Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Four Best Words You'll Hear All Winter

Pitchers and catchers report.

I'll just let those words sink in for a moment.

It's happening, tomorrow, the 15th, in Lakeland.

Believe it or not, it's been nearly four months since Brandon Inge struck out, closing out the 2006 World Series. And even though the pitchers will be throwing to an empty batter's box for a week, and thus meaning that Inge's strikeout will be the last one by a Tigers player for seven more days, it's baseball indeed.

It's enough to thaw your frigid February bones, I tell you.

Some Tigers are already down there, and have been for a couple weeks: Justin Verlander. Joel Zumaya. Vance Wilson. And others. Eagerness abounds for a team that rode an improbable run to the World Series, then saw it all implode against the Cardinals in five shaky games. Maybe the desire to start a new season is greater for the championship runner up.

"Wait till next year!"

It was the rallying cry of da Bums, the old Brooklyn Dodgers and their faithful. They were frequent runners up, and always to their rivals across the East River, the Yankees. I wonder if their players were the first ones down to Vero Beach, FL every February.

This year, the Tigers begin their 71st spring training in Lakeland, a city they've used as their regular season prep since 1946. Before that, there were other towns tried, but Lakeland won out. Joker Marchant Stadium, in fact, is one of the finer spring training ballparks in Florida or Arizona.

Three years ago, Tigers fans were eager to see how their new catcher, Pudge Rodriguez -- fresh off a World Series win with Florida -- would look in a creamy white uniform with the Old English D on the left breast. He was a champion, but no less eager to start spring training -- new team and all.

This year, the eagerness isn't because of the novelty of a superstar player joining a 119-loss team. It's for the high expectations of a ballclub that has set a new bar for success in this town. A much higher bar, higher than any year since 1985.

That team was good, too. And eager. But it won 85 games and finished in the middle of the pack in the old East Division.

Ancient history.


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