Trailing the Tigers

Escape SW Michigan’s wintery gloom to bask in the glory of spring training with the Detroit Tigers

In February 2014, Encore correspondent Robert Weir visited the Detroit Tigers’ spring training camp in Lakeland, Fla., where he enjoyed a one-week close-up view of major league baseball. The following is his report — from a fan’s perspective. In a related story, former Tigers star Charlie” Paw Paw” Maxwell, talks about how the game has changed in recent decades.

Come springtime, hope springs eternal in the world of baseball. And if you’re a fan of the Tigers, Joker Marchant Stadium, in Lakeland, Fla., is the place to be. The weather is warm, the ballpark is filled with energy, and the players are accessible for photos and autographs. The vendors even offer fresh strawberry shortcake in addition to traditional hot dogs and brats.

On the field, the air is tickled with the crack of bats against balls and the smack of balls into gloves. The players stretch, run, hit, field, throw and, almost every day, play nine innings of America’s Game.

The fans, some from Michigan and some from Florida, are here to witness this annual rite known as “spring training.”

Baseball’s preseason is unique among professional sports. Football players practice on their home fields. Basketball players do likewise on their home courts. Hockey clubs might tour ice rinks in their home states; the Red Wings, for example, hold practice sessions in Traverse City.

But baseball players congregate every year in Florida and Arizona seven weeks before the start of the regular season. In open-air stadiums landscaped with palm trees, fans enjoy blue skies, green grass and the umpire’s pronouncement to “Play ball!”

The atmosphere in Lakeland is laid-back. Players, management and stadium personnel know the fans are here for more than the game — they are here for the experience, whether sitting in the stands or lounging on the famous “berm,” a land formation rising several feet above the left-field home-run fence.

Joker Marchant Stadium is built on land that was a training facility for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. It became a ballpark in the late 1950s and was named after the man who was then Lakeland’s director of parks and recreation.

“Joker was a great person who loved to be with people, and he loved baseball and the Tigers,” says Don Westbury, a security guard at the stadium who keeps fans from wandering into the Tigers’ clubhouse.

Delton residents Ruth and George Broadhurst are among hundreds of fans sitting on the berm. “We put spring training on our bucket list several years ago,” Ruth says. Then, she says, with the winter of 2013-14 being abnormally cold, the she and her husband decided, “This is the year. We’re going.”

The family’s devotion to the Tigers is multigenerational. “Ruth’s dad lived on a dairy farm and listened to the Tigers while milking,” George says. “He said the cows gave more milk when the Tigers were winning.”

‘There’s an aura here’

From the stands to the press box, the clubhouse to the executive offices, people talking about spring training in Lakeland always seem to mention the fan-player connections and the warm Florida temperatures..

“People in Kalamazoo would love to be here,” says former Tiger Al Kaline referring to the weather.

“There’s an aura here,” says radio announcer Jim Price, who was a Tigers catcher from 1967-73.”The players are more accessible than during the season. That’s the big difference that makes spring training special.”

Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus agrees. “Spring training is about getting our work done, coming together as a team and having fun,” he says. “For the fans, it means knowing that summer is around the corner. Here in Lakeland, it’s easier for them to get a player’s autograph or shake a hand than during the regular season.”

Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski echoes Ausmus. “Spring training reflects the start of baseball and warm weather,” he says. “It’s a way for us to get ready for the season, to get molded as a team. There’s more fan interaction — the facility is made so the players can sign autographs when they come off the field. It’s a fantastic place, a fantastic time.”

Gathering the news

Bringing the scores, stats and scoops to the fans is the domain of the media corps, which represents major Internet, newspaper, television and radio entities such as the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, USA Today, the Associated Press and MLive.com. These reporters can be found in the press box covering the games, in the clubhouse interviewing players as they lounge by their lockers in various stages of dress, and in the manager’s office peppering Ausmus with questions. For a few reporters, such as one from the Dominican Republic, the privilege of being here is unique and lasts about a week at the most. Writers for Major League Baseball are also on hand to gather information and write stories for the website MLB.com.

