Detroit Tigers open weirdest spring training ever with no fans in ‘eerily quiet’ Lakeland

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — I turned right onto Al Kaline Drive and headed toward bizzaro-world, the strangest start to a spring training I’ve ever seen.

A morning rain left puddles in the parking lot outside Joker Marchant Stadium, and a dreary sky looked like a wet, grey blanket hanging from the horizon.

Detroit Tigers pitchers and catchers reported to training camp on Wednesday, a day that normally brings excitement and buzz. The first glimpse of spring.

But everything looked and felt different on this morning.

[ Tigers observations on Day 1: How Tarik Skubal looked in front of AJ Hinch ]

The usually cramped Tigers clubhouse was replaced with strict social distancing, as the pitchers and catchers were spread throughout the entire complex because of COVID-19 protocols.

“If you guys were in here, number one, you wouldn’t know where to go to find the guy you want to talk to you,” new Tigers manager AJ Hinch said on a Zoom call with the media, which isn’t allowed to enter the facility until the first official full-team practice on Monday according to MLB rules. “We have players all throughout the complex.”

Normally, there is an unmistakable excitement in the clubhouse on this day, as the pitchers and catchers mingle with position players who have arrived early. There are usually hugs and smiles and everyone is happy when you are undefeated and haven’t suffered through a slump.

But that didn’t happen on Wednesday.

WAIT ONE MORE YEAR: Why the Tigers’ plan to ‘add more’ for 2022 risks pushing rebuild into 2024

“Position players aren’t allowed in here until they pass their intake testing and they have  their quarantine,” Hinch said.

The smiles and excitement were covered by masks, and the usual buzz was replaced with a strange silence.

“It’s entirely different, this scene is eerily quiet,” Hinch said.

Hinch and his new coaching staff have done extensive researching, learning about the Tigers. They have seen video and studied reports and made detailed plans about what they want to accomplish this spring.

But that has not prepared them, or made it any easier, when one of the players walked by wearing a mask.

Wait a minute, who is that?

“I need to get them out on the field because meeting them with the mask on is really hard,” Hinch said. “You know, it’s like I find myself asking guys, ‘Who’s that?’ as they walk by. But Buck Farmer, I’m not going to confuse for anybody. He’s got the nice rockin’ red beard going, you know?”

Sneaking a peek

I drove toward the stadium. A security guard stood at the entrance to the lot where the Tigers park their cars. The media is not allowed into the Tigers facility, not until the team holds its first workout on Monday.

[ What AJ Hinch wants to see in the Tigers’ young catchers ]

So I winged it. I took a chance and hoped to be able to see something. From afar.

I turned onto Willie Horton Way and glanced to my right — Publix Field was empty — and then drove around the back of Tiger Town.

The backfields were still empty — Hinch was holding a pitchers and catchers meeting.

“It was invigorating,” pitcher Matthew Boyd said later. “I was ready to run through a brick wall for him.”

Sights for sore eyes

Behind the back fields, I parked my car at a park across from Tiger Town and walked to the field, careful to stay on the other side of the road.

I didn’t want to violate any of the MLB rules.

Music was playing. And I grabbed a pair of binoculars.

I’ve covered Tigers spring training for nearly a decade, missing only a few times when I was at the Winter Olympics. And this was the first time that I have ever gone behind the back fields. I didn’t even realize there was a road back there.

But now, I was standing on a sidewalk across the road — making sure to stay off Tigers property — and several Tigers appeared on the back fields for some fielding practice.

Daniel Norris was easy to spot. He had his pants legs pushed up high, showing off blue socks. He was the leader of one group, the first to take a grounder. And it struck me how he’s one of the vets on this staff.

[ ‘We Lived It’: How Daniel Norris kept in shape and sane in a pandemic ]

While he is not the oldest pitcher the Tigers have on their 40-man roster, Norris actually has the most seniority (5.07 years of service time), just a little more than Jose Urena (5.04) and Michael Fulmer (4.157).

Which tells you how young this pitching staff has become.

Casey Mize, one of those young prospects, started warming up and Boyd was stretching.

“We are excited to be playing baseball,” Boyd said later.

But in the midst of all that youth, there was a familiar face.

A Hall of Famer.

Alan Trammell was on the back fields, working with the pitchers. Of course he was, right?

MORE FROM SEIDEL: Why Trammell is sold on Spencer Torkelson: ‘No ballpark’s gonna hold Tork’

He took a spot at second base to catch some balls during drills.

“It speaks to his commitment to the Old English D and his commitment to wanting to make us a championship ball club,” Boyd said. “He was in our group, taking feeds at second base. I mean, snagging balls. Spencer Turnbull is letting balls rip and Tram is putting his nose right in it, glovin’ it. It’s cool to see him out there.”

Cool doesn’t begin to explain it.

A familiar feeling

The puddles were drying up. And music was playing.

Pitchers were doing stretches and jogging across the outfield.

Some of the catchers went through batting practice and Eric Haase jacked a home run. A Tigers employee, who stood behind the fence, came over with a bucket and scooped up the ball.

The catchers disappeared to go catch bullpens and you could feel the rhythm of spring training emerge. The slow, steady pulse.

And the longer I watched, the more it felt like a normal spring training practice.

“It was a great first day,” Boyd said.

I was not able to see the bullpens but I saw everything else from across the street.

And it looked, well, normal.

Around 11 a.m., one of the groups was done. A few minutes later, another one called it quits for the day.

So let me report, from this unusual observation post, spring training has arrived. Baseball is back. Even though it looked different.

[ Matt Manning ‘might get chance’ for MLB debut; Joey Wentz injury update ]

“We got in a full Day 1 and you know, it was a pretty fun day,” Hinch said.

After practice, it started to rain again.

Somehow, they had wedged some baseball between two rainstorms.

Which seems like the perfect metaphor for playing sports in a pandemic.

Different. Bizarre. And strangely quiet. But out on that field, it looked normal and wonderful. A jolt of summer, a blast of heat, in the midst of a nasty winter back home.

Even from across the road. Through a fence. And with the aid of some binoculars.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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