It’s a month until Tigers spring camp convenes at Lakeland, Florida, and fans aren’t their usual Florida-famished selves.
The Tigers have lost 98, 98, and 114 games the past three seasons. This has been great for their June draft position, but not so good at filling seats or wedding fans to Tigers broadcasts six years after a certain big-league team last made October’s playoffs.
The tough part, at least in January for the faithful folks who crave something other than six months of black eyes and bruised behinds, is that Detroit’s 2020 roster looks suspiciously like some earlier casts.
We’re left to digest what has changed since the Tigers last were seen on a field, Sept. 29 at Chicago, when, as was their habit in 2019, they tumbled, 5-3, to the White Sox.
The alterations range from promotional, to sentimental, to minimally structural, and can be analyzed in three parts:
1. TigerFest shifted. Tigers autographs are the new focus.
This has some fans incensed. This has others saying: What took so long? It’s freezing down there.
TigerFest is being replaced Jan. 25 by indoor autograph sessions based within the Downtown District, adjacent to Comerica Park.
Here, the Tigers assure, you can sidle up to manager Ron Gardenhire or to a favored player and get a signature or selfie or handshake or whatever is agreed upon while avoiding frostbite that annually threatened to turn TigerFest into a subsidiary of Birds Eye frozen vegetables.
An added advantage, say the Tigers, is that TigerFest now will move, probably in late June, to an on-field event, with activities that haven’t yet been conceived in detail, but that will offer tolerable, warm-weather interaction for fans.
The folks who annually lined up in snowmobile suits to wait their turn to crash TigerFest’s doors might differ, but this would seem to be a comfortable wash for fans.
They can still meet players, the manager, etc., and get their autographs and their iPhone pics. It’s simply that they won’t freeze to death in the process.
These hugs-and-handshakes sessions always seemed to be TigerFest’s primary appeal, although lots of folks say, no, TigerFest was a happy winter reminder — or maybe warning, the way things have been going of late — that baseball was coming. We’ll see how this works with all parties as 2020 plays out.
Post-script: It is understood the Tigers are going to take this Autographs Theme and make it some form of regular in-season feature in 2020. Details are still being crafted, but autographs minus hypothermia appears to be the blueprint.'
2. Lou Whitaker’s number to be retired.
This was wise, beginning with the fact Whitaker needed to be shown some measure of justice after the Hall of Fame Modern Era Committee seemed not to notice he was on December’s ballot. Six votes from 16 members is the best he could do. It was an insult from supposed baseball savants that one of the dozen or so best all-time big-league second basemen got no more votes than fellow last-place finisher Steve Garvey.
The Tigers long had a policy against retiring numbers unless that person also owned a Hall of Fame plaque.
They made an exception here that was more of a moral mandate. They will celebrate Whitaker some time this season.
Sound move by Tigers owner Chris Ilitch and by the front office.
3. The Tigers’ box-office hope in 2020: new blood.
C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, and Austin Romine are, to date, the thickest pelts added to the Tigers’ offseason roster. They’ll help, marginally. By the time another pitcher and bat are added (starter Ivan Nova signed Monday), more marginal help should arrive.
That won’t transform the Tigers. They still could be a team headed for 90 or 100 losses. What stands to boost them most, as far as fan interest and appeal, is new pitchers who should begin rolling into Comerica Park no later than June.
Casey Mize, Matt Manning, maybe Tarik Skubal, perhaps Alex Faedo — once any or all of the above win a trip to Detroit, you’ll see interest in the team rise, instantly.
A pitcher or two can’t change scenery by himself. But a relatively new rotation, with Michael Fulmer likely to be back by July or so, will make people want to do something that’s grown increasingly tortured the past three years: Watch a Tigers baseball game.
There also could be a surprise or two, all because something entertaining and unforeseen typically happens at this stage of a rebuild.
It’s possible Jeimer Candelario this year gets reacquainted with his power and with some reasonable potential. Christin Stewart, who would be a choice at designated hitter if Miguel Cabrera weren’t around for four more years, could be another. This is said knowing that finding Stewart a position won’t be easy. And expecting him to be better in left field is banking on the improbable.
So, a thought here for those who in years past might have been counting days until the equipment truck rolled out of Comerica Park, destined for Lakeland: See what happens in spring camp. Keep an eye on those pitchers who will be delivered soon, very soon, for their initiations.
And if you’re dead-set on getting an autograph Jan. 25, take heart as the shebang moves indoors. Comerica Park wasn’t built for January. TigerFest wasn’t conceived as an event best-suited to St. Bernards wearing brandy flasks.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.