“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”

— Yogi Berra

It is love, isn’t it? Love brings you back. Love makes you smile with the morning sun. Love lets you believe, even when it makes no sense to believe.

It’s love that will draw Detroit fans outdoors today, despite a chilly, wet forecast, and it’s love that will steer us down the Lodge Freeway, down I-75, down Woodward Avenue, inching past St John’s Church and the Fox Theatre, paying $30 for a parking space and stupid money for every beer.

It’s the love of baseball, sure, but it’s deeper than that, it’s the love of a possibility — the chance that we are about to embark on a fantastic journey. It’s like watching food arrive at your table in a four-star restaurant, or the lights going out in a concert arena as the band’s opening notes sound.

It’s like a first date. That’s what Opening Day is. A first date.

Because first dates are all about anticipation.

And so, as Detroit Tigers fans in April 2022, are we.

Did someone say … playoffs?

“The last five months of last year we played winning baseball each month,” noted Tigers pitcher Tarik Skubal in a phone conversation Thursday. “Building on that going into this year, with a lot more talent, and we still have that winning culture, expecting to win every day — we have our eyes set on winning the division.

“And it starts tomorrow.”

Not a minute too soon.

“Finally,” we say, “finally, we can expect a Detroit team to win and not be laughed at.” It’s been dismal, hasn’t it? Admit it. Our football team goes from bad to badder. Our hockey team is taking forever to rebuild. Our basketball team is taking forever and a day.

The last major pro sports team Detroit had in the playoffs — any playoffs — was the Pistons, who got swept by Milwaukee three years ago.

And the last playoff WIN for Detroit — any playoff win — was six years ago! (The Wings scratching one out in a losing series against Tampa Bay.)

That’s not a drought, that’s the Mojave Desert.

It is time for a change. And nothing could change that better than the Tigers, because when baseball is hot in Detroit, Detroit is hot for baseball. These are not your father’s Tigers or even your older brother’s Tigers. There is one name that casual observers will recognize on the roster — Miguel Cabrera — and he’s no longer the most critical piece of the puzzle.

The rest is a collection of young talent we’ve been watching develop (Spencer Torkelson, Casey Mize, Skubal) new faces acquired by trade or signing (Javier Baez, Austin Meadows, Eduardo Rodriguez, Tucker Barnhardt), and a lot of guys who have been here just hoping the tides will change.

“It does feel like there’s a lot of youth (on the team)” said Skubal, who is only 25, “but we have some great leaders as well.”

It’s that combination that has experts actually predicting playoffs for Detroit.

Which is responsible for all the call-in-sick messages happening at workplaces this morning.

A long-awaited rite of passage returns

Of course, there is another reason. Today marks the first Opening Day in three years that we can expect to see the stands filled. COVID-19 has clogged our memories, what feels like a year feels like a month and vice versa. But the fact is, spring of 2020 was red-hot with COVID-19 and spring of 2021 was a cautionary dip in the water. Only around 8,000 fans were allowed in Comerica Park for last year’s home opening.

This year, the bleachers can be packed.

“I’ve heard about (full) Opening Days in Detroit,” Skubal said. “I’ve heard the tailgating starts at like 9 a.m. and there’s people there before you get there.”

True. True. And with the Tigers expected to contend, that means spring baseball will be anticipatory, summer baseball will be passionate, and fall baseball will be significant (fingers crossed.)

And let’s be honest. There is no sports season like a baseball season when your team is good. It’s a nightly check-in, a fallback fall back activity for any plans that get canceled, a box score to be studied, a “Who’s pitching?” question to be answered. It’s consuming, which is what baseball is best at when it’s good and true.

“I remember going to one Opening Day,” recalled Skubal, who grew up in Arizona. “We were in the nosebleeds. But we had a ton of fun. I remember the hot dog I had. I don’t think there’s anything better than that.”

Not at this time of year.

You could say “What’s the point? The Tigers haven’t been good in years.” But you’d be missing a train.

You could say “Detroiters always get stupidly excited for Opening Day. It fades.” But you’d be embracing cynicism over hope.

And hope and spring have always gone well together. There’ll be plenty of the former down Woodward  this afternoon, even if the latter is slow to arrive. And once more, somehow, baseball will pull us together, in a compelling drama that has nothing to do with politics or war or social upheaval, and everything to do with having fun.

Like hot dogs. And love. What’s wrong with that?

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @malbom

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