It's good to be a Tiger

Spring training in Tiger Town felt a lot more like home this year

Updated: March 21, 2012, 11:33 AM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

Justin VerlanderJohn HuetWith Justin Verlander on the mound, the Tigers should be in the hunt in October.

This story appears in the April 2, 2012 "MLB Preview Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

THE D STANDS FOR SOMETHING. You know the D, that Old English letter stitched onto the hats and uniforms of the Detroit Tigers as well as the hearts of most Michiganders. Actually, there are two versions of the logo: the spikier, white D on the navy blue home hats and the more rounded, navy blue D on the home whites. Either way, the D, which made its debut for the club in 1904, represents the purest and most classic of all baseball uniforms -- the national pastime's answer to formal wear. "From the first moment I put it on, I felt a sense of pride," says reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. "There's just something really cool about the uniform. Ever notice we have more belt loops than any other team?"

The D could be for the Dream -- deferred since 1984 and denied by the Rangers last season in the ALCS -- of a fifth World Series championship in the franchise's 111-year history. The Dream Team tag gets tossed around far too often, but these Tigers (built by appropriately initialed GM Dave Dombrowski) do look very good on paper. In addition to Verlander, they have AL batting champion Miguel Cabrera, dominant closer Jose Valverde, All-Stars at short (Jhonny Peralta) and behind the plate (Alex Avila), slugging first baseman and star recruit Prince Fielder, and a nice blend of youth and experience. After Detroit won its first official game of the spring (2-0 over the Braves), manager Jim Leyland joked, "It looks like we're coming together." But the hope around Lakeland, Fla., is palpable. "It feels kind of like '84," says first base coach Tom Brookens, an infielder on the team that beat the Padres in the World Series that year. "A team that came close the year before, a great vibe in the clubhouse, a real sense of purpose."

Detroit is also stocked with Descendants. Fielder, the son of former Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, clubbed an upper-deck homer in the old Tiger Stadium as a 12-year-old. Now 27, he made sure his own sons, Jadyn, 7, and Haven, 6, had their uniform shirts properly tucked in when they were on the field in Lakeland. "Remembering what it was like growing up in the Tigers' clubhouse did make it feel like I was going home," Fielder says. Avila is the son of assistant GM Al Avila, and minor league catcher Pat Leyland was in camp trying to prove he wasn't just the son of the manager. And over in the minor league complex is second baseman Colin Kaline, grandson of Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who spent his entire 22-year career in Detroit.

There is a Deference to Tigers history in general and Tigers greats in particular. When Leyland sits behind his desk in Lakeland, he stares at a giant photo of Ty Cobb in sunglasses. "It means a lot to dress beside Mr. Kaline and Mr. Horton," says 11-year utilityman Brandon Inge, pointing to the lockers of spring instructors Kaline and Willie Horton. Mr. Kaline, who at 77 looks fit enough to finally hit that 400th homer, says, "I'm just here to give a little encouragement to the kids, the way Ray Boone, Walt Dropo and Harvey Kuenn helped me when I was an 18-year-old rookie with pimples."

Folklore is one of the many reasons the Tigers and their faithful take a certain delight in each other. When Fielder arrived at Joker Marchant Stadium on the first day of spring training, Cabrera pointed to all the fans waiting for autographs along the horseshoe-shaped fence that encloses the players compound, then said with pride, "Look at what we've got." If spring training is any indication, fans have someone in Fielder who will good-naturedly sign for hours on end.

Ever since his first at-bat (a double off a pitcher for Florida Southern that brought the dugout to its feet), Fielder has been the hit of the spring. In homage to Prince's coiffure, a member of the Lakeland grounds crew, Raul Soto, wears a wig of orange dreadlocks under a Tigers helmet when he lays down the batter's box chalk before the game and during the obligatory YMCA-led infield sweep in the fourth inning. The wig was a gift from Claudia and Frank Green, two diehards from Lewiston, Mich., who sit beside the home dugout. "Prince loved it," Claudia says. "He even signed the helmet."

The challenge to keep up with the times -- and to keep at it all the time -- is shared by Detroit, the city and the state of mind.

The arrival of Fielder at first base also meant that Cabrera would have to play third, a move some baseball experts have questioned. And to be honest, the D on his uniform does not stand for Defense. But unquestioned in the Tigers clubhouse is another kind of defense: the sense that Leyland always has their backs. Tired of reporters constantly inquiring about replacing Cabrera in the late innings, Leyland snapped one day during his office news conference: "Stop asking the question already -- I ain't taking him out." Cobb, from behind his shades, seemed to approve.

The Georgia Peach was no longer with the club when it began training in Lakeland in 1934, but hard-nosed Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg were. That's another thing about the Tigers, then and now: They've never been afraid to get Dirt on their uniforms. "I feel bad for the clubhouse guys," Inge says. "We put on these beautiful white uniforms, and then we get mud and grass stains on them. But the next day they're beautiful again. I don't know how they do it."

According to longtime clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel, it's a combination of cutting-edge elixirs and good old-fashioned scrubbing. The challenge to keep up with the times -- and to keep at it all the time -- is shared by Detroit, the city and the state of mind. "I bought a GMC Yukon Hybrid," rightfielder Brennan Boesch says, "mostly because it's a great car, but also to thank the people of Detroit for their support. I'm from California, but I've come to realize how much we mean to them. We have to play hard because they have to work hard."

In other words, the D stands for something.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer