Detroit Tigers bring back some normalcy: Chilly fans on Opening Day; Miguel Cabrera shining

Detroit Free Press

It was like a voice coming from inside a snow globe.

“Hit a home run!” a soft, tender voice yelled.

Snow swirled through Comerica Park, as the Detroit Tigers played the Cleveland Indians on Thursday afternoon on Opening Day. The wind chill was somewhere between freakin’ cold and break out the ice-fishing gear.

And there was Karlos Marr, a 5-year-old from Detroit, standing on the concourse down the third-base line, looking down at right field.

“Hit a home run, Miggy!” Marr shouted again.

About 5 seconds later Miguel Cabrera did just that, crushing a homer through the snow and the ball landed about 50 feet from where Karlos was standing — I mean — now, he was jumping up and down with pure joy, like a small figure let loose inside a snow globe.

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“Yeah!” Karlos screamed. He unzipped his winter coat and was wearing a Cabrera jersey.

It was snowing so hard that Cabrera didn’t now he had hit a home run and he slide into second base. “It was a good slide, too!” he said, with a laugh after the Tigers 3-2 victory.

Yes, it was that kind of day at Comerica Park.

Jump up and down. Huddle under a blanket. Let out a laugh.

Didn’t matter.

Baseball was back.

So were the fans.

“It was awesome!” Cabrera said.

A surreal opening ceremony

The crowd was announced at 8,000 — a sellout under the 20% capacity rules — and it was the first time fans have seen the Tigers in Detroit since 2019.

Just seeing people in the ballpark was uplifting after a year of social distancing and isolation.

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Before the game, the Tigers held a touching, emotional ceremony. Pictures of dozens of people who were lost to COVID-19 flashed on the scoreboard and many were wearing Tigers jerseys.

At the end, all of the pictures appeared at one time in small boxes — I counted more than 100. There were so many faces, so much loss, that it was incredibly profound.

It’s one thing to see the stats. It’s another to see the faces.

Then, Angela Davis, a teacher in the Wayne Westland Community Schools district and a front-line worker, sang “Amazing Grace.”

At that moment, this became more than a baseball game. It felt like a universal acknowledgement for all the loss and grief. An acknowledgement of how hard this has been.

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It felt like a giant community memorial.

But this game was also something else.

A small step toward normalcy.

“Welcome back,” relief pitcher Buck Farmer said to the crowd.

Everybody was standing.

“We just want to take the time, on behalf of my teammates and the organization, to thank those heroes on the front line, who have gotten us here to this point,” Farmer said. “We tip our cap to them. Also, we want to welcome you all back to watch us play. We thank y’all for the love and support that you always show us. We want to get this season started off right. Go Tigers!”

Beyond cool.

Inching back to normal

Even though fans were practicing social distance in the stands, some things looked so familiar.

There was a long line at the beer stand — never thought I’d be so happy to see a line for beer.

And before the first pitch, some fans started chanting: “Let’s go Tigers!”

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It felt like old times. But it wasn’t of course.

The crowd was masked up — for the most part. Even Paws, the Tigers’ mascot, wore a mask. Best sign that I found: “WE CAN’T MASK OUR EXCITEMENT FOR OPENING DAY!”

A mask was taped in the middle of it of course.

Nice.

A new brand of baseball

Oh yeah, the game.

This figured to be a tough test for the Tigers.

And not just because of the cold.

The Tigers were facing Cleveland pitcher Shane Bieber, who lost just one game last year during the regular season and won the Cy Young Award.

But Cabrera had no trouble against him, smacking a 92.8-mph fastball some 349 feet.

“Fortunately for us, we did throw the first punch,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “Against a high-caliber pitcher like him is very key.”

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Hinch’s influence could be seen throughout the game.

Victor Reyes struck out but the ball got loose so he ended up on first base. After a JaCoby Jones double, third base coach Chip Hale waved Reyes home.

That is the center of Hinch’s philosophy: Put pressure on the defense.

Reyes scored and after an error, Jones wound up on third.

“I love it in cold weather the way that played out,” Hinch said.

This is the new Tigers philosophy. Be aggressive. Because this team doesn’t figure to score a lot of runs.

And doing it in a snow globe is even harder.

“Nobody was really moving great today on either side,” Hinch said. “I mean we’re all wearing 10 layers of clothes.”

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For all the talk about high-tech analysis and new-school baseball, the Tigers relied on an old tactic to win this one: fantastic pitching and great defense.

Cabrera, who was playing first base again, made a diving play in the fourth inning, saving a run.

“He makes the diving play and the crowd starts yelling,” Hinch said. “He’s part of our energy creation in the dugout and on the field.”

Jones also made a great defensive play. He got a great jump in center and made a fine running catch. That, too, was a reflection of Hinch’s focus on details. During spring training, the coaching staff put a big emphasis on being more prepared in the outfield — Jones specifically. They worked on him moving before the pitch, to be more prepared.

“That was as perfect a route as you can have — he went a really long way,” Hinch said. “He played it perfectly and it paid off as a pivotal out, obviously.”

As far as the pitching, starter Matt Boyd was fantastic. He went 5⅔ innings, giving up three hits and walking four with no runs.

“With Boyd cruising early, was super aggressive, pitched around a few walks, nibbled a little bit in the middle of his outing and he was still really strong,” Hinch said.

The bullpen closed out the game.

And the Tigers had the win.

“It’s not great weather,” Hinch said. “We’re all freezing cold. BP was cold. The wind would gust snow and it was almost kind of laughable for everybody that we were, you know, playing baseball in an environment like that.”

But they did play. And fans showed up, as many as possible. And the cold didn’t matter. The snow didn’t matter. All that mattered was seeing people together again. Just getting out of the house.

Just feeling normal again.

To repeat the words of that wise old philosopher, a first baseman named Miguel Cabrera: It was awesome.

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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