Henning: 20 reasons to celebrate the return of Major League Baseball

Detroit News

Never has better baseball news arrived.

It probably has much to do with the horror now happening in Ukraine, a hideous reality we all are trying to process and whose victims we are working to somehow assist. But that anguish spilling from eastern Europe needed whatever buffer, whatever momentary ease could be marshaled, minus any lessening of the commitment we owe those suffering from a war wrought by one man’s malice.

We got some big and good news Thursday afternoon. Baseball is back. The lockout is over. Spring training begins this weekend.

A blackout period for MLB business, which extended 99 days as a tangled and tormenting new contract was finally forged, now gives way to baseball’s brisk and happy tasks; to free-agent signings that have been backed up like construction-zone traffic; to trades that can change — at least in a hungry fan’s mind — a team’s complexion heading into these spring games and a new season; to managers being able to talk about their back-to-work players; to general managers being free to publicly size up rosters and personnel goals, all before next month’s Opening Day arrives.

This sudden baseball rebirth prompted Thursday a swirl of thoughts — and emotions.  These are my top 20 reasons to celebrate baseball being back.

► 1. Lakeland, Florida, returns as the bustling, invigorating Tigers’ home away from home. Grapefruit League games and their verve now can explode amid the sunshine and lush green grass at Marchant Stadium’s Publix Field. It is, for many of us, our annual taste of Nirvana.

► 2. Tigers manager AJ Hinch, who has been quiet along with all MLB figures who were muted during the lockout, is free to talk about … everything. About what he sees in young prize Riley Greene, who could be the Tigers center fielder on Opening Day. About another young blue-chipper, Spencer Torkelson, who soon will be busting up fences and seats with his big right-handed bat. We have missed hearing from Hinch these past 15 weeks.

More: Major League Baseball labor agreement details

► 3. The countdown to Miguel Cabrera’s 3,000th hit, officially, kicks off as a new schedule is adjusted. Thirteen hits, and Cabrera becomes part of the 3,000-hit fraternity. No player wearing a Tigers uniform has done it since Al Kaline in 1974.

► 4. The good folks who sell hot dogs and beer, who wipe off seats, who make game-day at Comerica Park and other MLB sites such a sweet experience, will not lose paydays. That, too, was a reason to feel good Thursday. Even with the lockout crimping spring camp, and delaying the regular-season calendar, no games will be lost.

► 5. Two sides settled serious business matters. Fans weren’t happy, but this was never going to be easy, this showdown over a new five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement. Each side had cases to be made that were the essence of business principle. Fans can snort, but this was a victory for business and labor, for a negotiated workplace framework. It had been 27 years since issues were this tense and this protracted. This delay was inevitable. But handshakes ruled Thursday.

► 6. Dan Dickerson returns to the Tigers radio booth and to being one of the most important broadcast presences in Detroit sports history. The audience is fortunate to have him, his work ethic, and his voice.

► 7. Colleagues who have spent the past 30 days studiously watching and chronicling every Tigers kid and prospect on those back lots in Lakeland can finally — finally — tell us what the big boys are doing.

► 8. The Tigers crowd at last will get a long and luscious look at a new shortstop, Javier Baez. Shortstop is one of baseball’s basic food groups. But it’s been a bit on the burger-and-fries end in recent years at Comerica Park. Baez is a two-way artist who might, as much as any single player can, change the tenor and tone of games for Hinch.

► 9. Free-agent shopping was to begin Thursday night with fervor not normally seen anywhere but at shopping malls on Black Friday. Scads of unsigned stars — Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager — will be bringing celebrity sizzle to these early days of heavy transactions. The Tigers already have been to the checkout lane for Baez and others, but still have a starting pitcher and probably a reliever on their list.

► 10. Folks who last season fell in love with pepper-pot rookie Akil Baddoo will be on the watch to see if Baddoo’s bountiful skills are back intact for his sophomore season with the Tigers. Tigers jersey merchandisers are likewise bracing for a heavy run on their “BADDOO” garb.

► 11. Twelve playoff teams — two more than the norm — are now set for October. For a wide swath of Tigers followers who haven’t known a playoff season since 2014, the more the merrier as the reconstructed team, which came within sneezing distance of .500 in 2021 (77-85), tries to take a bigger step in 2022. The Tigers are not yet to be confused with playoff timber, but tell that to a ravenous gang that came to love those semi-regular runs that began in 2006.

► 12. Opening Day is pushed back a bit. But for those from the north, sitting at a baseball game later in April means a little less risk of hypothermia.

► 13.  Note that baseball picks up this weekend just as Daylight Saving Time returns. More prime-time sunshine. More exhilaration. It’s a coincidence, but some of us like pairing baseball and Providence.

► 14. Baseball returning as COVID-19 begins, ever so slightly, to recede is another sequence of events that seems fair and refreshing, given what everyone’s endured the past 24 months.

► 15. Another dividend as COVID slowly loses its grip on daily life: Hinch and Tigers players no longer will be required to do Zoom-only interviews. That’s good for media and for the Tigers audience. Conversation is better and more informed, sans masks, and during interviews that don’t happen over a laptop.

► 16. Tucker Barnhart is the new Tigers catcher. He has won a couple of Gold Gloves. That means a likely end to “passed ball” being a routine part of Tigers’ fans vocabulary.

► 17. Those who love a well-pitched game can enjoy thoughts about the Tigers’ kid troika of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning bolting down Hinch’s starting rotation. They also should like Avila’s other big offseason purchase: Eduardo Rodriguez, who will provide the Tigers with a second lefty to pair with Skubal.

► 18. Those who watched the Tigers last year and steadily built a fascination with Robbie Grossman and his ability to take a walk or stroke a two-strike base hit, all while running the bases in deft fashion and playing a sturdy left field, will take heart knowing Grossman is signed through 2022.

► 19. The farm kids. There is more talent, at four levels of the Tigers’ minor-league chain, than there has been in probably 40-plus years. Watching what happens in the bushes will be as captivating for some as following the guys in Detroit.

► 20. Freedom and the way in which baseball embodies our most sacred societal blessing. We have been reunited with a game, with its pleasures, with its place in our lives and in so many hearts. We will not take you for granted, baseball, not when tonight more sobering realities remind us of our gifts — and what, on such a meager comparative level to events elsewhere in this roiling world, we were blessed to regain Thursday.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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