Each day, both before and after the games, Tigers media relations staff usher the dozen or so reporters into the manager’s office, a space about 10 feet by 10 feet with a single desk. A few reporters sit on a couch; most stand. Ausmus directs one of the media stalwarts to sit in his chair behind the desk while taking a less prestigious seat himself.

The reporters ask about the daily grind: Who’s going to pitch today? How is so-and-so’s health? How will baseball’s new replay rules affect the game? Do you see the Tigers stealing more bases this year? Ausmus answers each one, giving detail when appropriate, being noncommittal when necessary, providing the guys and gals present with sufficient material to write their stories.

Famous former Tigers on hand

Al Kaline is not the only famous old-time Tiger who can be found in and around Joker Marchant Stadium. Both he and Willie Horton have been retained by management as special assistants to team owner Mike Ilitch.

Horton, the Tigers’ left fielder from 1963-77, encourages players to be like a family. The youngest of 21 children, Horton speaks of his brothers and sisters, and a minister who instilled him with character. He talks about his first year as a Tiger, when he walked six miles to the old Tiger Stadium because, as a black man, he couldn’t ride in a taxi driven by a white person. During the Motor City race riots of 1967, Horton stood atop his car wearing his Tigers uniform, attempting to restore peace. He also recalls celebrities who worked to get housing for black players, who were not allowed to stay with the other players. “Other players couldn’t understand why we couldn’t (all) stay together,” he says.

Now involved with youth, wellness and humanitarian programs in Detroit, Horton provides scholarships for financially deprived inner-city youth through the Horton Foundation. He’s one of only four people for whom the Michigan Legislature named a day in their honor; Rosa Parks is another.

Of Tiger fans, Horton says, “They’re extended family. When I was hurt, they got me through the pain. When I played and the team went on the road, I stayed with fans, had dinner with them. People would see us in a store or barbershop, and they would talk to us. It’s harder for the players to do that today. They don’t have that freedom.” Horton pauses, then with a smile, says, “I have a good, warm feeling being in Lakeland. I walk around here and say, ‘Thank you.’”

Al Kaline, the Tigers’ All-Star right fielder from 1953-74 — his entire career — is revered as “Mr. Tiger.” Kaline’s presence on the field during spring training, when he wears his uniform with the number 6 on the back, is an inspiration to current players, whom he encourages to “enjoy and respect the game … to be mentally strong during the highs and lows.”

Kaline broke into the Tigers’ starting lineup at age 18, fresh out of high school, one of only a handful of players never to have played in the minor leagues. An All-Star for 18 of his 22 seasons, he was the first Tiger player to be paid $100,000. “I’m blessed to still be in the game I love so much,” says Kaline, now 79 and a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He says being around the young players and their new slang makes him feel young.

The people in Lakeland are clearly glad to have him there. “I got my first Al Kaline autograph in 1955 when I was 11,” says security guard Westbury, a Tigers fan for 60 years.

Besides the two well-known former Tigers players, there’s another familiar Tigers fixture in Lakeland: former manager Jim “The Old Skipper” Leyland, who retired at the end of the 2013 season. After retirement, Leyland was retained by the Tigers as an advisor and consultant, especially to Ausmus, who replaced him. Often the two men, 25 years apart in age, stand together on the field, sharing observations and wisdom. Ever professional, though, Leyland remains in the background, acknowledging the leadership of the new field general.

Likewise, Leyland’s interviews are few, but one day he did gather an audience of reporters during an opposing team’s batting practice. The location was near the Tigers’ clubhouse, next to the field and about 250 feet from home plate. That area is protected from flying baseballs by a pair of nets: one vertical, 60 feet away from where the cadre stood, and the other horizontal, directly above — but the two don’t meet. Sure enough, a foul ball found the gap and traced a perfect trajectory toward the back of Leyland’s head.

