Friday, February 27, 2009

Kaline, Horton recall spring trainings past

        Times, and spring training, have certainly changed.
        Today, the Tiger players have their pick of fancy restaurants every night, drive expensive cars to and from Marchant Stadium and reside in nice new condos and homes, some as far away as Orlando.
        But Al Kaline remembers his first spring training in Lakeland, back in 1954. Nearly everybody on the team stayed in the “New Florida Hotel,” which was then on the edge of downtown. And even in those days, the nondescript high-rise was anything but new.
        The only TV set in the building was a little black-and-white set on a table in the small lobby. Each night, the players would argue with little ol’ gray-haired ladies over which of the three snowy channels to watch.
        “There was no air-conditioning,” recalled Kaline, then a kid of 19. “There was nothing to do except sit on the chairs out on the front porch and rock.”
        Some of the veteran Tigers with young families rented efficiencies or little cottages outside of town, along the two-lane road to Tampa.
        Most of those places were so seedy the players’ wives had to fumigate them with bug spray from top to bottom each spring  before they would allow their  kids to set foot inside.
        Lakeland and Polk County were “dry” in those days. Which meant, if the manager or any of the Tigers who were of age wanted a beer after a long, hot day on the practice field, they had to drive to a country saloon just across the county line _ or, if they were lucky, wangle an invitation to the local Elks Club, where there was usually an illegal card game going on in the basement.
        There were only two decent restaurants in town -- a rustic steakhouse, which was beyond many of the younger Tigers’ meager budgets more than once a month, and a cafeteria that catered to retirees.
        The first year Willie Horton came to spring training he rode the Greyhound bus down from Detroit.
        Lakeland was still segregated in those days and Horton couldn’t find a taxi that would take him to Tigertown. So Willie picked up his bags and walked to the ballpark, two miles away.
        In later years, Horton would sometimes drive from Detroit to Lakeland. Many players did that to save money in those days. In the mid-70s, Horton car-pooled one year with Ron LeFlore and Ben Oglivie.
        “Ronnie would never help out with the driving and whenever we stopped for food or to get gas he would pretend like he was asleep, snoring in the backseat, so that he didn’t have to pay, ” Horton recalled.
        “Then he’d wake up and say, ‘I’m hungry. What have we got to eat?’
        “Oglivie got tired of that so he pulled the car off the road and challenged LeFlore to a fight. Benji was into that kung-fu stuff and pretty soon he had Ronnie flat on his face in the gravel alongside the road.
        “A state trooper was driving by, going in the opposite direction on the other side of the highway, but when he saw us out of the car he turned around and came back,” Horton continued.
        “He walked up to our car and said, ‘What’s going on here?’
        “I said, ‘We’re just trying to get to spring training.’
        “He looked at us and he laughed and he said, ‘Well, have a good spring, boys’ ”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Larish, Raburn will fight over 25th spot

        In addition to finding a fifth starting pitcher and picking three more relief pitchers to round out the bullpen, the Tigers need to fill one opening on their  bench this spring.
        Jeff Larish and Ryan Raburn will compete for the honor of being the Tigers’ 25th man.
        Larish can fill in at first base or third and Jim Leyland plans to get him acquainted with left field and right as well this spring. The fact that Larish bats left handed is a huge plus in his favor.
        With Miguel Cabrera, and the entire outfield of Curtis Granderson, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez gone to the World Baseball Classic, Larish and Raburn will both get ample opportunities.
        “I really like him,” Leyland said of Larish. “I like him a lot. I’m a big fan of his. I don’t know if he’s going to be on this team when we break camp, I don’t know how it’s going to play out. But I do know this: I would not be afraid to have Jeff Larish on my team.”
        Raburn has proven he can do just about anything except play shortstop or pitch. “We’re well aware of his versatility,” Leyland said. “He can play all over. He’s just a wonderful guy to have around. He’s got a lot of pluses. He’s one of those guys who stays under the radar. You don’t notice him that much, but he’s a valuable player.
        Raburn has an edge over Larish in big league experience, 153 games to 42.
        Rookie Casper Wells, who played at West Michigan and Erie last year, is one of the most intriguing players in camp, even though he is, in Leyland’s words, “a long, long, long, long shot to make the team.
        “This is a guy who really came out of nowhere, and he came in leaps and bounds,” Leyland admitted.
        “This may sound crazy, but he’s the guy I’m looking forward to seeing play this spring more than anyone else. They say he plays like a wild man. I’m anxious to see him play. He can run, he can throw and he’s got power.”
        As much as Leyland would like to keep a back-up centerfielder such as Wells or Brent Clevlen, it is unlikely he will have room.
        “If everybody stays healthy, we’re going to have more guys who deserve to be on the team than we have spaces,” Leyland said.
        “What that boils down to is, somebody is going to be mad at me. That’s fine. I’d rather have it that way than have to be searching.”

