently pressed Sunday afternoon for clues on his final five-man rotation, his batting order — the usual spring-camp gab. But he can’t say anything yet, all because so little is firm.
Yes, of course, Miguel Cabrera will hit third. And, yes, absolutely, if Michael Fulmer is feeling fine he will be the Tigers’ first-game pitcher. Gardenhire hasn’t come close to saying that it’s Fulmer on Opening Day, but some of us are free to say with as much certainty as can be collected on March 11 that it’s going to be Fulmer.
Other people and jobs aren’t as settled. Even after seeing the kid reliever, Joe Jimenez, light it up Sunday, this is a manager who has seen too many players and too many springs to make early pronouncements that can explode like a can of kerosene.
“We like that big arm,” Gardenhire said after a 23-year-old reliever had pulverized three Braves batters, all on strikeouts, thanks to a fastball that can hit 97, and a slider that, when it’s biting, is pure murder.
“But it seems like everybody comes over here with five guys throwing in the mid-90s. We want to be one of them.”
It was a skipper’s way of saying: Don’t be in a rush. This isn’t the NFL or the NBA, where young talent can get involved more quickly, and often, more effectively. Baseball tends to be a process. One that is longer, typically, than fans, or players, or young pitchers care to allow.
These are the realities a new manager confronts in what could be one of the three most difficult seasons, record-wise, the Tigers will have seen in the past 45 years.
And for those who disagree, there is company.
Dan Dickerson was taking cordial issue with a certain scribe ahead of Sunday’s game over the newspaper guy’s projection that this year’s Tigers team will finish at or about 55-107.
Dickerson, who was about to call Sunday’s game for the 97.1 audience, sees a record significantly north of the triple-digit-loss forecast.
So, we bet on it. Lunch or libations. Hasn’t been decided, finally, what the stakes are, but the scribe had his demands ready.
“Cabernet Sauvignon, or Sauvignon Blanc,” it was shouted to Dickerson as he disappeared into the booth, grinning.
This, too, was a moment Sunday — straight from the blissful baseball realm known as spring training.