The reporters facing the ball saw it coming but were too far away to react. Fortunately, Aileen Villarreal, the Tigers’ director of media relations, who was standing at Leyland’s left shoulder, caught a glimpse of the fast-dropping ball and deflected it with her hand at the last split second, saving Leyland from a painful conk on the noggin.

‘We’re having a blast!’

Inevitably, some spring training games are rained out. During one downpour, thousands of fans huddle in the stadium’s concrete concourse under the seats. They talk about their love of the game and why they’re visiting Lakeland.

Johanna Kahny and Nicole Millering, Grand Valley State University students, know shortstop Hernan Perez. “He lived with my grandma, a host family, when he was with the White Caps [the Tigers’ minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids],” Millering says.

John Holmes, of Kalamazoo, says he likes spring training because “they change pitchers a lot more, so you get more variety. The excitement of it all makes it fun.”

Lindsay Dood, of Grand Rapids, says she and her huisband, Ken, like the fact that “at spring training you get to see the players closer up than at Comerica Park. It’s a lot more relaxed, so the players are more willing to talk to you and give autographs. This is our first time, and we’re having a blast!”

But perhaps the best comments on baseball’s enduring appeal come from the perspectives of age and youth.

Boomer Mentzer, of Kalamazoo, who is in his 60s, has been coming to spring training since he was a teenager. He’s been here to see the Tigers and to Arizona to watch the Chicago Cubs. “Baseball is baseball, and I love it,” he says. “It’s in my blood. Once, a lady I was with got a kiss from Lance Parrish,” he recalls. Parrish was the Tigers’ catcher from 1977-86 and is now manager of the Seawolves, a Tigers’ farm club in Erie, Pa.

Brennan Ansell, 12, of Battle Creek, is at the game with his father and grandparents, Spencer, Judy and Bill Ansell. “I grew up watching Tiger baseball,” he says. “I would like to meet Justin Verlander and ask him how he stays accurate with his pitching.”

Whether young or old, whether a longtime fan who claims Kaline as a boyhood hero or today’s tween who reveres Verlander, all wait for spring to arrive and for the welcome cry of “Play ball!”


How Has Baseball Changed?

An interview with Charlie 
‘Paw Paw’ Maxwell

Charlie Maxwell

Charlie Maxwell hailed from Paw Paw — thus his nickname. He broke into the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1950 and played for the Detroit Tigers from 1955 to 1962. He led American League outfielders in fielding percentage in 1957 and 1960, with, amazingly, only one error in each of those seasons. He finished among the league leaders in home runs four times. Retired from baseball since 1964, Maxwell still lives in the Kalamazoo area with his wife, Ann. They have four children and 14 grandchildren.

Encore: How have spring training and baseball in general changed?

Maxwell: For us, spring training was for getting in shape. We all had jobs then, and we worked up until the day before we had to go to Florida. We took our families. My wife homeschooled (the children).

My starting salary was $5,000. We had to find a home in Florida, and that cost was out of our pocket. We also had to maintain our home in Paw Paw. So the money didn’t go far.

I did winery work in the winter, so I got home from the baseball season in October and blended wine or grape juice during the winter.

Spring training was six weeks. It took a week to get the soreness out. Another three weeks to get in shape. The last two weeks were a drag.

Every player had to make all the road trips and play every day. For an away game, we would leave at 6 in the morning and get back at 9 at night. That included two or three hours on a chartered Greyhound bus on two-lane roads.

In those days, we didn’t interact with the fans like they do today. There were no throwing balls in the stands. That came in the 1990s, after the strike, when baseball knew it had to get fans back.

I was friends with Ted Williams; we had lockers next to each other. He taught me how to play the wall (the famous Green Monster in left field at Boston’s Fenway Park). When we were ahead, Ted would tell the coach to put me in the game. I threw left-handed and used to pitch batting practice to Ted so he could hit with a southpaw on the mound.

1955 and 1956 were my best years with Detroit. They called me “Sunday Punch” because I hit a lot of home runs on Sunday.