Detroit faithful brave cold for TigerFest

Comerica hosts over 8,500 to meet and greet club's players, management

Jason Beck

If the Tigers needed examples of perseverance heading into their 2009 season, all they had to go was to look out the windows of Comerica Park on Saturday morning, then look onto the concourses in the afternoon.

More than an hour before TigerFest opened to the general public, the line of ticket holders waiting to get inside stretched from Gate A around the corner and down the side street, towards Ford Field. Some had been waiting outside for an hour or two before that. Just before the gates opened, the line wrapped back around toward the entrance again and out through the parking lot, almost all the way to Woodward Avenue.

Never mind that temperatures stayed in the teens amid the brunt of what has been a brutal Detroit winter. More than a few fans actually stood in line without caps and gloves.

"I can't say that I have," new Tigers starter Edwin Jackson said when asked if he had experienced anything like this. "That's why I say the fans here are tremendous. You can't have a better fan base. I mean, you look outside and you see people standing an hour before the gates open, and the line is around the corner. It's definitely a great feeling, and we're excited to get the season kicked off for them."

The fact that the Tigers are trying to rebound from a last-place season didn't dampen spirits, either. After a 2008 season to forget, this was their chance to look ahead.

The Tigers were ready to look with them.

"I think it's good to put last season, what happened last year, in the past," reliever Fernando Rodney said, "and keep working to get better for a new season. I think 2009 will be different, and I think we'll play good baseball."

The Tigers have drawn huge crowds the past two years for their annual offseason celebration, and this winter's event sold out past its allotted crowd of 8,500 within three days after tickets went on sale last month. Still, the chilly temperatures were expected to bring somewhat of a scare for some fans.

This marked the third straight year that TigerFest has taken place at Comerica Park, and the Tigers have refined their attempts to keep weather from being a factor by keeping as many events as possible inside. They also used tents and heaters along portions of the concourse to reduce the effect of the wind.

They did what they could to bring some warmth, but fan spirit arguably provided the bulk of it.

"Our fans are tremendous," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "First of all, they're out here braving the cold today. This place is loaded. But they backed us to 3.2 million fans last year.

"We know it's a tough economy. We're in a spot where we're trying to provide them great entertainment, a good place to do so here at Comerica Park, and we think we have the type of ballclub that they'll enjoy watching play."

Fans seemingly embraced the change. When Dombrowski started off TigerFest on a different note by announcing their one-year contract with reliever Brandon Lyon, an ovation ran through the meeting room where Dombrowski's question-and-answer session with fans was being held. They gave a rousing welcome to manager Jim Leyland, who's entering what is currently the final year of his contract. As much as fans asked about the pitching staff, they were equally curious about how Dombrowski and others evaluated Adam Everett and the impact his defense at shortstop could have on the team as a whole.

New catchers Gerald Laird and Matt Treanor both received warm welcomes, as did Jackson.

"I've had a great welcoming here," Treanor said. "It's been a nice surprise. I talked to a lot of people that have been with the organization and guys that have been in baseball, and they said I'd really enjoy coming here and seeing the turnout. The fan base here is huge. Even going through the [winter] caravan and seeing the support that the fans give us, it's real refreshing for me."

Others who have been here a few years still don't get used to the reception after a few months away for the offseason. Justin Verlander's struggles were well-documented on his way to a disappointing 2008 season, yet he drew long lines at the autograph tables and well-wishes as he made his way around the ballpark.

"It's interesting," Verlander said. "For me, it's neat that I can make people excited and show those emotions. It's kind of surreal. I've never really thought about it like that, never really thought it was going to be like that, but it's neat. To picture people waiting out there for three hours when it's cold, it's crazy."

For more than a few, simply picturing the cold and seeing a field covered in snow was crazy. In their case, this is the only time in the offseason when some players will venture to Detroit and the accompanying weather. Jackson had a taste of the cold growing up in a military family and living in Germany, but his years in the Dodgers organization and more recently on the Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff have undoubtedly cooled those memories.

After spending the last six years in the heat of the summer with the Texas Rangers, Laird barely had to take a step off of his flight to realize the difference.

"I got off the plane," Laird said, "and I'm like, 'Wow, I hope it ain't like this in April.' They said it's five degrees hotter. I'm like, 'Oh, OK. Thanks.' But I'm looking forward to it. Texas was tough."

Detroit and its colder weather early in the season, he believes, are going to be a little bit easier on his body. That doesn't mean he isn't looking forward to the heat.

"It gets warm here in the summer," he said, "doesn't it? A little bit?"

It does. And events like this serve as a reminder for fans and players alike.

"We get a chance to come out here and really get the area excited about the season," Verlander said. "And it's so cold today, it makes people think about warm weather a little bit. I enjoy doing this and getting to meet different people, just see people get excited about baseball and meet us, it's really special."


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