While the voice of the turtle will not be heard in our land for many weeks, the Detroit Tigers' 2016 season began yesterday. The club summoned their players and coaches from across North America to assemble in Michigan and rub elbows with media, veterans, heads of industry, and you -- the fans. A blanket of snow outside reminded everyone that the Last Place Tigers are dead and the New Tigers are just waiting to spring up.
One segment of these New Tigers traveled to Michigan's second city to participate in the 22nd annual Whitecaps Community Foundation Winter Baseball Banquet. The long name belies a simple purpose: show the minor league club some love and raise money.
While the event has more moving parts than I can possibly describe, I'll try to share a few highlights and observations from the evening.
- Don Kelly. I've never seen anyone own a room quite like Don Kelly. He's effervescent, patient, and he seems genuinely happy to be there. Whether he's in small room back-slapping fellow players and practicing complex handshakes, or in an enormous room with people he's never meet, he makes people feel at ease. There are two types of people in the world: ones who walk into a room and say "Here I am!" and ones that say "There you are!" While rare in the world of high level sports, Don Kelly seems like a "There you are!" kind of guy. It's not news that Donnie is a nice guy, it is news that a nice guy has leveraged his average abilities into a major league baseball career. Perhaps surviving the cutthroat world of pro sports while retaining civility says more about Don Kelly then just the obvious good manners.
- Context makes all the difference. In business casual clothing, the Tigers crew (with the exception of man-god Alan Trammell) can move through the crowd without anyone paying much mind. For fans, and even local media, it is surprisingly tricky to put names with faces. They are just ordinary guys. This all changes with a few cues. A video camera in the face or even a simple name tag transforms these guys from anonymous to "Oh! I need to get a picture with him!"
- Photographs are the new autographs. I did not observe a single person ask a player for an autograph. The new hotness is selfies. I watched Drew VerHagen pick up and put down his beer no less than four times as people approached him asking for a picture together. Photographs have clear advantages: they are personal, the player doesn't have to worry about seeing them for sale on eBay, and it's easy for fans to show off their "Look who I met" trophy. However, from a player's point of view, this trend cannot be an improvement. You still have to face the hungry trophy-gathering fan with the added pressure of having to look decent and fake a smile. And while it takes longer than an autograph there is still no real conversation that takes place.
- Al Avila. Al doesn't yet have Dombrowski-level reverence from the crowd, but he's getting there fast. While Dave was all big smiles and smooth talk, Al mixes in much more candor even if it's at the expense of some polish. If I were buying a car, I would want Al as my salesperson. If I owned a dealership, I'd want Dave selling my cars.
- Anthony Fenech knows how to rock a bow tie. He's basically the bearded Bill Nye of beat reporters.
- I want to be Lew Chamberlain. Lew has many fancy titles but he's essentially the owner of the Whitecaps. He's unrecognized by the crowd and strolls around sipping a bottle of beer and doing whatever the heck he wants. Occasionally a media person or staff member will greet him and make small talk, but he's very free to do what he pleases. In the summer he comes to the postgame parties to listen to the band and sip beer while surveying his domain. He doesn't have the pressure or chores of being a big league owner like Mike Ilitch, but simply has his own kingdom to enjoy. Good work if you can get it.
- I am out of touch with men's hairstyles. All the players look like they walked out of a retro-hipster barber shop or came straight from a game in the Bundesliga.
- The Veterans. There were a number of military veterans from the Grand Rapids Home at the event. I have often thought of inviting veterans as "eye wash" -- good stuff you do for the sake of being seen as doing good stuff. Even Justin Verlander's work with veterans has made me raise an eyebrow. But after seeing the veterans there, dressed in their finest for a big event, smiling and laughing, my heart has softened. Sure, clubs and players get good pub for inviting and serving veterans, but so what? If buying goodwill gets some former soldiers a fun night out or a memorable day at the ballpark, I'm all for it.
- Jose Iglesias is a stinker. I mean this in a third-grade boy sense of the word. My favorite scene from the night is this: Jose gets up from his table, walks past a seated Wally Joyner, taps on the shoulder opposite from where he is walking, and continues out toward the lobby. Wally looks to the side where he was tapped and, as the perfect straight man, looks around in bewilderment for who was trying to get his attention. The classic, immature shoulder tap gag. I loved it. It's almost as funny as him wearing a thick Carhartt-style jacket over a hoodie. He still looked cold.
- Players have two modes. Place a camera or cell phone near them and they are all business. While they are not exactly relying only on cliches, they are operating in a very safe mode: say positive baseball things, be vague, get it over with. They are slightly tense and intensely bland. Drop the phone or notepad and ask about their life or their interests, and the conversation changes in an instant. You get a real person who will actually share a few opinions even if they aren't stock. None of this is a judgement, but it really informs the way you observe postgame interviews or read quotes in a story.
- A mood of relaxed hopefulness. What I'm going to say next likely means nothing, but the mood from the Tigers crew was different from the last couple times I've been to the banquet. I think it comes from the top down. Dave Dombrowski, from what I understand, was a demanding, detail-driven boss, perhaps to excess. Could it be that Al Avila might be a little more friendly to work with, and not just for the media, but for the staff and the players, too? I still remember Manny Ramirez during a Red Sox playoff run saying something like, "Hey, if we lose, so be it" and they went on to win the World Series. While you don't want Prince Fielder levels of indifference, a slight unclenching might be healthy.
While everyone at the event had a slightly different agenda, one thing unified all -- actual baseball. When highlights from last year's season appeared on the screen everyone dropped their conversation, forgot their salad, even put down their cell phones. Baseball is just a game, but it is a game that unites and inspires. In mid-winter we need these inspirations, these suggestions of a new start, more than ever.