Watch as the Detroit Tigers’ pitchers and catchers warm up with a game of catch on the first day of spring training on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Lakeland, Fla. Video by Anthony Fenech/DFP
LAKELAND, Fla. — A few days ago, Ron Gardenhire, 60 years old with solid gray facial hair, was asked for his identification.
He was pulling into the Detroit Tigers’ parking lot at Joker Marchant Stadium and the security guard didn’t recognize him. And walking around the TigerTown premises for the first time on Monday morning, he laughed about once again being the new kid on the block.
Gardenhire, the veteran manager of 13 seasons, felt something like a rookie on Wednesday afternoon when he addressed Tigers pitchers and catchers before their first formal workout of spring training.
“Honestly, I had the jitters when I walked in there,” he said. “I just caught myself speaking really fast to the team and I said, ‘This is going to be short and sweet and we’re going to do it,’ but I knew I was really talking fast.
“That was kind of part of my anxiety, chomping up and ready to go and excited. And when I finished, I don’t even remember what I stinking said, but I hope it was good. It was hard because I was really excited to be in front of a group again.”
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That excitement was hard to miss, especially on the back fields during pitchers fielding practice when he joined the ground ball rotation at first base.
“He can move around a little bit,” ace right-hander Michael Fulmer said. “I didn’t expect that. I think he yelled out ‘Oklahoma Shuffle’ one time he was throwing the ball to me, so his energy, we love it so far.”
There may be nothing Gardenhire loves more than being back in the manager’s chair, which is where he sat during his first media session of the spring inside his work-in-progress office. To his right was a blank bulletin board on the wall. Behind him, another bulletin board on a desk, still in the plastic wrapping.
Inside the Tigers’ clubhouse, the players he addressed were just as new to him.
“I walked in that clubhouse and I looked around and I don’t know that many guys,” he said. “As I’ve said, the big thing for me is to put eyes on them. I want to see these guys do their thing. I want to watch them, I want to get to know their personalities and the whole package. And what a better way to do it and get in this clubhouse and go.”
His players remain so new to him that he carried around a pocket-sized roster and offered this warning: “If you don’t wear a jersey, I won’t know your name and it might be all the way to the start of the season. So If I call you, ‘Hey, buddy,’ then I probably don’t know your name. They usually look at me and smile.”
The Tigers’ ran an upbeat operation as pitchers threw bullpen sessions and went through pitchers fielding practice and catchers took some batting practice. But Gardenhire stole the spotlight on a back field, showering his players with “Atta boy!” and showing he still might have a bit of athleticism.
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Fun was the first priority, he said, and that figures to continue throughout camp with a simple request to general manager Al Avila during the workout: Let’s get some music out here.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Wasn’t it dead out there? Sheesh. Standing out there and the birds flying by and they’re not even talking. We’re Detroit. We need some Motown.”
Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, whose Motown soundtrack can often be heard in the batting cages, has him covered on that end.
After taking ground balls, Gardenhire moved around the outfield during batting practice and whiffed on hitting a ball back to the infield. “I still can’t hit,” he said.
It was a fitting first look at the man who will be tasked with turning some of the Tigers’ young players into Major Leaguers. Nearly 20 minutes after players began filing into the clubhouse afterwards, Gardenhire was nowhere to be seen.
“He’s still out there fundamentaling,” a Tigers official said.
But for all the fundamentals they will stress this spring — a staple of the Gardenhire managing manual — he also said having fun is a focal point.
“This is baseball,” he said. “We will work and we’ve got a lot of things planned for this spring training and what we’re going to try to do and accomplish, but most of it is enjoy baseball and let these guys get after it and do these things right.
“But you come here and this is a game and we’re going to play it like a game and we’re going to have fun.”
And maybe listen to a few tunes in the process.
Contact Anthony Fenech: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech.