By: Holly Horning
When most people think of the “Magic Kingdom”, they are referring to DisneyWorld in Orlando, FL. But not me.
You see, I just came back from a week in Florida. And no, I did not venture anywhere near Orlando. And if you’re a regular reader, you should know where I was.
Lakeland. And other cities in which the Tigers were playing.
And you know what? I had so much fun. Too much fun, in fact, that it really should have been illegal. And I am here to report it all to you.
But I’m not going to talk about the actual games. You can read all about the scores and recaps in a million newspapers all reporting the same thing. My job is to relay the stories behind the scenes, the stories that point to a bigger picture and the stories that may hint at the Tigers’ future.
My adventures sometime had me spending 7 hours at the ballpark during just one day. I was often the first to arrive right when the gates opened and one of the last to leave. And this is where my professional powers of observation kicked in. I watched the players, coaches, management and supporting staff behind the scenes. I also was close enough to listen.
When I wasn’t sending obnoxious texts to Kurt (who was stuck in his office) about my series of good fortunes, I was taking notes. In fact, so many that my spring training adventures will take up most of this week’s blogs. I’m going to group the inside observations into bite-size morsels with a daily focus on a handful of topics.
So let’s get going, shall we?
I highly recommend that if you haven’t had the chance to attend Spring Training, you should put it on your bucket list. It really is a singularly unique time to gauge the pulse of the team and see how they are coming together.
The games aren’t necessarily the main story, but what’s important to notice are the patterns that present themselves.
When you do go, make sure you attend the pre-game batting practice. While most teams include this in the price of the ticket, the Tigers are one of the few who charge extra for it. Outside of the financial expenditure, the upside is that attendance is restricted to a significantly smaller number of fans who have more access and opportunity to interact with the players.
Which is where I found myself one morning 2.5 hours before the game. I was nearly straddling the railing on the third base side as I watched Tigers hit, field and run.
Omar Vizquel was expertly fielding fly balls in left field when he wasn’t signing autographs. But it was the sudden emergence of a familiar face that took me by surprise.
He came out of nowhere, striding down the third base line. Confident posture, easy movement and with no hint at all that he’s been battling Parkinson’s. And then he turned to a small group of us and initiated small talk as he walked past. Strong voice, a sense of humor and quick to laugh. He really looked great. He also looked very happy to be there.
And this is the point that I want to make. We see players and management in game mode all the time. But one can discern more about someone when they are not “on stage.” When their guards are down and when they are relaxed and interacting with others.
The Tigers have a number of opportunities for fans to get autographs which include a gauntlet down the first base line that includes the stands and a walkway from the field to the clubhouse. Players and management alike have to take this path and decide how they will address the many fans calling out their names and begging for signatures.
The more famous players travel this route a little less due to their training schedules so the likes of Miggy, VMart and JD were not seen. But it was interesting to see how personable people like Kevin Rand were who made the trek and took time to chat with the fans.
Brad Ausmus was one of the few who avoided the fans. He often had to walk the gauntlet but took a circuitous path around it in order to demonstrate he wasn’t going to sign autographs or engage in conversation. He avoided eye contact and would make one short comment that did not invite discussion.
Whether due to shyness, the pressures of the job or something else, he came across as aloof. And he was one of the very few who did not come across well.
But Jim Leyland was just lovely. He was the nicest guy in the place. He looked “tanned, rested and ready” in his pink polo as he stopped by the stands and was mobbed by fans. He stayed for at least 10 minutes – longer than anyone else – and signed at least 50 baseball items while chatting amiably with everyone.
And while we’re on the subject of nice, a number of Tigers stood out for their kindness in rewarding attendees. Omar Vizquel was generous of his time and was very entertaining. More on him later.
A number of players were very attentive to the youngsters at the ballpark. James McCann in particular, made every effort to give away as many balls as he could to the kids. In order to avoid the inevitable battles created by adults to get that prized possession, McCann would point to a specific kid in the stands so everyone knew who the recipient was going to be before he tossed the ball.
Just one more example of a guy who knows what he wants and orchestrates the opportunity to make it happen.
But there’s so much more to report and I’ll do that over the next 3 days. My reports will include:
– team culture differences
– different stadiums, fans and attitudes
– Al Avila up close and personal
– Brad Ausmus
– the coaches
– game habits
– early concerns