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Minor league baseball opened its 2019 spring training season last weekend

The backfields of Lakeland were abuzz with activity as the minor league short-season kicked off this past Saturday.

Victor Reyes casually awaits a day of baseball.
Adam Dubbin / Bless You Boys

The 2019 minor league spring training short-season opened this past Saturday on the backfields of TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla. as the Double- and Triple-A level squads of the Atlanta Braves came into town to face the same tiered teams of the Detroit Tigers’ organization. These games were played while the big league squad faced the Pittsburgh Pirates on the main field, and the Tigers also ran an intrasquad game between their sub-A level players as well, making for quite a day of baseball for the franchise.

Despite the menacing gloom of dark clouds and a misty sprinkle throughout the morning, sunshine eventually prevailed. But those threatening skies early on did nothing to put a damper on the cheerful attitudes and smiles on the faces of the players preparing for their day of work. Every field was bustling with warm-up drills, batting practice, and conditioning routines, emitting an aura of energy and hustle that would pump up even the most casual fan.

With the major league club facing off on the main field of Publix Marchant Stadium, the concurrent chorus of backfield minor league matches created an atmosphere that best compares with a music festival — but without the hippies and baseball instead of bands. Along with the typical liveliness of a spring Saturday afternoon game, there was an extra element of excitement and anticipation in the air, with the public address announcer’s voice providing the background to the sounds of slapped mitts and cracking bats.

From the moment I entered the gates of TigerTown leading to the backfields, an immediate sense of activity rushed upon me. The youngest and most unrecognizable players in the organization ran by, as they shuffled along to their designated facilities spread out across the TigerTown campus, some galloping with glee on the way to their day of workouts, earbuds pumping their favorite tunes.

On the Al Kaline field, which abuts the backside of the berm behind the left field fence of the main stadium and stands apart from the other four diamonds, those in the big league camp who were not engaged in batting practice, mostly pitchers, ran various drills and exercises. Afterwards, as they departed, many stopped to sign autographs through the fence for impatient signature-seekers. Michael Fulmer, Shane Greene and Jordan Zimmermann, among other players, stopped briefly to give a few adoring fans their mark, but the commitment they showed to their fawning followers paled in comparison to one particular Tigers legend.

As the last of the players trickled off the field, Major League Baseball Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell slowly walked through the chain-link gate, eliciting the excitement of every fan beyond the fence. He walked over into a corner away from where the other players were signing their various items — from baseballs to game programs — and for a full 10 minutes after the last player had left, he continued to lightly chat with his adoring fans and fulfilled their autograph requests.

A stadium staff member nearby, who has worked at the facility for many years, noted that this was standard practice for Trammell; he has always been the last person to leave and approaches his fame with earnest humility — truly an embodiment of a lifelong Tiger. I was able to confirm his legendary character in a brief conversation walking with him between Kaline and the main group of baseball fields.

Along the way, I mentioned to my all-time favorite baseball player that we had met briefly back in 1991, when I was a bat boy for the Tigers during spring training. That was in the tunnels of Baseball City, where the Kansas City Royals decades ago had a baseball complex about a half hour up the interstate from Lakeland. Which also happened to be part of an amusement park that had failed the year prior. That’s Florida for you.

While we talked, he spoke with a steady but warm demeanor. I told him that my first encounter was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had as a sports fan, and asked simply to shake his hand. He obliged and reciprocated with a firm handshake along with a calm, appreciative smile. The exact same handshake, warm demeanor and smile I recalled from 28 years ago.

As my Mr. Tiger and I parted paths, we wished each other well, and I continued along the pruned crepe myrtles that line the way into the heart of the backfield complex. With so much going on all at once, it was impossible to divide my attention to all four fields in action and create any sort of continuity to the myriad of observations for the day.

Here are the most notable points of interest

  • It was the most baseball I’ve seen in one place, at one time, in a very long time, and with the entire organization crowded around you, there are moments where it’s bit overwhelming. In a good way.
  • During warmups on the front field, Nick Castellanos took batting practice and appeared to be fine overall, making solid contact and swinging without any noticeable discomfort. He went on to hit an opposite-field home run on Monday against the Orioles, a very welcome sign for Tigers fans.
  • Atlanta Braves are now using a similar, if not exactly the same, video capturing system as the Tigers in spring training. The camera brand and model, along with the accompanying hardware, appear to be identical to what the Tigers have set up before.
  • Cam Gibson is all hustle, all the time. It’s in his blood.
  • Speaking of whom, there were multiple Kirk Gibson sightings throughout the day, both in the main stadium and in the backfields. Great to see him actively out and about.
  • Casey Mize is a student of the game. He watches intently, often on his own. And that’s a good look for a top prospect.
  • Matt Hall might be an actual tiger as he gloved a screaming line drive right back at him with nothing but pure instinct. And he otherwise looked pretty good as well, despite this long flyball out.
  • Jake Rogers showed some power by smacking a double in his first at-bat, but also flied out weakly after getting fooled on a few pitches, and also struck out later.
  • Isaac Paredes had a nice first at bat, driving in Rogers after his double with a no-doubt double of his own.
  • Brock Deatherage did #DeathRage things, crushing an RBI double in one of his plate appearances.
  • Daz Cameron grounded out on the first pitch in his first at-bat and plopped a single into centerfield his second appearance.
  • Victor Reyes showed some good plate discipline drawing a walk in one of his later at-bats.
  • Bobby Wilson literally spent the entire day carrying around a bat and taking practice cuts with it. In fact, he almost smacked me once passing by despite being what should have been safely out of harm’s way. He struck out his first time up, but later got on base in a manner I didn’t catch, but I’m sure some swinging was involved.
  • Logan Shore didn’t look too impressive. Every time I turned around, he was giving up hard contact or walking a batter. I’m hoping my fellow University of Florida alumnus can get on track.
  • Tyler Alexander wasn’t terribly impressive either, and he came off the field very openly frustrated at the end of his outing.
  • Back on the front field, Joe Jimenez looked pretty sharp with two strikeouts, but one walk allowed, in his outing.
  • Daniel Stumpf is a people person, and the fans adore him.

All in all, it was a great day for both the Tigers and the fans, as the entire organization was gathered together in something of a festival of baseball. Seeing the camaraderie both within and among the teams, along with the passion and enthusiasm that can only be experienced in the presence of the exuberance of youth, there was plenty to be positive about.

The minor league spring training short-season will continue until the end of the month, when the teams will pack up and head back to their respective locales. Entry to the backfield where the games are played at Publix Marchant Stadium is free, but requires you to sign in at the front desk of the administrative office as you walk into the gates and is subject to capacity limitations. The major league club will continue their spring training schedule until their final game on March 26 at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays. Opening Day for the major league team is March 28 at the Toronto Blue Jays.