OUR HEARTS ARE ABOUT TO OPEN FOR BASEBALL

And here you are again, like a Weight Watcher salivating at chocolate, like an ex-smoker unwrapping a brand new pack.

“Everyone got their tickets?” you ask your family. “Oh. And the glove! Did we pack the glove? We gotta have the glove in case there’s a foul ball.”

Admit it. You thought you had kicked this habit. You really thought you had. You were finished with baseball in Detroit. Why watch baseball in Detroit? Baseball in Detroit was comatose, toes up, less interesting than cork.

But here you are again, the ex-sailor returning to the sea, the 9-to-5 man working overtime, the person who swore off soap operas now reaching for the remote control, because you can’t help peeking, you are back on board.

Opening Day.

The addiction is back.

“Got the radio?” you say. “We gotta have the radio. Maybe they’ll have Ernie on the radio for an inning. You never know. The voice of the turtle and all that. Don’t forget the radio.”

Not too long ago, you – me, we – were all blissfully done with this habit. Not too long ago, April was just the month that came after March, as it was in the years before Detroit had a baseball franchise.

That’s because over the last decade, for all intents and purposes, Detroit didn’t have a baseball franchise. Oh, there were men in uniforms. Oh, they took the field and they came to bat and they sold hot dogs and people paid for parking.

But it wasn’t much to watch. Some years the Tigers were bad, and some years they were really bad. Occasionally, they were truly awful.

And now?

Now they are good.

Now they are the defending American League champions.

Now they are the guys who did everything but win the World Series.

And here you are again, all revved up with someplace to go.

Making a fashion statement

“Who’s wearing Pudge?” you ask. “If you’re wearing Pudge, I’m wearing Magglio. If the kids are wearing Magglio, I can wear Verlander. Let’s not all wear the same guy.”

How new is this? One year new. Before last season, you didn’t think about whose jersey you wore to the game. You may have wondered who the men in the jerseys were but you didn’t think about who you wore.

Now? Now it has all changed. Now the names are familiar and you can pick a hero, any hero. In baseball, as in life, it’s all who you know.

And now you know everybody.

You know the pitchers. You know the smokin’ ace, Justin Verlander, who turns, what, 14 this year? You know the Gambler, Kenny Rogers, he of the silver whiskers and deadpan glare and the big game – and now his three-months-out shoulder injury. You know Wil Ledezma early and Todd Jones late. You know Nate Robertson wears glasses and Mike Maroth is coming back from his long hiatus.

You know the pitchers and you know the hitters. You know Pudge Rodriguez’s and Craig Monroe’s home run trots. You know Sean Casey’s story – the bad calf during the playoffs and his gutsy return. You know how Curtis Granderson covers ground. You know how Brandon Inge throws himself at any ball that moves.

It’s now “Who’s Your Tiger?” and not “Who’s a Tiger?”

How new is that?

“Hey, who’s Leyland going with?” you ask your family. “Has anybody read the starting lineup yet? Does he have any funny hunches?”

Oh, yes. You know the manager now. Even better, you love him. Not since Sparky Anderson was blessing the boys has a white-haired man so totally captivated the Motor City.

Let’s face it, before Leyland, all you knew about Tigers managers was that they weren’t staying for long. There was Alan Trammell and before that there was … there was … who was before Trammell? Who was the guy before the guy before Trammell? Or the guy before the guy before him?

Now there is Jim Leyland, the White Wizard, the reformation story to end all reformation stories. You are looking for him. You will applaud him. A Tigers manager. Opening Day.

And here you are again.

The place for excitement

“Are we going to try the Elwood?” you ask your family. “It’s probably too crowded at the Elwood. Maybe Hockeytown? How about that new breakfast place? Do you think we can get in there? The breakfast place?”

How new is this? Downtown Detroit is familiar to you now. At least the area around Comerica Park. You have been there more than once in the last year. It is not just the Opening Day ritual and then a hasty retreat for 364 days. Nuh-uh. You have been there for the World Series, for the playoffs. Maybe you were there for the All-Star Game or the Super Bowl.

A Tigers game is no longer a dash in and dash out experience, from highway to parking lot to highway to home. You know the restaurants. You know the shops. You know the cheaper parking places and the expensive parking places. You know the city – or at least this little corner of the city.

And you are preparing for it as we speak.

Here you are again, studying the division, checking out the rosters, looking up Gary Sheffield’s career stats, folding open that little Tigers schedule that you picked up at the bank, looking for the shaded dates and the nonshaded dates, marking the home games, planning your summer.

Here you are again, up to your old tricks, a reformed gambler fondling a deck of cards, a newly thin man eyeballing a milkshake. The sport is back. The franchise is back. Opening Day. The addiction is back.

“Hot dogs!” you yell. “Get your hot dogs! Doggies!”

OK, stop, that’s someone else’s job.

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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