GRIN AND BRRR ITA COLD DAY AT THE PARK AND AT THE PLATE IN TRAM’S DEBUT

The day broke with a snowfall and the wind whipped cold. When the ballpark opened, workers scattered salt on the pavement so that people wouldn’t slip. Fans in overcoats moved stiffly through the turnstiles. Some wore ski caps. Others wore gloves. Still, as time passed, the sun made an occasional appearance, and the temperature slowly climbed, and as morning turned to afternoon, people looked hopefully to the skies.

“Give it time,” they said, taking spring on faith.

That was the theme of this Opening Day, wasn’t it? Taking spring on faith? Believing baseball will rise again? Let’s face it: Monday was less a game than a resurrection. The biggest applause went to new manager and old shortstop Alan Trammell. The second-biggest applause went to new coaches and old sluggers Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson. The third-biggest applause went to new anthem singer and old Sister Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Raise your hands! Come on up for the rising!

“Ready or not,” Trammell said, “here we go.” CHARRRRRRGE! Oh, yeah. I almost forgot.

There’s also the team.

They do have to play baseball, these Tigers, and in short time the fans will discover what they deep down already know: This is not likely a winning team and certainly not a star attraction team.

But Monday afternoon, there was baseball in Detroit, baseball during wartime, and perhaps because of that odd juxtaposition, its return was embraced, and the morning snow melted, and the old names made everyone feel a little warmer and more at home.

Tram, Gibby and Lance

On the field, well, it was like a family reunion. Back in 1985, when the Tigers were the defending world champions, their Opening Day lineup featured Trammell, Gibson and Parrish as the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters.

Now, here they were again, 18 years later, all three of them, the meat of the order, together again, fitting surprisingly well into their new/old white Tigers uniforms.

“Is it like rejoining a fraternity?” I asked Parrish. “Do you guys eat and hang out together every night?”

“Some,” he said. “We’ll do more of it once we hit the road, I’m sure.” He grinned. “But we’ll be doing it on Tram’s dime. He’s the one with the magic credit card now.”

Around the dugout corner came Gibson, with that slightly forward-leaning gait, as if, at any moment, he might have to steal second base. He went prowling the clubhouse halls, then into the players’ lounge, then into the locker room, then back to the halls. He had that wide-eyed look, pure focus, and he grunted a hello and kept going, as if on a mission, although it’s hard to imagine what, except perhaps to make sure that nobody plays any less intensely than he did.

Out behind home plate, Jack Morris, the old Tigers ace — the fourth musketeer in this Glory Years reunion — stood watching in a long black coat and a new white beard. Around his neck hung a media pass.

A media pass?

“It’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?” he said, laughing, and anyone who ever took the brunt of a Jack Morris interview knew what he was talking about.

“How many Opening Days did you pitch?” he was asked.

“Fourteen in a row,” he answered.

Someone ran past and, noting the day’s opponent, the Minnesota Twins, yelled,
“Hey, Jack, who you working for? You played for all these teams!”

Morris yelled back, “Just the good ones!”

An early arrival at the yard

And then of course there was Trammell. He may be the manager, but he retains the buoyant glow of a kid who just likes to play in the sandlot. He awoke in the middle of Sunday night — “I saw the dusting of snow and I said, uh-oh, here we go” — and by 6 a.m. he couldn’t sleep anymore. By 7:30 he was at the ballpark.

Seven thirty?

“I had a lot of things to do,” he said, sheepishly.

Trammell has a flood of goodwill coming his way. From the former teammates who want to see him do well, to the Ilitches who want to see him do well, to the fans who want to see him do well. They all say the same thing, which is, in essence: “We hope the lack of talent won’t ruin him.”

And that, in the end, is the story, isn’t it? The old guys are great, but they’re not playing. That honor goes to Dean Palmer and Bobby Higginson and Dmitri Young and a whole host of players you probably never heard of and a pitching staff that must feel at least as well known as the next professional sports person, if that next person is a shot-putter.

So it was little surprise that, by late afternoon, the Tigers had lost their opener, 3-1, and were done in partly by a home run over the new leftfield fence, which they moved in 25 feet this year to make things easier for hitters. The problem is, the other team has hitters, too. And they’re liable to see some awfully friendly pitching.

Trammell said afterward that he planned on keeping the lineup card as a souvenir, but he changed his mind. “I’m going to keep it when we win,” he said.

A nice approach. Then again, in Detroit, as we all know, there is Opening Day, and all the rest of the days. Earlier, someone had asked Trammell about his enthusiasm, even in his 40s, and he said, “I always feel like a kid. I’m older and grayer and balder, but I still feel like a kid. That’s me. When that goes away, it’ll be time for me to move on.”

He’s not ready for that yet, and neither, apparently, is Gibson, nor Parrish nor Morris. And perhaps you aren’t, either. Baseball is not what it used to be, and the Tigers are not what they used to be. But you take spring on faith. Snowy mornings can end in sunny afternoons, and losing teams can learn to win. You have to give it time.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read Albom’s most recent columns, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.htm.

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