Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day was perfect: An amazing comeback following a touching tribute

Detroit Free Press

After the pregame party wrapped around Comerica Park — the first sellout since 2019 — heck yeah, baseball is back!

In the midst of all the excitement about Detroit Tigers Opening Day — there were tailgates and dancing and singing and hot dogs and smiles.

Yes, there were plenty of ear-to-ear smiles, even on a cold, grey day, as the Tigers came from behind with a 5-4 victory on Friday afternoon against the Chicago White Sox.

Before all the familiar sights and sounds returned: “Let’s go Tigers! Let’s go Tigers!”

And some new ones began: “Javy! Javy! Javy!”

[ Tigers fans embrace an emotional, exciting return to Comerica Park ]

Before the Tigers fought back in the eighth inning and Comerica Park seemed to come alive, as Miguel Cabrera stepped to the plate with the bases loaded, down a pair of runs, and he simply sliced a ball into right-center field. He sits just 12 away from 3,000 in his career.

Before Mr. Clutch returned — the hometown kid from Westland who seems to have an endless supply of magic — and Eric Haase homered to left as the Tigers kept fighting back.

“It’s what we encapsulate in this clubhouse,” Haase said. “We are never out of it.”

Nope, not when Austin Meadows, the new guy from Florida, who might still need to buy a big thick coat, blasted a triple on a cold day.

“For us to do that, to fight to the end, was huge!” Meadows said.

MORE FROM SEIDEL: Javier Baez has flair, amazing plays — and deep grief from childhood

And then here came Javier Baez — this walking bolt of electricity with the orange cleats, the big offseason signing — and he hit a rocket off the wall to win it. It didn’t matter that it took a video reversal and the celebration was delayed. This was huge. This was electric. And this says so much about this team — the fight and resolve.

Because it took all of them to win this.

Newcomers and beginners.

“I’ll tell you, there is going to be a lot of games like this,” Baez said. “There are a lot of young guys here. We are going to get hot in the game and make adjustments in the game and things like this are going to happy.”

Yeah, Tigers fans will take that.

“What a game for us, so much good, some lag at the beginning, but it all ends well — and welcome to Detroit, Javy Baez!” Hinch said. “When Javy hits it, electric things happen.”

MORE FROM SEIDEL: AJ Hinch is already working wonders with the Tigers. His players list the reasons

A day of joy … and tears

It was a day of beginnings and nerves.

“I thought I was going to forget how to run,” Spencer Torkelson said about his nerves in his MLB debut, which didn’t include a hit but featured plenty of defensive gems at first base.

“We don’t win this game without Tork’s defense,” Hinch said.

It was a day of returns.

Haase has a weird knack for this stuff.

“Once I got the ball in the air, I knew it was going to be gone,” Haase said. “I almost lost my helmet, probably shot my bow over the stands.”

[ Jack White delivers searing national anthem at Tigers’ Opening Day ]

But it was a day of remembrance.

Before all those dramatic moments and this amazing win, the family of Kimera Bartee, the Tigers first base coach who died during the offseason, gathered on the field for a pregame ceremony.

“This means the world to the family,” Jerry Bartee, Kimera’s father, said. “It brings some closure.”

Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch flew in 12 members of the Bartee family from around the country and they all wore Tigers jerseys.

“For the Tigers to recognize him on Opening Day — I mean Opening Day is a national holiday — it speaks volumes,” Jerry Bartee said.

Kimera Bartee, who also played for the Tigers from 1996-99, died in December at the age of 49 from a brain tumor. The death was stunning because he had showed no symptoms and it left a tremendous hole in this organization. The Tigers will wear a patch on their right shoulder honoring him all season.

A few minutes later, Josh Harrison, a Chicago White Sox second baseman, approached the family. Bartee was a coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates when Harrison played there. He wrapped his arms around Jerry Bartee

“He meant the world to me, Mr. Bartee and so do you,” Harrison said.

Harrison broke down with emotions and he wiped tears from his eyes. Harrison and Jerry Bartee got to know each other during father-son trips with the Pirates.

“We all became family,” Jerry said.

After the pomp and circumstance of player introductions, the Tigers played a video tribute to Bartee.

“My dad always told me, this is a baseball house, you either play baseball or you get out of the house,’” Kimera Bartee said in the video. “It wasn’t just a game. It was about the relationships, the family, the fraternity.”

Maybe, that’s why this day meant so much. To see Comerica Park filled again.

Baseball is about relationships, and you can feel the relationships building in this Tigers clubhouse.

[ Michael Pineda off to good start at Triple-A Toledo; more injury updates ]

“It was not just in-between those two foul poles,” Bartee said in the video. “It was about what happens, and the families, and the people and the relationships we develop outside.”

Yes, you could subtly see that in this game. How this clubhouse has meshed together already.

General manager Al Avila presented the Bartee family with the first base bag that was used in Bartee’s final game and Tigers manager AJ Hinch presented the family with the hat Bartee wore in his final game.

“He’ll always be with us,” Hinch said. “His locker is intact. He’s a part of this coaching staff and spirit and we miss him. You know, I think I’m proud of the coaching staff that we have. I think it’s one of the best that I’ve had in my managerial career. But there’s a void in our heart.”

The perfect start

One thing is certain.

Too much will be made of this one game.

Baseball is like that. There is always an overreaction to this first game. But I don’t think you can overreact here.

This game revealed this team’s DNA. And make no mistake, Bartee is part of that DNA. That’s why they had the ceremony and are wearing the patches.

Which brings us to another amazing moment that happened on Friday. Amari Bartee, Kimera’s son, threw out of the ceremonial first pitch.

There was only one person who could catch it — Robbie Grossman.

Hinch made sure of Grossman caught it for the symbolism — I swear Hinch thinks 10 steps ahead.

When Grossman was drafted by the Pirates out of high school, Bartee made a huge impact on him.

“He meant so much to my career early on,” Grossman said in the video. “And he guided so many young men’s lives in the right direction. I still think about it when I come off the field.”

And on Friday afternoon, the Tigers came off the field with a stunning, dramatic victory.

Throwing water. Smiling.

Growing closer. Developing that fraternity, as Bartee said.

What a day.

MORE FROM SEIDEL: The window is open for the Tigers. Why they must step through it right now

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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