Jeff Seidel | Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. – Miguel Cabrera was in rare form.
“Iiii-eee!” he screamed after an infield drill.
Allow me to make a rough translation: Look at the weather, it’s freakin’ perfect. A warm steady breeze, bright blue skies, 80 degrees and big, puffy, lazy clouds dotted the sky. Oh, and one other thing, something significant, baseball is back!
EARLY OBSERVATIONS: Tigers spring training, first full-squad workout
Cabrera was loud, happy and boisterous, which summed up the mood around Tiger Town on Monday morning, as the Tigers went through their first full-squad practice, although calling it a “full-squad” practice was misleading because several players were missing because they haven’t cleared COVID-19 protocols.
“Iiii-eeeee!” Cabrera screamed again.
Rough translation: Wasn’t I clear enough already? Yeah baby!
So, while some things sounded the same — Miggy being happy and vocal in spring training — everything else certainly looked different.
AJ Hinch, the new Tigers manager, and his coaches shouted instructions while wearing masks because of COVID-19 protocols. Reporters were kept in a holding pen behind a yellow rope to keep them away from the players. And everything felt disjointed and distant.
In normal times, Tigers used to walk through groups of fans who lined a sidewalk leading from the facility to the back fields. The players would sign autographs and pose for pictures, an annual heartwarming and cool sight.
But not this year.
No fans were allowed because of MLB rules. But about a dozen stood behind the fence on the other side of Tigers property, hoping to catch a home run ball.
MORE FROM SEIDEL: 10 burning questions for Tigers ahead of the first full-squad workout
In normal times, the team would gather together on the field, in a giant circle before the first practice, and there would be talks and introductions.
My favorite sight from a few years ago: Watching Al Kaline, who is dearly missed, walk out in his uniform and introduce himself to the young players.
The players did not gather together on the field on Monday, though. They stayed in separate groups, on different fields.
But that didn’t slow down the work or the intensity for those who have been cleared to practice. Nine players, including six positional players, missed the practice because of either work visa problems or they haven’t been passed through COVID-19 quarantine.
“It was great first day to have the mostly full squad here,” Hinch said. “We had a bunch of fields going, guys flying all over the place and the intensity was really good.”
‘Winning the day’
Hinch gave a team speech, hoping to set a new tone.
“It’s a mindset of winning,” Hinch said.
Stop it. Don’t laugh. I know this team hasn’t had a winning record since 2016. And it probably won’t this year, either.
Rebuilds can be painful to watch. Because it feels like they never end.
But Hinch is trying to create a new culture, setting the foundation for when this team is good again.
“Winning the day,” outfielder Robbie Grossman said. “I think that’s lost a lot in everyday life. It’s just win every moment, win every second that you can and continue to grow as who you are, and as a player and as a person.”
Grossman played in Houston in 2015 when Hinch took over as the Astros’ manager.
“AJ had a great intro meeting today,” Grossman said. “He’s the best communicator I’ve been around in this game. He can communicate with guys. He can relate to guys. He knows how to talk to people and get the best out of them.”
A pat on the back
This training camp has an interesting mix of veterans and youth. It is like the past and future are bumping into each other at once — like a COVID-19 fist bump — while remaining socially distant, of course.
On one field, there was Cabrera, a future Hall of Famer, entering his 19th season, jacking a home run during batting practice.
On another field, Spencer Torkelson, a 2020 first-round pick, did the same thing.
If it’s possible to pass a torch from one generation of players to the next — it hasn’t happened yet for the Tigers — you can sense that day coming closer.
All you have to do is look at how many prospects are in this camp.
“I heard (Torkelson) laid out nicely for us in one of the drills and made a nice catch,” Hinch said.
My first impression of this coaching staff: They work hard and demand doing the little things right but they offer a steady dose of positive reinforcement.
Grossman ran for a ball and caught it.
“That-a-way Robbie!” a coach yelled.
A coach hit a ball toward Riley Greene, the Tigers’ 2019 first-round draft pick.
“I like it!” a coach yelled.
Outfielder Christin Stewart charged a ball and threw it.
“Perfect!” a coach yelled.
That is not to suggest this coaching staff is making it easy on these guys.
But I heard a lot of encouragement on Monday morning. At least, what I could hear.
From behind a fence.
At the other end of the complex, pitchers threw bullpens.
And we had our first Franklin Perez sighting.
Perez has been fighting through injuries since being traded to the Tigers in the Justin Verlander deal four years ago.
“I did hear that things went well,” Hinch said. “Just getting him on the mound is really key. And, you know, I know his history, you know, both the good and the frustrating struggles of staying healthy here. the stuff is real when he when he’s healthy, can get a lot of guys out when when you you know when you’re when you’re not when you’re hurt.”
Time to get to work
In many ways, the Tigers are still trying to get a feel for Hinch.
But he has received glowing, early reviews.
“I’ve been really excited to see his face,” infielder Jeimer Candelario said. “He likes to communicate with the players. Really exciting for me for the team.”
Hinch was hands-on. He ran some infield drills, going over bunt coverages, while wearing a mask with the No.14 on the side.
“Look, I think it’s important that we get all these firsts out of the way for me and the players and really just get to work,” Hinch said. “Stop talking about it and get to the baseball.”
So that’s what they did on Monday.
They stopped talking — through masks, of course — and got to the baseball.
In the words of a future Hall of Famer: ““Iiii-eee!”