The last time Tigers manager A.J. Hinch reported to Lakeland, Fla., for Spring Training, he was being traded. He was greeted by Tigers official Al Avila back then, too.
Hinch was actually in camp with the Indians, who back in 2003 trained minutes away in Winter Haven and faced the Tigers a handful of times each spring.
“My memory of Lakeland,” Hinch said, “is I was actually in the ballpark when [then-GM] Dave [Dombrowski] and Al traded for me. I was with the Indians in Spring Training that year and we were over here playing, so I was coming from the bullpen, walking to the visiting clubhouse. So the area I remember is right in front of the Minor League clubhouse when the Indians traded me. And ironically, Al met me downstairs to tell me I had gotten traded to Detroit.”
Back then, Avila was an assistant GM, and Dombrowski put him in charge of Minor League moves and rosters. The Tigers needed catching depth. Cleveland had too many catchers — including a prospect named Victor Martinez — so the club traded Hinch to its division rival for cash.
“I really didn’t get traded to Detroit,” Hinch continued. “I got traded to Toledo. I had to go from here in Spring Training to meet the Triple-A team in Toledo. I didn’t break [camp] with the big league club, so I never had Spring Training here.”
With all the renovations around Tigertown in recent years, the spot where Avila met Hinch to tell him he had become a Tiger — or a Mud Hen — is just steps from what is now Hinch’s office 18 years later. But Hinch might as well be a world away.
With all that has happened, even Hinch’s last Spring Training as Astros manager two years ago might feel like another time compared to his first day in uniform as Tigers manager on Wednesday.
“There’s a certain excitement that comes with that,” Hinch said. “On the personal level, this matters to me. This position matters to me. This organization has given me another opportunity. It matters to me, and I’m going to take the time and the opportunity to let everybody know it. I did that in our coaches meeting. I’m going to in the pitcher-catcher meeting. I’m going to [for] the full squad.
“I’ll let everybody know how important it is to stand in front of a team and be the manager, be the voice and also be the leader that I feel like I can be. I hated being out of the game last year. I understand why, and I’m not going to take it for granted that I get to put on a Major League uniform again and lead a group of guys throughout the season.”
The message resonated with Tigers players.
“The first thing that jumps off the page is how great of a communicator [Hinch] is,” left-hander Matthew Boyd said. “You can tell it’s a strong suit, and that gets everyone pulling the rope in the same direction. Everyone knows what’s expected. Everyone knows what to do out there, and I think that’s an amazing attribute. It’s what I heard of when talking to guys with the Astros that played for him.
“That’s really, really impressive, and I’m all for it. I’m ready to run through a brick wall for him.”
Hinch’s first task this season is leading this group through a Spring Training unlike any he or they have experienced. Detroit, like other teams, had protocols in place for part of last Spring Training before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the game. The final game anywhere last Spring Training took place at Joker Marchant Stadium on March 12.
That understandably feels like years ago compared to the scene the Tigers returned to on Wednesday.
“The scene is eerily quiet,” Hinch said Wednesday morning before the first workout. “If you guys were in here, you wouldn’t know where to go to find the guy you want to talk to, either. We’re in the Major League clubhouse, the Minor League clubhouse, the staff locker room, and I’m learning the complex as it is. But we have players all throughout the complex. …
“I have no idea how to get someone if I have to find them. I have to check with [longtime clubhouse manager Jim] Schmakel and the group to know where they’re lockering. But from the time that we get on the field, we’re going to rock and roll like a normal camp and get the work done.”
The locker setup is for social distancing, much like other changes. Most pitchers and catchers have been in town since last week, isolating for five days around intake testing. Position players will go through the same protocols before they’re allowed to report for full-squad workouts on Monday.
For similar reasons, the usual socializing that takes place in Spring Training will be tougher. Meals are scheduled and staggered, individually ordered and packaged, and eaten outside. Fortunately, Lakeland isn’t having the unseasonable cold that Michigan and other parts of the country are handling right now.
“Very organized, very structured, even down to when staff’s allowed into the clubhouse and when players are staggered in an hour,” Hinch said. “It’s unlike anything. But you feel the excitement. The excitement’s still real.”
The feeling on the field is the same. That will never change, from the former backup catcher who made a pit stop in Lakeland to the manager who is restarting his career there.
“We’re excited for the opportunity that lies ahead, for the growth that lies ahead,” Boyd said. “We’re all growing in that. It was a great first day, and we’re already looking forward to tomorrow.”