Spring Training workouts in baseball are an event for fans unrivaled across sports. Yes, of course you can buy tickets to see pre-season games in other sports, but nowhere else can you become a fly on the wall and get the opportunity to see the behind the scenes work done by your favorite players. For free.
If you get to Joker Marchant Stadium early enough, you find yourself in the position to greet the players and coaches as they head to the practice field for warm-ups. Most are genial and flash a smile and a wave. You might even get a “Good Morning” if you address a player by name. Of course some players are unapologetic hams(*ahem Torii Hunter ahem*) and cannot resist any opportunity to entertain, whether on the field or just walking towards it. Earlier this week, Justin Verlander was given a Happy Birthday serenade by the multitude of fans waiting to watch their favorite Tigers stream by. This is, without a doubt, extremely cool. It creates a certain camaraderie and bond between the Tigers Faithful and the stars we live and breathe for. As I said, it’s a really amazing experience, but it doesn’t hold a candle to watching the boys of summer get down to business.
Going to watch a Spring Training workout, you see, first hand, Kenny Rogers accompany Drew Smyly to the mound a good twenty minutes ahead of the rest of the squad to work on his delivery. You giggle at the warm-up drills the players do, watching them bounce on their toes and flit side to side between little orange cones while pinwheeling their arms wildly. And then the real fun starts.
You follow the squads as they split up, different positions working on different pitching, fielding and batting issues. I was lucky enough to be at the right practice field to watch the pitchers, catchers and infielders work together on holding and throwing out base runners. I won’t pretend to know all the drills prescribed by Jim Leyland over the last eight seasons, but I do know what I saw Friday and how the players performed the tasks asked of them.
While there was lighthearted banter and the guys were undoubtedly having fun(at one point Hunter was playing the base runner and said to Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who were rotating at first base, “Don’t y’all act like athletes now, act like first basemen!”), the drill was not a joke. It was heartening to see the Tigers working so steadfastly at a part of the game that was woefully lacking last season. It was also great to see Nick Castellanos looking solid, working hard and making good plays followed by solid throws to first base, though I can’t say I was disappointed when he air-mailed a single throw to Cabrera, and Miggy jumped(!!!) with ease, his arm fully extended, to make the catch.
By all appearances, this squad is hungry for another chance to make Detroit’s World Series dreams come true. They’re working hard, from the non-roster invitees to the multi-million dollar contract holders, embracing the new leadership and culture, participating in the drills tasked to them with elan. Striving to be better than what they have been. Taking the right steps and going back to the basics so that when the time comes and a game is on the line, they’re ready to strike, not strike out.