The last time baseball was played at Comerica Park, the crowd was on its feet for the final out. Six months later, Thursday afternoon, as shadows fell on a misty Opening Day, the scene repeated itself, with fans once more on their feet as the Tigers left the field.

There is only one difference between the ovations, but it is all the difference in the world.

The last time was pity. This time was praise.

“Happy? This is the happiest I’ve been since I’ve been playing for this organization,” said longtime Tiger Bobby Higginson, who knocked in four runs in a 10-6 victory in the home opener, which improved Detroit to 4-0 for the young season. “I know it’s early. But I truly believe we have a chance to do good things.”

Higginson, of all people, knows the loftiness of that sentence. He was part of the lowly group that got that standing ovation last September, the season finale, when a Tigers victory only spared them a tie for the most losses in the modern history of baseball. That was different. That was embarrassing. That was your parents clapping as you stumbled across the potato sack race dead last and full of mud.

This was something else. This was a packed stadium in which the people stayed not from ghoulish voyeurism but from — remember this word, Tigers watchers?
— fandom.

That’s right. Fandom. Fans rooting for the newly acquired superstar, Ivan
(Pudge) Rodriguez, who singled twice and threw out two runners. Fans rooting for the newly acquired shortstop-second base combo of Carlos Guillen and Fernando Vina, who scored four runs between them. Fans rooting for stubborn stalwarts like Higginson, who has taken the brunt of criticism during the lean and ugly years because, well, mostly because he was here.

Fandom. You want to know the real snapshot of this Opening Day? It wasn’t the 10 runs or the 14 hits for the home team. It was the crowded downtown streets at the end of the game. Heck, Opening Day is always crowded at the beginning. That’s easy. But in recent years, it has been a ghost town by the ninth inning.

Not Thursday. On Thursday, people stayed to watch the game. They stayed to see a winning streak — yes, a winning streak — extended. They stayed to see the best start in nearly 20 years. And while no one is predicting a championship
— or anything close — there is a tangible stir in the crowd.

It’s like finding out Elvis isn’t so fat anymore, and he can still sing.

The fun of fandom.

The past is in the past

“Today was a great day to see the kind of support we can have if we perform,” Higginson said. “Last year, it was such a long, terrible, miserable season, that you didn’t even want to think about baseball during the off-season. But then we saw some of the moves the team made, how they were getting guys in here who could play. And then the whole Pudge thing, and, well, it really started getting exciting.”

That excitement is swelling. This may not be a playoff team, it may not even be a contending team, but it is also not your recent Tigers collection of cast-offs and passers-through. Consider Rodriguez, who came over from the World Series champion Florida Marlins. Or Guillen, who came over from Seattle, where the Mariners regularly compete in the playoffs. Or Vina, who saw his Octobers with the St. Louis Cardinals.

These are not men who figure baseball is something you do between April and September. These are men who look to the rafters and expect to see pennants.

“I know nobody expects us to do anything because of all that’s happened here in the last few years,” Vina said. “But hey, we weren’t here the last few years. I don’t even know about that stuff.”

And Tigers fans don’t want to rehash it. Wouldn’t we all be just as happy to pretend the last decade was some deep space trip, where they put you in suspended animation until you wake up in a new universe, one where winning is actually, you know, part of the equation?

“The fans in this town deserve to see quality baseball,” Higginson said. “And I think they got it this year.”

A good day for baseball

If he’s right, it would be nice for Higginson, 33, to be a part of that. He has been up and down, it’s true, and he gets paid a lot of money, yes, and he has said some things over the years that he probably regrets, but then again, he was like the poor guy at the carnival who gets doused in the water every time someone throws a ball. It may be your job, but after a while, it gets kind of annoying.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I’m playing a game I love. But at times when you’re on a team that’s losing 100 games year in and year out, and the finger is getting pointed pretty much at you, it gets a little tiring. You know, you can put Alex Rodriguez on a team — heck, they did it in Texas, and they still lost 100 games (actually, 91) — it doesn’t matter, one player doesn’t make a team. You need 25 guys pulling together.

“I took a lot of heat for the way the team was playing and it used to wear on me. But now I just want to be one of the 25 guys. . . . And these new guys are going to find out that this is a great sports town. This is a sleeper town.”

A sleeper town that is waking up to familiar sounds, wood on horsehide, cheers in the ninth, upbeat voices from a hometown clubhouse.

As manager Alan Trammell darted out from the dugout before the game Thursday, he spotted some familiar faces and bellowed “Goooood morning!” Then he looked to the skies, smiled and said, “Not a bad day, huh?”

Perfect record? Four straight victories? New guys happy to be here, old guys happy to have them?

Not a bad day. Not bad at all.

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 recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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