Anticipation hangs over Tigers
By MICHAEL J. Happy
TOLEDO, Ohio — The grass at Fifth Third Field, home of the Toledo Mud Hens, is already May green.
Springtime came very early to the Midwest, making things come alive that usually remain dormant in these parts for at least another month.
It's as if even nature itself couldn't stand the anticipation of the 2012 Detroit Tigers season, which got under way, sort of, Wednesday afternoon against the Mud Hens.
For the first time in more than a decade, Detroit played an exhibition game against its Triple-A affiliate — the day before the season officially begins at Comerica Park against the Boston Red Sox.
Exhibition or not, it felt like Opening Day. The capacity crowd of 12,000 started arriving more than two hours before the game, and some tickets were priced at $110 apiece on stubhub.com on Tuesday.
Fifth Third Field is about 60 miles south of Detroit, but it was like a miniature Comerica Park, with most fans sporting Tigers caps, T-shirts and jerseys. In one small section in the right-field corner, there were two Cabrera jerseys, two with Verlander embroidered on the back and one sporting the name Fielder.
Perhaps that name more than any other is why there's such an early buzz surrounding this team. Heck, Detroit has been buzzing about the guy since late January, when the Tigers signed the free-agent first baseman to a nine-year, $214 million deal.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland said it best at the time:
"To me, this was probably the most unbelievable thing that's ever happened to me in baseball — to lose a guy like Victor Martinez, and within 10 days, sign a guy like Prince Fielder," he said. "I've never had anything like that happen to me."
And to Tigers fans, who just a week before were mourning the loss of Martinez to a torn ACL.
All of a sudden they had Fielder — a three-time All-Star who hit .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs last season — and arguably one of the greatest one-two, middle-of-the-lineup punches in baseball history in Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.
Tigers faithful would have braved the worst January blizzard Mother Nature could muster had the season started immediately after the Fielder press conference ended at Comerica Park.
But, even though the town was on fire for its baseball team, they had to wait.
Further stoked by what happened in 2011: an American League Central Division title, an AL Division Series victory over the Yankees, a spot in the AL Championship Series, a Cy Young and MVP for Justin Verlander, a batting title for Cabrera, a perfect 49-of-49 for closer Jose Valverde, and an amazing finish (8-1 with 1.79 ERA) for starter Doug Fister after his arrival from Seattle.
But like the old Heinz TV commercial, the ketchup bottle tantalizingly hung over the burger and it took a while for the sweet-and-tangy sauce to come out.
Now, it's pouring out, and the fans are loving it.
You could hear it when Tigers left fielder Delmon Young ripped a one-out double down the left-field line in the second inning. It was even louder when shortstop Jhonny Peralta knocked him home with a single for the first run in an 8-3 Tigers victory.
Yes, the boys are almost back in town.
It's only an hour drive and a day away.
Thursday, 1:05 p.m., Comerica Park — where the grass is also May green and ready for what could be a special season.