JUST GETTING STARTED DON’T FORGET: THE TIGERS LOST THEIR HOME OPENER LAST YEAR, TOO. AND LOOK HOW FAR THEY GOT

It was lunchtime in Detroit when the fireworks ignited. They shot into the air and, in their explosive shower, against a cloudless April sky, a flag was raised at Comerica Park.

It rose slowly through the smoke like some Iwo Jima moment, rose above the centerfield fountains, rose against the city’s skyline. When it stopped, and when the white wisps finally cleared, the words “American League Champions 2006” officially flew over the ball field.

And the Tigers were officially in their shadow.

“We’re not a surprise anymore,” said first baseman Sean Casey after Monday’s 5-3 Opening Day defeat. And he’s right. No more sneaking up on people. No more pats on the back for winning two in a row. The biggest difference between Opening Day 2007 vs. 2006 is that fans now expect something beyond a day off from work. In years past, the first game was more like Groundhog Day – Tigers fans peek at the sun, then go back underground, assuming the worst.

This year, the fans actually know there are more games this week – and plan to watch them. They would not go home Monday happy merely grateful that the weather was good and the field looked nice. See ya next April. When do the Pistons and Red Wings start the playoffs?

Nuh-uh. It’s a season Detroit fans want now, not an afternoon. So when the Tigers lose the opener – as they did Monday on some plays they’d like back – fans cluck their tongues and count on seeing better.

“Last year, there was uncertainty,” manager Jim Leyland said. “We had good players but not a good team yet. …

“Today was totally different. We’re coming out with expectations a mile high. I like that. When expectations are high it normally means you’ve got a good team. …

“I’d rather have that than have a team where they’re happy if you play .500 baseball.”

Wish granted, Jim.

A tough start and finish

Now, in all but two ways, Monday was actually a great game by the Tigers. Unfortunately, those two ways were the first inning and the last inning.

In between, Detroit’s pitchers threw eight shutout frames, Detroit hitters chopped away at a 3-0 deficit and tied the game.

But in the first inning, Jeremy Bonderman gave new meaning to “shaky start.” It went like this: walk, stolen base, double, single, stolen base, muffed fly ball to left that drops for a hit.

“I felt like I was learning how to pitch again,” Bonderman said. He settled down the rest of the way, and actually matched the excellence of his Toronto counterpart Roy Halladay.

But we also mentioned the 10th inning – and that did the Tigers in. Fernando Rodney gave up a single, walked a batter, then hit Frank Thomas with a pitch, something you don’t do unless you have a getaway car waiting behind the mound. Rodney then surrendered another hit and a run-scoring groundout to let Toronto take the two-run lead.

And that was that.

“Normally, if you walk a guy and hit a guy in extra innings, you get beat,” Leyland said.

Theory validated, Jim. Life as the hunted

But all right. Every Tiger I interviewed made some mention of the fact that it’s a 162-game season, and Monday was one game, and it wasn’t as if they lost by 30 runs, either.

So let’s review for a moment the pregame ceremony, the opening minutes of this 2007 season, which were really the closing minutes of 2006. When third baseman Brandon Inge and longtime Tigers office worker Audrey Zielinski lifted a banner on the count of three, the crowd roared appropriately.

And when the flag lifted through the cloud of fireworks, you could hear the cheering all the way down to the river.

“It was a special day for everybody,” Casey said.

“It was great to watch,” Leyland said.

“It was awesome; this place rocks,” Bonderman said.

Betcha can’t guess who’s the youngest.

But it was awesome, and it did rock, and the sight of a sunny April afternoon and the stands packed with fans and the walkways jammed with fans and the porches and platforms where you can peek in for free packed with fans – well, it was something. There was true, palpable excitement when the Tigers raced onto the field to start the game (and I mean raced, I thought we were gonna hear some hamstrings pop).

In the modern era of big-screen entertainment, the Tigers finally have their own version of the inspirational training film – the 2006 highlight reel. And it was to those images – home runs, final outs, champagne showers, celebratory leaps at home plate – that this year’s team came running out.

“I like being the hunted,” Leyland said Monday and that’s good, because his team wears a bull’s-eye now. But it is a good thing. A standard to be measured against. This may seem funny to those of us who recall when the Tigers had enough strikeouts, errors and weak pitching to achieve 119 losses in a single season.

But those days are gone and last year is gone.

It’s the 2007 season. Under way. The bar, as Marty Mornhinweg once said, is high.

“You don’t want to be a one-year wonder,” Leyland declared. Then he quickly added, “We’re not gonna be that.”

That’s good news. The flag rose. The smoke cleared. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And happily, for the fans, these Tigers will be trying to stoke new flames for an entire season, not just an April afternoon.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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