Detroit — It’s not normal, not yet. But oh yes, baseball as we know it is on its way back.
This was the start of the slow unveiling, a comforting mix of nostalgia and newness. What could be more normal than snow flurries on the Tigers’ Opening Day? What could be more nostalgic than Miguel Cabrera returning to first base and reprising his slugging ways, poking a first-inning home run, the 488th of his career?
The boys were back and so were the fans, an Opening Day unlike any other, and yet vaguely familiar. The announced attendance was exactly 8,000, a sellout by the reduced capacity standards. A traditional day of optimism and renewal held a deeper meaning Thursday, and the celebratory mood lasted from the opening pitch to the final out, as the fans made noise beyond their numbers.
Frankly, the most abnormal development probably was the final score. The Tigers beat long-time nemesis Cleveland 3-2, as Matthew Boyd outdueled the Indians’ reigning Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. Boyd flashed his past form, allowing only three hits, and when he left the mound in the sixth inning, pulled by new manager A.J. Hinch, he was greeted by the first standing ovation at Comerica Park in 18 months.
After major-league baseball’s fan-less, shortened COVID season, this was a glance back and a look ahead. There were chills, and not just because of the 32-degree temperature. Detroit singer Angela Davis sang “Amazing Grace” before the game as images of COVID victims flashed on the video screen. Just beyond the scoreboard stood imposing Ford Field, where thousands of vaccinations are being administered daily.
There was drama, from Cabrera’s early home run to a ninth-inning rally by the Indians that made things tight. Roberto Perez’s two-run homer sliced the Tigers’ lead to one before reliever Gregory Soto closed it out.
This was not a day to scrutinize the stages of the Tigers’ ongoing rebuild. The roster is full of young guys and new guys and a touted new manager. Cabrera, 37, is chasing milestones and trying to outrun time, after an offseason working desperately to regain form. He campaigned to play first base instead of being the everyday designated hitter, and he’s a much happier man when he does.
Absence of cheers
Maybe the joy is more pronounced because of the absence of cheers for more than a year. This was not your standard Opening Day Detroit holiday, but it was appropriately festive. The traffic was light. The streets and parking lots weren’t packed with tailgaters, per a request from the city. In the stands, fans huddled under blankets, distanced from each other. A cynic would say it didn’t look much different than a sparse crowd in a losing season. An optimist would say it was the first wondrous sign of renewal.
When Cabrera hit his home run, the ball flew through the swirling snow and seemingly disappeared. Cabrera wasn’t sure it had cleared the right field fence so he slid into second base, then bounced up when the umps gave the call.
After life in a bubble, an afternoon in a snowglobe wasn’t so bad.
“It was awesome to be able to come back and have fans in the stadium,” Cabrera said. “There was a lot of energy. I was excited. It was a special day for us and everybody.”
He laughed when asked what it was like to hear the fans again, and with the ballpark only 20% full, the players heard plenty. Poor Bieber was verbally assaulted by one cluster of patrons who apparently found their way through the shorter beer lines.
Everything was amplified, even to a comedic level. Between each inning, Cabrera jogged back to the dugout and heard the pleas.
“’Miggy, Miggy, throw me the ball!’” said Cabrera, before unleashing a burst of laughter that was good to see. The Tigers are a much-easier watch when Cabrera is productive and boisterous. If they’re going to be an improved team, they’ll need outings like this from Boyd, who’s trying to regain top-of-the-rotation status.
This was a renewal too for Hinch, the former Houston manager who served a one-year suspension and already has endeared himself to Tigers players and management. He has harped on attention to the smallest details, and in a one-game snapshot, it was evident.
JaCoby Jones took excellent routes in center field to chase down line drives. Victor Reyes alertly reached first base on a strikeout after the ball escaped the catcher, and later in the inning, he raced around third and narrowly scored, well-timed aggressiveness.
But the centerpiece was Cabrera, who is much more engaged when he plays in the field, and Hinch rightly recognized it. Cabrera won’t play first base every day to avoid injury, but he used the possibility as motivation. He was an underrated first baseman before injuries began to wrack his body, and he flashed the old glove in the fourth inning, diving to snag a grounder and likely saving a run.
“Miggy is part of our energy creation in the dugout and on the field,” Hinch said. “He’s a real player. He still loves to play; watch how he’s into it between pitches. It’s fun to watch Miggy play the game, and he plays the game in its entirety.”
Cabrera hit 10 home runs in the stunted season last year, and he now needs 12 more to reach the coveted 500 milestone. He also needs 133 hits to reach 3,000, numbers that merely confirm his Hall of Fame status. Chasing history is part of baseball lore, and the hunt is back on.
The next step toward normalcy is handling the day-to-day grind of a long season, without any guarantee the crowds will be allowed to grow, or COVID issues will fade away. It won’t be easy to recapture the vibe of Opening Day, but after all the uncertainty in all those empty stadiums, this was how it had to start.
“It felt like a packed house today because of last year,” Boyd said. “You could just feel the energy and buzz all around the park driving in.”
A jolt from Cabrera, some hope from Boyd and plenty of noise for the final out. As revivals go, it was a fine, fun way to start.