Detroit — There was no Miguel Cabrera, no Justin Verlander, no Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez or Victor Martinez. The biggest names on the marquee may have been the new manager (Ron Gardenhire) and a third-year starting pitcher (Michael Fulmer), unless you count past heroes like Jim Leyland and Alan Trammell.
And yet, a massive, sellout crowd still crammed into Comerica Park for TigerFest on Saturday.
“It’s real exciting,” said Gardenhire, who greeted fans outside the doors before the festivities began, and even sold the first ticket of the day. “Selling the first ticket was kind of cool. I’ve never done that. This has been fun. We’ve gotten to travel around the state and last night at the banquet, sitting around listening to Jack (Morris) and Tram and Gibby (Kirk Gibson), wow.
“That was one of the best things I’ve sat around and listened to in a long time… I’ve always come in here on the other side for a long time and I always had a lot of respect here, and now to be a part of it, seeing all these young men running around with all these Tigers fans, it’s pretty cool.”
Gardenhire even jumped into a card game some fans were playing to pass the time before the doors opened. The game was called “Oh hell.”
“That’s what the guy on my team said after I cost him five points,” Gardenhire joked.
The caravan and TigerFest provided Gardenhire his first face-to-face look at his new players and, as first impressions go, he was encouraged.
“What I've noticed is that they're a big bunch of boys here,” he said. “We've got some animals. I like that. If we get in a baseball fight, I know they'll protect me. I'm excited about this group. They're game-on, they're ready to go. They're excited to get to spring training and there's a really positive attitude here.”
For fans, TigerFest is a chance to mingle with the players and vice-versa. Most times it was hard to tell who had more fun, the fans or the players.
Fulmer sent this out on Twitter:
“Today at TigerFest, I met a young girl named Marissa. She was on an elevator that I got on and she was so shocked that she was speechless and couldn’t even say hi. I had to ask her if I could take a picture with her. This is why we do this? Thank you Tiger fans. We love y’all!”
What follows are some more TigerFest vignettes.
Ron Gardenhire talks about selling first ticket at TigerFest. Chris McCosky, Detroit News
On Thursday night, as part of the Tigers winter caravan, starting pitcher Matthew Boyd, a huge hockey fan, attended the Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena with Morris and teammate Daniel Norris.
To say he was in heaven was an understatement.
“To see the new arena, to talk with Henrik Zetterberg and Dylan Larkin, to be able to watch the game, that was incredible,” Boyd said. “But to spend three hours talking baseball with Jack Morris, I mean, I learned so much.”
Morris, the newly minted Hall-of-Famer, covered a lot of ground with Boyd.
“He gave me a lot of good advice, just in terms of attacking hitters, how to attack a hitter and what his mentality was, you know, just being ‘the’ guy,” Boyd said. “The stuff he told me, like how Sparky (Anderson, former Tigers manager) expected him to go nine innings every time – you just have to figure out a way.
“He talked a lot about what his thought process was on the mound.”
Morris also talked about how his Tigers team “flipped the switch” in 1983, going quickly from a rebuilding team to a contending team — something Boyd and the Tigers are in the early stages of.
“It was just three hours of awesome stories,” Boyd said. “I was honored to be there with him and I learned so much. It was invaluable, really and I know I will always cherish that memory.”
Left-hander Blaine Hardy, who for the last three seasons has been used out of the bullpen, was asked by new pitching coach Chris Bosio if he preferred being a reliever or a starter.
“He said, ‘What do you prefer,' and I said I prefer starting,” Hardy said. “Only because I know I get the ball. You give up a hit and you are still out there. As a reliever, you give up a hit and you start looking over at the dugout like, ‘Don’t even think about coming out here.’”
Hardy, who came up as a starter in the Royals organization, said he truly doesn’t care what role he plays, as long as he has a chance to contribute.
“I think (Bosio) was just being curious,” Hardy said. “He told me he didn’t have any set plans for me yet. If that conversation has any meaning on my role, I would say they are probably looking at me as a long (relief) guy.”
With that in mind, Hardy has spent the last few weeks in Lakeland, working essentially the same throwing program as Fulmer.
“I’ve been trying to keep up with Fulmer, but he gets out to about 250 feet,” Hardy said with a laugh. “I just say, ‘OK,’ and kind of roll the ball out there. But I am trying to keep pace with him.”
Hardy offered this first-hand report on Fulmer:
“I tell you what, he’s ready,” Hardy said. “He might not have his command just yet because he hasn’t thrown to hitters. But his arm is alive. He broke my glove the other day. I caught the ball from him and looked at my glove, sure enough, it was ripped inside.”
Gardenhire still hasn’t spoken personally to Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera was out of the country for a long stretch of the offseason and he was excused from TigerFest to tend to a family health emergency.
“I just hope everything goes OK for him and his family,” Gardenhire said. “That’s the most important thing right now. He needs to take care of that first. We have all of spring training.”
And it’s not like the two are strangers.
“The good thing is that I have a good relationship with him from the other side,” Gardenhire said. “Total respect. We’ve talked a few times. We always tipped our hats to each other before we played. And he’s given me that smirky smile after he hits a home run, kind of laughing at me. And that's OK.
“I look forward to seeing that smile from this side.”
Closer Shane Greene was asked about his early impressions of Gardenhire:
“Fun, loose – I haven’t had an awkward conversation with him,” he said. “It’s like we’ve known each other for years already.”
At this time last season, Greene was still transitioning from starter to reliever. There is little doubt about his role coming into this season – certainly not in his own mind.
“Walking into the clubhouse for spring training, I would say the closer job is mine to lose,” he said. “Having said that, everybody here wants to win. I’ve proven I can pitch in the sixth and seventh innings with the game on the line. If they think there is somebody else that can close games and that’s what it takes for us to win, I am all for it.
“As of now, I am walking into that clubhouse with my chest out feeling like I am the closer. I earned that job and it’s mine to lose.”
Center of attention
Center fielder JaCoby Jones has changed his jersey number, from 40 to 21. That’s about the only change in his situation. Just like last season, Jones will come to spring training fighting long odds against winning the center field job in Detroit.
He beat those odds last year, if only for a brief time before his offensive woes bought him an early ticket back to Triple-A Toledo. This year, the Tigers signed veteran free-agent center fielder Leonys Martin and also plucked Victor Reyes out of the Rule 5 draft.
Martin is penciled in as a starter and Reyes, if the Tigers want to keep him, will have to make the squad as the fourth or fifth outfielder.
“There’s always going to be guys signed and there’s always going to be competition for jobs,” said Jones, who still has a minor-league option left. “It wouldn’t matter if I had a (long-term) contract or not. You always have to prove yourself and compete for your job. I didn’t think anything of it when they signed those guys.
“I know I still have a chance to win a job. If I do what I have to do and play my game, I will be up here.”
For the first time in his pro career, Jones did not play winter ball. He used the off-season to re-set and refresh, both his body and mind.
“I think it’s helped me a lot,” he said. “I have that itch again to get back to spring training, more than I usually have. It was good for me.”