Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day has greater meaning this year, not on field, but in our lives

Detroit Free Press

Nothing is back to normal. Not totally.

But we are getting closer.

You can feel the optimism. Vaccines are going into arms. Spring is here, even if there are days when it doesn’t feel like it, and the Detroit Tigers will kick off their season Thursday against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. Ironically, if not fittingly, the game will be played across the street from Ford Field, where thousands have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

There is hope. For all of us.

It’s supposed to be cold as heck Thursday afternoon but that’s Opening Day in the D, right? Only 8,200 fans will be allowed into Comerica Park, just 20% capacity, but it’s better than last season when the games featured creepy cardboard cutouts and fake noise.

“I think everybody will agree that anything is better than nothing,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “Baseball is better with fans in it — safely.”

Hinch played for the Tigers in 2003, a forgettable season that ended with a miserable 43-119 record. But Hinch remembers what it’s like in Detroit on Opening Day. “The white uniforms,” he said. “The ballpark, the excitement around the ballpark. Feels like every TV in Michigan is going to be locked in on the Tigers game that day.”

Before the pandemic, Opening Day in Detroit was an unofficial holiday — the one day a year that seemed to unite everybody. Thousands of fans flooded the streets and bars. And some of them were actually sober.

But this year, if you don’t have a ticket, everybody is being urged to stay home. Because this virus isn’t done and cases are on the rise. Just enjoy this game on TV.

“There’s a vibe that comes with Opening Day that is hard to replicate,” Hinch said. “I know it’s gonna be cold. But there’s something about Opening Day where it doesn’t matter. Rain or shine, cold, hot — a home opener on Opening Day is something special.”

MORE FROM SEIDEL: A lighthearted look at the Tigers with help from Abbott and Costello

About to turn the corner?

Opening Day represents a new beginning, a fresh start. And nobody embodies that more than Akil Baddoo, a 22-year-old rookie who made this team because he played extraordinary in spring training. A Rule 5 draft pick from the Minnesota Twins, Baddoo is making a massive jump from High-A ball to the major leagues.

“I’m so thankful for the opportunity,” Baddoo said. “I’m just glad I’m finally here in Detroit. The city is beautiful, so I’m enjoying it so far.”

MORE FROM SEIDEL: Akil Baddoo was surprise of spring for the Tigers. It was a no brainer to keep him.

Baddoo was grinning ear to ear.

“It’s surreal,” Baddoo said. “All praise to the man upstairs.”

So what can you expect from the Tigers?

This team has improved significantly since the last time Tigers fans saw this team in person. Back in 2019, the Tigers were selling off everything that wasn’t nailed down, trading away players and finished with a 47-114 record.

But now, expectations are starting to rise. A little.

[ Here’s what Tigers fans can expect when they attend Comerica Park ]

This team is certainly not a contender. But it’s not horrible anymore, either. It is a work in progress, like a half-baked cake that still needs some more time in the oven. Most believe this team will win about 70 games, an improvement from last year, but still far from the playoffs.

“We are not going to listen to outside noise,” Hinch said. “I have my own (expectations) of winning today. I know that sounds like coach speak and cliché but you are going to have to deal with it, too.”

Hinch is stressing winning ways before the Tigers have a realistic shot at consistently winning. And it makes sense. He is trying to set a culture before all of the prospects arrive.

[ Tigers’ rebuild is far from done, but Hinch is here to breed winning culture ]

Hinch is an interesting manager. He’s smart as heck and as aggressive as an upset rattlesnake. He wants his guys stealing bases, playing aggressive defense, shooting down runners at the plate and his pitchers attacking the strike zone.

On the other side, he wants his batters doing “damage.”

“He is a real good communicator not only with his players but with his staff and obviously the front office,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said. “He knows how to get the most out of the players.”

[ Tigers 2021 predictions: Here’s why we like the over on their wins (barely) ]

The year of the Tiger

Some faces will look familiar.

Miguel Cabrera will start at first base — at least on Opening Day. This will be his 14th season playing for the Tigers and he is within striking distance of some major milestones, just 13 home runs shy of 500 and 134 hits from 3,000. That will be a story line all season. If he stays healthy, he should have a shot at both.

But the other big story is the newcomers. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, two of the Tigers’ top prospects, have both earned spots in the starting rotation. And that is huge evidence this rebuild is entering a new phase. They are the foundation of the future. The Tigers’ 26-man Opening Day roster features eight players who are 26 or younger.

“We have to establish our pitching,” Avila said. “We’ve got to get that right.”

Yes, that’s pure baseball talk.

In the middle of a pandemic.

And it’s almost impossible to separate the two things.

The Tigers hope to get their vaccines during this first home stand. And as more people across the state get vaccinated, there will be a greater chance of filling Comerica Park.

“I know for a fact our fans are going to be safe,” Avila said. “They’re going to enjoy it. Our players are going to be safe and they’re going to enjoy it and we’re all looking forward to and hopeful that we can get back to a full capacity at some point down the road.”

He’s talking about more than a full stadium.

He’s talking about taking small steps to try to get things back to normal. All the way back.

And after a year of isolation and social distancing, that’s what this Opening Day is all about.

A wonderful, needed fresh start.

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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