Henning: Fans might find this edition of Tigers entertaining

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Amid the chill and drizzle forecasters warn could visit downtown Detroit, anyone stepping into Comerica Park on Thursday will be hit with dual thoughts.

Detroit Tigers coach Ron Gardenhire tosses the ball during a team workout on Wednesday March 28, 2018 at Comerica Park as they prepare for opening day against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday March 29, 2018. 
 (Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2018

On the happy side, there will be a lovely sameness to Opening Day in Detroit. Baseball will be back. Hot dogs will be grilling. Spring will be christened, even if it might at moments feel as if winter is still hanging around.

Less thrilling, perhaps, will be realities tied to Detroit’s baseball team in 2018. The Tigers lost 98 games last season. They could get socked 100 or more times this year. They are rebuilding, and it could take years before they have a contender of the kind that often showed up from 2006-14.

An old baseball town has this adjustment to make as the Pirates swing into Comerica Park to help Detroit inaugurate its 2018 season.

New — so much about the Tigers is new.

Begin with manager Ron Gardenhire. He replaced Brad Ausmus, who decided as much as the Tigers decided that four seasons in Detroit had been ample time to make whatever difference he could.

Gardenhire is new only in the context of wearing a Tigers uniform. He in fact enjoys some familiarity with Detroit’s baseball crowd because of his past years commanding what once was the Tigers’ most irritating division neighbor, the Twins. Can a new skipper make the Tigers into Twins-style pests?

Ah, there’s the hang-up. This year’s Tigers won’t resemble those old Twins clubs. More painfully for Comerica Park’s customers, neither will they remind fans of Tigers playoff teams Jim Leyland managed and Ausmus inherited.

The new skipper doesn’t buy any of it. Baseball assumptions, he said, are “crazy,” and fans instead should prepare for this team’s personality, which they might find entertaining.

“We’re not gonna stand around and watch,” Gardenhire said Tuesday as the Tigers finished their Grapefruit League schedule with a 2-1 nipping of the Rays at Tropicana Field and headed for Detroit. “We want to be able to go first to third (on a base hit). We’re gonna be aggressive and force the issue.

“Hopefully, we’re gonna catch the ball (defend) like we’re supposed to. And we’re gonna try and play the game respectfully.”

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Gardenhire has company in that so many of Detroit’s players are new and different in 2018. Francisco Liriano, Mike Fiers, Leonys Martin, Dixon Machado as Ian Kinsler’s replacement at second base, and Jeimer Candelario as the everyday third baseman replacing Nick Castellanos — all are part of the Tigers redesign.

Victor Reyes was in the Diamondbacks’ minor leagues last season but now is a Tigers backup outfielder. Niko Goodrum is another minor-leaguer who last season played in the Twins system. Goodrum has no big-league experience but now owns a precious spot on Gardenhire’s 25-man roster that will be unveiled Thursday just before the national anthem is sung and jets rock Comerica with a thunderous flyover.

How this rebuilding era and youth crusade settles with Tigers stars who once upon a time were accustomed to out-of-the-gate playoff runs is a question they acknowledge as fair in 2018.

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“I always say, there has never been a Hall of Famer who wasn’t once a rookie,” said Victor Martinez, 39, the team’s designated hitter for most of the past eight years. “So, all you can do is at the end of the day is go out there, play hard, and you just never know.”

Martinez has gone through rebuilds before, when he was with the Indians.

He appreciates that new names steadily will be the story with a Tigers roster destined for a heavy redo in the next few seasons. He understands big-league makeovers can take time.

“It can,” he said. “But maybe it’s a quicker process than people think.”

That’s the team’s hope. Reality could be different, which applies also to what could be a new benchmark for Comerica Park’s crowds.

The Tigers privately were expecting a sellout for Thursday’s game. But the scads of tickets still unclaimed early this week speak to fan appetites that aren’t exactly ravenous.

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Expectations are naturally lower after the Tigers last season tied the Giants for baseball’s worst record (64-98). Little changed when the team’s off-season moves were low-profile, in keeping with a club trying to cut its still-overweight payroll and trade older, expensive stars for badly needed farm prospects.

The Tigers have said, also confidentially, that they expect to hit 2 million tickets sold in 2018. And by the old standard from Tiger Stadium’s era, when 2 million in any year was a jackpot season for ownership and was reached only seven times in 100 years, that’s still a significant spin of the turnstiles.

But this is 2018. This is Comerica Park. And this downtown ballpark venue, now in its 19th season, has come to know and expect fatter crowds.

The Tigers four times in the past 11 seasons pushed past the 3 million mark. A higher bar doesn’t preclude a new, cyclical reality: Business probably will be down for a couple of years, at least.

The Tigers last season drew 2.3 million, about 170,000 fewer than in 2016, which was about 230,000 less than in 2015.

Crowds likely won’t soar, not dramatically, until a rebuilding phase signals fresher, more talented rosters. At that point intrigue and box-office pizzazz should return as the team draws closer to contention.

In the interim, there is this year’s Opening Day’s commotion at a ballpark that hasn’t seen an audience in six months. Not that the place has been dormant.

Consider one new, recently installed wrinkle that will require an adjustment — especially for fans in lower-deck infield box seats.

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Now stretching from the side of the old home-plate screen, past dugouts and down each baseline deep into the outfield, is a 40-foot web of netting.

The netting protects fans from screaming line-drive foul balls that, on occasion, injured customers at every big-league venue and threatened worse fates. In the minds of Commissioner Rob Manfred and his counselors, ballparks had been living dangerously for too long and needed to get smart, even if some of that old, unobstructed intimacy between fans and the field was diminished.

Each of the 30 big-league venues will by Opening Day have added protection that should allow folks to talk with a seat-side friend, or even sneak a peek at their iPhone, without having to worry about getting mashed by a foul liner.

So, that’s good news, of sorts, for Tigers devotees who understand spring and summer are typically more entertaining when the baseball team is in town.

And, of course, when that same team is winning.

Can they endure a different interlude? One where, as they say, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game?

Gardenhire hopes so. Victories might be at a premium this year at Comerica Park. Hope will not be.


Twitter: @Lynn_Henning

Pirates at Tigers

First pitch: 1:05 Thursday

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