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Opening Day pitcher? Pencil in Verlander

        Everyone assumes Justin Verlander will again be the Tigers’ Opening Day pitcher in Toronto on April 6. And they are probably right.
        All signs certainly point that way, including the fact that Verlander will start Wednesday’s exhibition opener. Assuming Verlander pitches every fifth day the rest of the spring, his regular turn would fall on April 6.
        However, Jim Leyland, who will ultimately make that decision -- and who lays awake nights thinking about his rotation --  insists it is not quite as cut and dried as people think.
        For one thing, Leyland’s best-laid plans could be disrupted if Verlander is picked to pitch for Team USA in next month’s World Baseball Classic.
        “I truly don’t know right know what I’m going to do,” Leyland insisted. “I don’t know how it’s going to play out. I have no idea.”
        If Verlander starts the Tigers’ season opener on the road, he would  not be available to pitch the traditional home opener against Texas at Comerica Park four days later on April 10.
        And, given the significance of that game, and the festivities that always surround it, fans would hate to see that assignment relegated to the fifth-best pitcher in the starting rotation.
        “Either way would be very exciting,” Verlander said. “I told Skip, whenever he wants me to go out there would be fine with me.”
        Leyland has said he would “feel very comfortable” pitching any of his four known starters -- Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Armando Galarraga and Edwin Jackson --  in the season opener or in the home opener.
        But there are pros and cons, regardless of what order Leyland sets for his starters:
        Verlander --  It is critical that the right hander, who is coming off the worst year of his young career, gets off to a good start. If he starts the opener in Toronto on April 6, he would likely face Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, hardly an enviable assignment.
        On the other hand, Leyland could hardly justify keeping his best pitcher on the bench until the fifth game of the season, just so that he could pitch in front of the hometown fans at Comerica Park on April 10.
        Bonderman --  Bonderman was the Tigers’ Opening Day pitcher in 2005 and ‘07. But he is coming off major shoulder surgery and hasn’t pitched since June 1. Bonderman may take things a bit slower this spring until the Tigers are certain he is 100 percent.
        Galarraga -- Galarraga won 13 games for the Tigers last year. But this is only his second season in the big leagues and Leyland is determined not to heap too much pressure on him too soon.
        Jackson -- It might not be appropriate to hand the  newcomer the ball on Opening Day, away or at home, even though Jackson was 14-11 for pennant-winning Tampa Bay Last year.
        The No. 5 starter -- At the moment, Leyland doesn’t even know whom that will be. It could be Dontrelle Willis, it could be Nate Robertson, it could be Zach Miner, it could even be rookie Rick Porcello.
        However, that contest may not be decided until late in spring training. And Leyland can’t afford to wait that long. With the exhibition season starting, Leyland has to set up his rotation soon to get pitchers working in sequence for the regular season.
        “The home opener is an unbelievably beautiful, special day  -- whether the weather is good or not,” Leyland said. “It’s unlike any other day you play all year. It’s a happening.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Economy, last season's embarrassment take their toll

        The big round red sun was peeking over the roof of the old World War II airplane hangar at the back edge of the Tigers’ spring training complex and the temperature was still struggling to top 50 degrees when the first of the fans began arriving, shortly before 7 a.m.
        Some bundled up against the early morning chill, some in the more traditional shorts and T-shirts, their hands stuffed in their pockets, they gathered around the gate to the still-empty players’ parking lot in hopes of scoring some autographs.
        Tourism in Florida is down overall this year for the first time since 9/11 and ticket sales for the Tigers’ exhibition games, which begin Feb. 25, are running slightly behind last year.
        No surprise there.
        Fans still line the fence along the players’ path from the clubhouse to the practice fields. They camp out on the nearby picnic tables to talk about Tiger players past and present, or soak up the sun in the bleachers that overlook the diamonds out back.
        But their numbers are down nearly 50 percent this spring, compared to one year ago when everybody’s hopes for the Tigers were sky high. And the atmosphere is understandably more subdued.
        This nation’s recession and the Tigers’ disgustingly disappointing season have taken their toll.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Granderson to Playboy: 'I have to ask my mom'

