Plenty of banter, earnest work behind the scenes at Tigertown

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, right, puts his arm around Miguel Cabrera while talking with him, Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez, left.

Lakeland, Fla. – By now, the bus carrying a Detroit Tigers team to Port St. Lucie was on SR 60, a two-lane road ribbon that runs from Clearwater Beach to Vero Beach, binding Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

At the wonderfully named Yeehaw Junction, the bus would turn south down Florida’s Turnpike until it reached First Data Field, for a game against the New York Mets, about 2 1/2 hours after it rolled from Tigertown’s clubhouse parking lot.

A few minutes after 8 a.m., a crew of Tigers players not working Sunday’s game stuck with spring camp’s routine in a clubhouse lightened by the 33 players (including seven minor-leaguers) on Mets duty.

It was to become one facet of one spring-camp workday when to-do lists, as well as the bonds baseball teammates share, all converged, at different venues, to explain spring training's grace.

Blaine Hardy pulled into his locker and began jawing from 20 feet away with another of Sunday’s lone souls, Andrew Romine.

“Did you break your bat on that home run?” Hardy asked, referring to an inside fastball Romine had swatted for a homer, tight to the right-field line, Saturday against the Astros.

“Almost did,” Romine answered.

“You keep doing that,” Hardy said, dryly, “and you’ll have to work on your home-run trot.”

Nick Castellanos stepped into the dressing room wearing headphones and his usual emotion-free face. Castellanos had missed two days with a cold virus.

“Feeling better?” Ian Kinsler asked, as Castellanos nodded and explained how fever and congestion and the usual nastiness associated with a bug had conked him.

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Kinsler is a fascinating man whether he’s playing second base, attacking a pitcher, or sitting in a big-league dressing room early on a Sunday morning. He’s an extrovert. He likes the sport of repartee. He has too much mental energy to sit in front of his locker and stare at an iPhone.

Soon, he, Alex Wilson, Daniel Norris, and Mikie Mahtook were chatting. The other three players sat on black leather sectional sofas and chairs opposite Kinsler’s locker. Kinsler talked, and Norris, the talented young left-hander, listened and grinned, transfixed in much the way Peter Fonda was entertained by Jack Nicholson during the epic campfire scene in “Easy Rider.”

Recapping the action

Castellanos, meanwhile, had been engaged by Miguel Cabrera. More talk of viruses and vigor and what-not. Castellanos was feeling better Sunday. But it was clear Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had done everyone a favor by excusing Castellanos from the Tigers-Mets duel.

Diagonally from their side-by-side cubicles, in the clubhouse’s far corner, Francisco Rodriguez, another of the Tigers’ intelligent and intriguing cast, was doing what K-Rod does so well, besides close ballgames.

He was in the middle of an animated storytelling session, in Spanish, with two young Tigers pitchers, Sandy Baez and Victor Alcantara, the man Detroit got in its trade for Cameron Maybin.

The laughs grew louder as K-Rod headed into the home stretch of his story. And when the K-Rod session waned, it was Justin Verlander’s turn.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, left, with Miguel Cabrera heading to first base after being hit by a pitch in the third inning Saturday.

Verlander’s locker is directly across the clubhouse from Cabrera’s. Verlander began recapping with Cabrera the previous day’s drama during the Tigers-Astros game at Marchant Stadium.

The Tigers had just hit three consecutive homers (Romine, Kinsler and Victor Martinez) against Astros pitcher Edison Frias.

Cabrera was the next batter. And down he went, tumbling on Frias’ first pitch, which caught Cabrera on the hand. It seemed no coincidence to home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt. Frias got an instant thumb.

Verlander told Cabrera he was in the video room watching tape from his two-inning start Saturday when Cabrera got plunked. Glad that his cohort hadn’t been hurt, Verlander was now telling Cabrera, with Verlander-grade glee, how he had rushed from the clubhouse to join what might have been grounds for a Tigers-Astros scrum.

