Cold comfort: New faces thrill fans at TigerFest
Familiar frigid weather doesn't stop fans from greeting 'different type of club'
DETROIT -- Perhaps it was appropriate that an unexpected snow squall passed over Comerica Park just as TigerFest was beginning Saturday morning, creating a near-whiteout around the parking lots as fans were lining up.
The playing field had enough snow on top that it was hard to tell with the naked eye that there's no grass on there yet. The highways were slick enough to send more than a few travelers sliding along interstates on their way downtown. The ballpark was still packed.
"Incredible," catcher Alex Avila marveled.
"It's crazy," shortstop Jose Iglesias said. "You appreciate more what they do for us. We're here because of them. It's really fun. It's really been a pleasure for me to be here."
The weather, sadly, looked familiar, especially for this winter. It's the team that looked different.
The sight of closer Joe Nathan, pitcher Joba Chamberlain and first-base coach Omar Vizquel at Comerica Park for the home team was odd enough. But it wasn't just the faces that were different. There's a different style to these Tigers, and they weren't downplaying it as they fielded questions about the state of the team.
"We're a little more athletic," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said during his question-and-answer session with fans. "We'll play better defense. We'll score from first or second on base hits or extra-base hits more than we have in the past. We're not one-dimensional in that regard.
"There's always a give and take. We won't have quite as much power, but we still have a lot of good hitters, guys that can hit those gaps, and will hit double-digit home runs. It's a different type of club. … What you try to do is give your club a chance to win a world championship every year. That's where we are at this time. There's different ways to go about that with the mixture of your club."
For Dombrowski, it was his first chance to interact with fans about the offseason as a whole and the big-picture plan. For new manager Brad Ausmus, it was his first interaction in town since the news conference announcing his hiring nearly three months ago.
"The fans have been great," Ausmus said. "It's been all positive, at least to my face. I mean, I don't know what they're saying behind my back or on radio, but they've been great to me in person."
For fans, it was a much-needed chance to look ahead to baseball season and more hospitable weather.
The annual event has reached the point where big crowds are no longer a surprise. Tickets sold out soon after going on sale last month, long before the winter weather took a turn for the worse. The question, given the conditions, would be how many could make it.
"I'm not surprised, because I've been doing this for five years and seeing the support we get," Avila said. "But it's still incredible every year that they come, especially in weather like this.
"I mean, I had to walk through to get to one of the autograph sessions outside, and I was freezing. People were standing in line in that for hours. That's incredible."
The craziness of this weekend's weather around Michigan had the warmest temperatures of the day actually in the morning, as fans were lining up to get in. The blustery winds took away some of that warmth, but the real chill came later in the afternoon as festivities wound down.
As in most years, the Tigers put as many autograph signings and events inside as they could. Tents and heaters tried to make the best out of the outdoor walkways. Still, it was a challenge.
For the players, many of whom had been traveling together for the past few days, it was an early bonding experience for a team with enough new faces for an adjustment period. Chamberlain is one of those, but he raved about the camaraderie on the trip.
When Chamberlain became a free agent this offseason, he asked around about cities. For Detroit, he asked a good friend of his, Detroit Lions defensive lineman and fellow University of Nebraska product Ndamukong Suh, who raved about it. Chamberlain's reception this week backed it up.
Of all the autograph lines, Chamberlain had some of the slowest, because he was chatting with fans.
"It's been unbelievable," he said. "The last couple days for me -- and I was talking with Torii [Hunter] about this, because he was the new guy last year -- this is unbelievable, because you get to see the support of the fans. But also you get to meet guys on a different level, because there's so much going on during the year. Just seeing that camaraderie that they have, being the new guy and seeing it from the outside, you knew it was great."
That hasn't changed, though the team has. The fan reception hasn't changed either.