        Curtis Granderson is one of baseball’s brightest young stars.
        He is 27 years old. He has led the American League in triples for two years in a row. He is one of just three players in baseball history to  collect at least 30 doubles, 20 triples,  20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in the same season. He makes $3.5 million a year.
        Nevertheless, when Playboy magazine called, asking Granderson to pose for some pictures to go with an upcoming baseball preview article, Curtis’ answer was: “I have to ask my mom.”
        I’m not making this up.
        “I had to call my mom (Mary) for her approval,” admitted Granderson, who took part in the photo shoot at Marchant Stadium on Monday.
        “If she had said ‘no,’ I wouldn’t have done it.
        “But she said, ‘That’s fine, as long as it’s tasteful,’ ” Granderson explained. “She said, ‘A lot of guys read it, so I guess it’s OK.’
        “I had all my clothes on  and I wasn’t standing next to a Playmate or anything. I wasn’t topless. The worst thing I did was take my hat off for some photos.”
        Every mother dreams of having a son like that.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Speaking of interpreters and alligator teeth:

        Strangest sight of the first few days of Tigers training camp -- Taiwanese reliever Fu-Te Ni standing on the mound, his trusty interpreter  “Fox” in street clothes at his side, listening to instructions from Jim Leyland or pitching coach Rick Knapp.
        You can’t help but wonder how much either of them understands.
        During one of Sunday’s drills, Ni tried to flip a ball to Joel Zumaya. Ni missed on his toss and the ball rolled across the infield dirt. Fox, in shorts and T-shirt, came dutifully running from the sidelines to retrieve the ball, but slipped on the grass and fell to the ground.
        However, there was nothing funny about the spectacular pickoff move Ni made to first base during another of Sunday’s drills.
        And there was no misinterpreting Leyland’s obvious appreciation of the play -- in any language.
        Second strangest sight -- Fernando Rodney’s necklace. “An alligator tooth,” Rodney explained, when asked about the pointed three-inch long gray molar hanging conspicuously around his neck, outside his jersey.
        Where did you get that, the reliever, who has always danced to a slightly different drummer, was asked?
        “I jumped in the river, wrestled him to the ground, and pulled it out,” Rodney said with a straight face, mimicking a man applying a headlock to a make-believe gator.
        “I don’t think Major League Baseball is going to let him wear that in a game, teeth will be flying when he goes to throw,” said Leyland, who briefly spoke to Rodney about the necklace on Sunday.
        “I think he’s just having fun. He’s sly like a fox. I’m not worried about some tooth hanging outside somebody’s shirt.”
        It is Rodney’s control and his famed change-up that Leyland is looking at.

Friday, February 13, 2009

It's spring and all is right with the Tigers -- for now

        Ah, spring training. There is no other time of the baseball season like it.
        Everything, and everybody, is fresh and new. The sun is shining, there is nary a cloud in the sky -- and the Tigers are unbeaten, untied, and unscored-upon.
        The manager is relaxed (he even has a balcony outside his hotel suite on which he can smoke), the players are all smiling, and the field at Marchant Stadium is an immaculate shade of green.
        Optimism abounds. Last season’s debacle is ancient history.
        Each day, the fans eagerly gather outside the clubhouse and line the walkway to the adjacent practice fields with pens and photos and baseballs in hand as if last summer never happened.
        It is time to begin anew.
        No steroid scandal here. The A-Rod mess seems a million a miles away.
        The Indians, like the Red Sox before them, have abandoned nearby Winter Haven. The Dodgers are gone from fabled Vero Beach. The American League champion Rays have moved their spring training base out of Al Lang Field, leaving St. Petersburg without a spring training tenant for the first time in nearly a century.
        But the Tigers and the cozy Central Florida city of Lakeland are beginning their 73rd year together, the longest-running spring training marriage in baseball.
        Spring training is, indeed, a blissful time.