But he had been stopped by Kirk Gibson, who was there (he is helping coaching Tigers baserunners) and who had seen that Frias had thrown a breaking pitch, which isn’t what you toss when you want to whack a batter.

“Then I saw the slider grip,” Verlander said, still enjoying this recap, “and I saw the expression on his face when it got away.”

It was, Verlander cackled, a pitcher saying to himself: Please don’t hit him.

Two superstars and a half-dozen teammates within earshot chuckled. In a half-hour, they would head to Publix Field (Publix Field at Marchant Stadium is the ballpark’s new grocer-sponsored title) for batting practice -- the hitters who remained, anyway -- and for whatever bullpen work pitchers hadn’t yet wrapped up.

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What has changed in Lakeland in 2017 are the trappings that made Sunday’s quips and conversation so player-friendly. It’s the new clubhouse at Tigertown, more spacious, and more neatly appointed, than most big-league locker rooms. In earlier years at Marchant the players were stuffed into space you might find in a submarine.

A player could talk with the guys immediately at his side and across a carpeted walkway a foot or two wide. But every square foot of that old Marchant clubhouse was crammed and partitioned by lockers. None of the free and easy exchange now common was possible.

Nor was eating much fun in the old place, which featured an area about the size of an apartment kitchen.

Practicing their craft

The new dining room, just around the corner from Verlander’s locker, is spacious and blowaway-impressive, with plenty of tables and comfortable chairs. There are counters and beverages and snack-and-meal options. And even food stations, as it were, all offering glorious nutrition, and all prepared by a chef big-league teams are now required to hire as part of December’s new owners-players contract.

“The food’s been unbelievable,” Hardy said. “The other day Chris (An Khang Than, who works with fellow chef Chad Baker) made something called a Volcano – sliced red pepper with scrambled eggs and cheese. It was great.”

A year ago, Hardy said he would eat at home rather than chance the limited, sometimes less-than-savory, dishes available at Marchant. Now he has breakfast and lunch in the clubhouse cafe.

Tigers outfielder Justin Upton makes a running catch while Al Kaline, right, watches during outfield drills on the main field at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Players realize the advantage is more than a matter of convenience: You are what you eat. And the better that players dine, especially when their work hours can be so upside-down, the better big-leaguers tend to perform.

The position guys who stayed behind Sunday headed for the batting cages shortly after 9. Bull Durham, the Tigers’ new batting coach, as well as roving minor-league instructor Bruce Fields, and the incredible Al Kaline, leaned against the batting cage’s rear frame, watching each batter, sharing thoughts on approaches, mechanics, and the classic study known as hitting.

Kaline turned toward Fields at one point after watching a batter and feigned a swing, showing Fields, who nodded vigorously, what he thought might be a better downward move.

It was a gorgeous morning in Lakeland as noon approached. The sky was immaculate blue. The sun was bright. There was a firm breeze from the north-northeast.

And this wasn’t Tigertown’s only taste of Sunday baseball.

A few hundred yards to the east, at that magnificent quadrant of fields where big-leaguers and minor-leaguers are schooled, a few dozen minor-leaguers warmed up at Cochrane Field as players paired for 100-foot long toss tune-ups.

Bill Dancy, the new minor-league field coordinator, was with a group of coaches that included Mike Hessman, Francisco Contreras and Don Kelly, the one-time Tigers super-sub who is back with the club as a minor-league coach and scout.

Across the field, another group’s long-toss throws whizzed above the green turf as Mike Rabelo, the new manager at Single A West Michigan, and Gerald Laird, the former Tigers catcher now managing Single A Connecticut, helped supervise.

And then the groups broke up and headed for the adjacent Gehringer and Heilmann fields.

The early drills and focus at each diamond would be on outfield relays and cutoffs. Basic stuff, of course. But any big-league team knows tidying up on fundamentals is the only way prospects progress and teams ultimately win.

And that was what Sunday was about. Whether it came by way of a bus trip to Port St. Lucie, or on a practice field at Tigertown, a team from Detroit was working to become better at this most difficult business, and happily still a sport, called baseball.