For many sports fans in Detroit, one of the annual rites of spring is attending the Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day at Comerica Park. It’s a communal gathering filled with cheer and hope.
I’ve always enjoyed that day, not only for the game and start of a new baseball season, but also because there’s something uplifting about seeing so many happy people who have brushed away a winter’s worth of anticipation to come together in one place and start the cycle repeated for more than 120 years around here.
But I have my own rite of spring. It starts a week earlier and it also involves a gathering of happy people. It’s the annual “What’s New at Comerica Park” media event the team hosts every year at the Tiger Club at the ballpark.
The Tigers do a great job of showcasing their new souvenirs and promotions in a trade-show style presentation that lets reporters interview staff members about all the options. It’s also serves as an informal reunion for Detroit media to see each other after a long winter.
That part was especially meaningful this year because the pandemic prevented the Tigers from hosting the event the past two years.
Even driving through flurries Friday morning on my way to the ballpark, and seeing the incongruous act of maintenance workers planting flowers near the entrances, I was excited to be back, see my pals and check out the Tigers’ new offerings.
So, what’s new? Plenty.
Highlights include the retirement Aug. 6 retirement of Lou Whitaker’s No. 1 jersey. Fireworks return, starting the last weekend in May. And there are some sweet giveaways: a “Pink Out the Park” anti-cancer hoodie May 13 vs. Baltimore, a Miguel Cabrera 500 homer-themed figurine June 10 vs. Toronto, and a “¡Fiesta Tigres!” hat Aug. 19 vs. the Angels, who I hear have a pretty good pitcher who can hit.
But the star of the “What’s New” showcase is always the food, and all the wild and fun concoctions executive chef Mark Szubeczak and his team come up with. This year, the theme of the new offerings is numerous variations of the pasty, Michiganders’ beloved meat pie that rhymes with nasty, though it’s anything but.
“We have a fun play on a pasty,” Szubeczak said. “We’re in Michigan, so we try to play it local. So we took the original pasty and put our own spin on it.
“We’re stuffing it with an apple pie pasties, we’re doing a mac ‘n cheese with smoked meats in them. And then we have a coney pasty, so there’s a coney dog in it.”
Szubeczak’s favorite? The apple pie pasty. Yep, it’s darn good. We all have our favorites, but since this is my list, I’ll go first, rating the offerings on a baseball-themed scale.
The Notorious P.I.G.
OK, how can you not love this sandwich based on the name alone? It has smoked pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, onion straws and pickled jalapenos drizzled with barbecue sauce on a sweet Hawaiian roll.
I sat with Free Press food writer Sue Selasky as we munched and crunched our way through the sandwich. “It tastes like something you shouldn’t eat,” Sue said of the Caligula-levels of decadence. P.I.G. indeed.
The subtle inspired touch that makes this sandwich stand out is the jalapeno, which adds a tinge of heat and also a surprising hint of sweetness. This is the one offering you must try.
Verdict: Home run.
Apple pie pasty
My podcast partner, Shawn Windsor, stopped by to try out the food and I had to get his take on the apple pie pasty. He liked it and compared it to a McDonald’s apple pie. Shawn’s clearly been living so high on the hog in his many Freep-funded travels that all that Dom Perignon and Beluga caviar has dulled his common-man tastes and kept him from discerning the difference in the two apple desserts.
I like McDonald’s pies, too. But they can be a little too sweet and skimpy on the apples. The apple pie pasty isn’t as sweet and has thick slabs of apple slices that are punctuated with a strong punch of cinnamon. Szubeczak said there will also be a cherry pasty at some point.
Verdict: Home run.
Brisket and mac ‘n cheese pasty
I told you: Pasty-themed. This one isn’t far behind the Notorious P.I.G. in the decadence race. The flaky crust is stuffed with hatch-pepper-and-chili-queso mac n’ cheese with smoked beef brisket. It’s a cheesy, gooey, meaty mess in all the right ways. The only thing that keeps it from being a round-tripper on my rating scale is hiding a great meat such as brisket in all that cheese.
Fat Rooster chicken sandwich
This was one of Sue’s favorites and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a spicy fried chicken sandwich with house-made pickles, slaw and honey mayonnaise on a Hawaiian roll. Really nice blend of flavors and textures. Full disclosure: I’m not much of a spicy chicken sandwich guy. I think it’s been played out. But hey, if this is what the people want…
Verdict: Stand-up double.
It’s essentially a pierogi stuffed inside a pasty with cheddar, potato, grilled smoked sausage and sauerkraut inside a flaky crust. The brininess of the sauerkraut brightens and lightens the whole thing, but the sausage seems a little out of place. Good but a little confusing.
Fresh Italian sausage
Here’s another disclosure. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles eating Dodger Dogs, the normal Italian sausage sandwich at Comerica is my all-time favorite food in any ballpark. So I wondered why Szubeczak would mess with perfection.
The only thing different about this offering is the addition of marinara. “That’s traditionally in New York what they do,” Szubeczak explained. Really? We’re copying the city that brought us Pizza Rat and pan-handling Elmos in Times Square? But Szubeczak was right. The marinara — sorry, “gravy” for all you Noo Yawkuhs — doesn’t hurt one bit and adds a saucy richness to the meal.
It’s a good attempt, but the coney doesn’t quite translate to the pasty the same way it did with the fabulous coney dog pizza for its 2017 debut. To be fair, we only got small sample plates and I don’t think my pasty had enough coney sauce on it, which could have made a difference. I probably should have grabbed another plate to be sure.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.