Day 1: Prince Fielder’s rock show hits Lakeland
Let’s be honest: It’s not as if the Tigers haven’t had a superstar before. They didn’t have one when Ivan Rodriguez signed in 2004, which made him the potential savior of a 119-loss team as soon as his car pulled into the parking lot at Tigertown that February. Miguel Cabrera was a superstar on the field when the Tigers got him about four years later.
Justin Verlander has pitched his way into superstar status, complete with his image on the cover of a video game and a cereal box, and his face on Conan. In many ways, he’s the face of the franchise, and baseball’s headline attraction each time he takes the mound.
Still, there’s something about Prince Fielder. And his arrival at camp Monday drew a reception that hasn’t been seen here in a while, whether from television cameras, microphones, fans or even teammates. Maybe it’s the fact that he grew up a Tiger. Maybe it goes back to the draw of a big home-run hitter. Or maybe it’s the fact that one of the best free agents on the market actually chose Detroit. Or it might even be the fact that a Tiger has the third-largest contract in baseball, . Whatever the reasons, Fielder’s arrival Monday had the attention of an event.
Fans, who had been asking when he was expected to show for a couple days, lined up against the fence separating the practice complex from the clubhouse for a chance at his autograph. Photographers followed his every move around the fields, then his interaction with fans. His warmup throws with new teammate Miguel Cabrera became a sight.
Teammates weren’t immune to it, either.
“When star players show up, people take notice,” manager Jim Leyland said. “They might say they don’t, but they do, particularly the young guys. I don’t mean they’re in awe or anything, but heck, that’s pretty nice. Heck, that’s a thrill.”
Then he took batting practice with Cabrera — back-to-back, like they’re expected to bat in the order when the games start.
“It was fun,” said Brennan Boesch, who shagged fly balls (or watched home runs) while they hit. “I mean, they’re in my opinion the best left- and right-handed hitters — especially with power — in the game. They’re great hitters, too. They’re not just sluggers. Obviously, everyone knows what they can do — Prince from the left side, Miguel from the right. So it’s a deadly combination to have, and you’re glad to have them on our side.”
The chemistry seemed to be immediate, Cabrera watching Fielder’s homers in awe, and Fielder joking about how hard Cabrera hits the ball.
“Double,” Cabrera said about one of his own drives to the gap.
“What???” Fielder exclaimed, looking out beyond the fence. “You hit that alligator.”
There was no alligator out there; Lake Parker, where many a gator call home, is beyond even these sluggers’ reach. But you get the point: They enjoyed hitting with each other, and they admire talent.
And a lot of fans admire what Fielder can do, which is why he had the crowd he had. Whether Fielder relishes that kind of response or not — he said he got used to people asking for autographs when he was a kid — he’s getting that reception.
(Page down after photo for more camp notes)
Speaking of rock stars: Look for a bigger story Tuesday, but Justin Verlander talked with reporters Monday morning about his upcoming season and how he worked this offseason. He said he turned down some off-field opportunities this winter because they would have interfered with his training routine.
“What I tried to do,” he said, “was choose the things that would be fun and brought the most attention to the Tigers, myself, the organization, the city. Those are basically the things that I kept in mind. And obviously, doing the Conan show was huge, being on the cover of the game, going out and shooting the commercial. And I’m doing a couple other cities that are in the works but haven’t come out yet.”
The Conan appearance, he said, was “awesome. That was a lot of fun. I was a little nervous going into it, didn’t know how I’d feel. Then I sit down in the chair and just start talking and I felt very at ease and just had fun with it.”
That, he said, was his favorite thing of the offseason.
“That, and shooting a commercial with Kate Upton isn’t too bad,” he said with a smile.
Monday, by the way, was Verlander’s 29th birthday. He got a watch.
Actual workout item of the day: Watch these drills for enough years, and it sometimes looks like a ritual rather than an actual exercise. But manager Jim Leyland takes these things seriously, and he lets players know if he doesn’t like what he’s seeing. He met with one group of pitchers during pickoff drills and hammered home the point that they need to make their pickoff move look as much like a normal delivery as possible until they’re whirling and firing. Of course, Leyland has been hammering home the need for Tigers pitchers not named Verlander to hold runners better for a few years now.
The Tigers don’t have all-day workouts, but when they’re working, Leyland wants them to be productive. He didn’t use his most common phrase today — Work Hard, but Work Smart — but he related it to game situations.
“I think it makes you better in close games during the season if you have more discipline,” Leyland said. “I truly believe that. I believe disciplined teams perform better from the seventh inning on.”
Actual workout item runner-up: Nobody, and I mean nobody, has more fun in spring training workouts than Jose Valverde. I said it last year, and the year before, and it still holds.
Valverde was yelling and cheering during random parts of pitchers fielding practice Monday morning. He covered first base with a flair every once in a while, drawing a cheer from the fans in attendance. He slammed his glove to the ground in mock disgust when Phil Coke missed a throw to first. He doesn’t blow these drills off, mind you, but he has fun doing that.
The better sign of who takes these early workouts seriously will come when Jim Leyland starts trying to hit fungoes past pitchers during infield work.
Non-workout item of the day: Remember when Gerald Laird joked a few days ago that he would be picking up whatever loose change fell out of Prince Fielder’s locker next to him, because “he’s making $213 million more than I am.”
Fielder saw it, and joked upon his arrival Monday that he would be watching his money.
“Yeah, I heard about that,” Fielder said. “I’m going to make sure I keep all my change in my pocket.”
Quote of the day: “Beck, you missed my bullpen.” — Don Kelly on his way in from batting practice. He did not actually throw a bullpen session.