WHAT A WONDERFUL TIME IN DETROIT

There were sunny days before, but they didn’t count until Monday. There were baseball swings last month, but they didn’t matter until now. Opening Day in Detroit is when you stand against the wall with a marker, a confirmation that you’ve lived another year, that you’ve made it, that summer will come for you once more. And in the packed seats of Comerica Park, on an afternoon seemingly sent from the heavens, the city awoke from winter with a yawn, a cheer and a hoisted beer.

Tigers win. Home runs fly.

Is that as good a Monday as we’ve had in a while?

Three little words: “What a day.” You heard them all afternoon. Not only because the Tigers were peppering offense like kids throwing snowballs (11 runs, 13 hits). Not only because Dmitri Young hit three home runs, something only two other major leaguers have ever done in an opener. Not only because Magglio Ordonez and Troy Percival were wearing the olde English “D” for the first time. Not even because the snow had vanished, the sun was high and the sky was blue and cloudless.

No, it was more than that. Here in the spring of hockey’s discontent, there has been no pro sports in downtown Detroit since last December, when the Lions were stumbling to their finish. It has been vacant in Motown. Joe Louis Arena is as silent as a memory. There were winter nights when the only noise on Jefferson or Woodward was a cold, howling wind.

Monday morning, that began to change. Giant speakers were hoisted. Banners were unfurled. Vendors came out. And fans stuffed the decks, roofs and parking lots for the annual rite of spring.

Near the Comerica Park elevator, amidst the growing tumult, Mike Ilitch stood alone, unnoticed. He was heading to an owner’s seat for the first time in months.

“I haven’t known what to do with myself these past months,” said the hockey/baseball mogul. “Imagine if you couldn’t do what you do all that time. I can’t wait to get started here.”

Tigers 11, Kansas City 2.

Nice start.

What a day.

Just circle October

“You couldn’t have written a better script,” said Alan Trammell, the Tigers’ manager, when this one was over. “Normally, the first weeks of the season you don’t draw that many fans because the kids are still in school. Maybe, after this, even some of them will come down.”

Hey. Keep playing that way, Tram, and there’ll be a new form of official school closings -“canceled due to baseball fever.”

Let’s be honest. If this opener felt a bit more electric, more energized, more ┬ůsignificant, well, there’s a reason. For the last decade, ever since the Red Wings began making Stanley Cup finals, the sports log for Detroit springtime has been: 1) Red Wings trade deadline. 2) Red Wings final regular-season games. 3) First baseball game, Opening Day. 4) Two months of hockey playoffs. 5) Second baseball game – sometime in June.

Then the Pistons got hot, and baseball moved even farther down the attention scale.

“We’ve been the redheaded stepchild of the Ilitch sports teams for a while,” Young joked before the game, sitting by his locker. “And to be honest, when we were 43-119, not getting attention might have been good.

“But it’s turning around. We’ve got the stage now with no hockey. And I’m glad to see it. I was here when the season was all but over by June. I plan to be here when we’re playing in October.”

Two hours later, what did he do to back that up? He clocked three home runs. October isn’t such a pipe dream when you hit like that.

Young came out for a curtain call after his third dinger as the sold-out crowd went berserk. (“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Young, who went 4-for-4, with five RBIs.) But it wasn’t just the designated hitter’s heroics. Here was Brandon Inge smacking a two-run homer and making a sweet defensive play at third base. Here was starting pitcher Jeremy Bonderman, only 22, going seven innings, allowing one run, getting the victory. Here was Percival in the ninth, earning his first Tigers strikeout. Here was every Detroit batter getting at least one hit or scoring at least one run.

Here was a listed sellout crowd of 44,105, which is roughly 10 percent more than capacity.

So can the fans now say “we gave 110 percent”?

Forget about steroids

Detroit needed this day. And baseball needed days like this everywhere. For the last few months, as the snows and rains fell, all we heard about baseball was steroids. Barry Bonds and steroids. Jason Giambi and steroids. Congress and steroids. It got so that you couldn’t discuss the game without employing the sentence “Do you care if he used them?”

That is not baseball talk. That’s clinic talk. So the balls, strikes, doubles and triples couldn’t come fast enough for commissioner Bud Selig.

Around here, the game also sent a signal. It sent a signal that downtown is open again for Motown sports fans. It sent a signal that hockey isn’t the only game in town.

And it sent a signal that we all had made it, one more spring, one more mark on the wall, one more song of the turtle, one more glimpse of downtown streets, bursting at the seams, people dancing and eating and cheering as one.

“It was a terrific afternoon,” Trammell said. Consider that an understatement. That sky. That noise. Those home runs. It reminded you of that old Nat King Cole song, by Lerner and Loewe:

What a day this has been,

what a rare mood we’re in,

why it’s almost like being in ┬ů

… What? Love? Or baseball? On Monday, there wasn’t much of a difference.

OPENING DAY HIGH TEMPERATURES AT COMERICA PARK:

April 4, 2005: 65 degrees. April 8, 2004: 53 degrees March 31, 2003: 45 degrees April 5, 2002: 40 degrees April 3, 2001: 53 degrees April 11, 2000: 39 degrees

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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