For the past four years I've made the journey to Lakeland, Florida, to cover the first weeks of Tigers spring training. Last year, Aileen Villarreal, director of media relations for the Tigers, hit the nail on the head with the atmosphere the first couple days of spring training: "It's like the first week of school."
First day indeed: The new players aren't sure what entrance to use, returning players see teammates they haven't seen since October, and the media tries to learn the pronunciation of players' names. Just like school, one of my favorite things about returning to spring training are the familiar faces. Not just of the players, but also of the staff and fans. Even if it is someone's first time at Tigertown, I see that familiar look of hope in a fan to get the autograph of a favorite player, or a bit of fear in a young player given the invitation to the major leagues.
Last year was marked with a lot of personal loss for me, so this year I wanted to take the time to document those faces I have come to know. You never know what the future will bring for the team, the players, or in life. But as I get ready to head back to Michigan and the season begins, I am grateful to have another reunion.
Lynn Adams, security at Tigertown. "I was drafted by the Tigers in 1967 at 17 and was in the minor leagues until 1974. When I started spring training, it was about getting into shape. Now, even the minor leaguers are in great shape when they show up. After baseball I became a cop in Lakeland. When I retired from that I started working security at Tigertown. I miss the guys when they trade them: Phil Coke, Don Kelly ... I am still in contact with Prince (Fielder); he still lives in Orlando. I just check in to make sure he and the kids are OK."
Rick Lapanowski, Rochester Hills. "I come down every year to get autographs. I don't sell the stuff, I just like it. My favorite item signed was a photo after Justin Verlander's no-hitter with (Brandon) Inge, Pudge (Rodriguez) and (Justin) Verlander. I was able to get all of them to sign it when they were here."
Chris Schornack, clubhouse assistant intern. "I'm the starting goalie for Adrian College's (club) hockey team and quit before the playoffs to come down here and do this. It's a dream come true. They (Adrian) were disappointed, but knew this is something I really wanted. I am studying business, but wanted to see how the major leagues worked from the clubhouse standpoint and this has been an amazing opportunity."
Kim and Jeff Jameson, Tigers fans from Perrysburg, Ohio. Kim: "I would just come down for the connection, not the autographs, It's just cool that the players recognize you and talk with you. If they change the layout of this place, I'm not sure if we'll be back. Although last year I said it would be our last year. I became a Tigers fan in 2008. I'm not much of sports person, although we met at a blind date at a Red Wings game, so now I like the Tigers and the Red Wings."
Jeff: "This is our fourth year coming down. Being from (former manager) Jim Leyland's hometown, we just felt a connection with the Tigers. We go to a lot of the games in Toledo, and it's so great to just see the minor league players. My dad was drafted by the Tigers in 1969; I've always been a Tigers fan. My big hope every year is that these guys win the World Series."
Nori Ito, research and development manager for Mizuno. "This is my 10th year at spring training. I am in charge of glove production at Mizuno in Haga, Japan, and have worked for them for 23 years. I played baseball in school and love it. I will never retire. The sport is in my heart and will never leave."
Mark Cunningham, Tigers photographer. "This is my 18th spring training, and every year it's amazing. My dad was a photographer, and I was a printmaker and loved it. I never wanted a job as a photographer, it just seemed like too much work. One year an agent for a couple of players wanted me to shoot some of his Tiger players and he got me a couple photo passes to a game and one thing led to another. This wasn't even a dream job, because it's the most awesome job I ever wanted, but I didn't know it existed. But here I am. My favorite moment was when (former manager) Sparky Anderson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Everything he did, I did and documented it. At one point, it was just him and I sitting in a limo, not even his family. He would say the most random stuff on the ride like, 'See that kid tossing a baseball with his dad? I used to do that.' That was a 'pinch me' moment."
Al Kaline, aka "Mr. Tiger." "Spring training is never different, you have your stars and rookies. It's a great time because ever team thinks they are going to win. I still remember my first spring training when I got drafted, I was nervous, scared and excited. I see that on the faces of the rookies today. Although today the rookies are in better shape, and the stars aren't worried about a rookie taking over their position, so they are helpful. I am here now hoping that I can help out a young kid, that's all. My favorite spring training was in 1968 after we realized how close we were to winning the World Series. You could just feel the excitement and we knew if we just worked a little harder, we could do it. And we did. I had two idols growing up: Stan 'The Man' Musial and Ted Williams. Stan was just an amazing character and person, and I was able to meet and be friends with Ted. It's really good when you get the chance to meet your idol and talk with them. My dad used to say, 'If you're not the best, you shouldn't think you are special.' I wasn't the best, so I don't think I'm special, but I can't help if that's how others see me."
Carther McCall, grounds crew. "I've lived in Lakeland over 30 years -- although I was born and raised in New York -- so I became a Tigers fan. I'm always happy and smiling. It's the answer to everything. I just love to smile; even when I'm not feeling it, I still wear it. This job is long hours, but the guys (players) see me and my smile and they smile back, give me hugs and shake my hand when they return."
Michele Wysocki, Tigers media relations coordinator. "I was an intern last year, and graduated from Bowling Green University in Ohio. When I got this job, I was so happy; I grew up 20 minutes outside Detroit and have been a Tigers fan forever."
Diego Montanez, 9, Jacksonville, Florida, baseball fan. "My favorite Tigers player is Miguel Cabrera; my favorite player of all time is Evan Longoria. I play baseball with my brother. I play shortstop. We go to a lot of Double A games in Jacksonville. When I grow up, I want to be a professional baseball player. If not that, an actor."
Javier Betancourt, 19, second baseman. "I am from Venezuela; I signed with the Tigers when I was 16. I knew I wanted to be a professional baseball player when I was born. I have an uncle who played for the Mets, an uncle who played for Anaheim, so it was in my blood. But when I signed, that's when I knew the dream was true. The toughest thing was that I signed at 16 and then I was an adult and I had to be separated from my family. Before then I used to always be with my mom and dad and first year, I didn't see them for seven months. Sometimes you have a bad day, and you want a hug from your family, but you just have to go back to your room, alone."
Follow Elizabeth Conley for Tigers photos and other musings on Twitter or Instagram: @egconley.