LAKELAND, Fla. — I’m not down there now, but this column deserves a dateline.
My only debate is using where we stayed (Kissimmee) as the dateline. The resort was a nice place to stay, but my brothers and I essentially just used it to sleep and shower. We were always on the go.
It was great being back in the rotation with brothers Bryant and Kevin to be a part of their regular voyage down to either Florida or Arizona at some point in March. A big part of it is hitting spring training games.
I made my third trip in four years down south from March 19-24. Bryant and Kevin started doing this a little bit before me. I was able to first come along in 2015. I had more vacation time, and there was a break in the local sports schedule, relatively speaking.
To make this happen, I had to get my bases covered here at work. Rotate coverage for boys basketball teams who make deep postseason runs and have stuff done in advance for a spring sports preview edition. When I was based in Angola, I also needed my sports colleagues to keep an eye on Trine University spring sports teams as they were starting their seasons.
I thank my teammates here at KPC Media Group for allowing me to get away all three times I have had a chance to do so when I have been here. All the spring sports previews were edited by the early morning hours of March 19, and photos from last year’s spring sports action were placed where they needed to be by then to make life easier on the fine KPC Creative staff. Photo cutlines were done while I was gone. You will see the finished product later this week.
We watched some baseball, enjoyed too much food and drink, and had some different activities sprinkled in throughout the week.
A full week
Disney has blown up down there beyond my comprehension, or what I care to consume. I went along for the ride, and turned the sound down on my phone when I played games on it so I did not tick my brothers off.
One part of Disney has a mall, and in that we saw a movie (Game Night with Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), and went through a Star Wars virtual reality maze where we looked like storm troopers, shot toy guns, wore vests that vibrated when we were shot by enemies, and did a color memory drill that reminded me of Simon to open up another room. I sweated some and the temperatures were unseasonably cool for much of the week we were down there.
I became a member of TopGolf on the night of March 19. After seeing the final moments of Central Michigan women’s basketball team upset victory over Ohio State in Columbus to reach the Sweet 16 with great pride, my brothers and I hit the driving range and hit some targets. The membership will come in handy as there are TopGolf facilities in the Indianapolis and Detroit areas.
We also caught some good hockey as the Tampa Bay Lightning (constructed by general manager and former Red Wing great Steve Yzerman) rallied from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 on March 20. It was the second time in as many years Bryant and Kevin saw the Lightning play at Amalie Arena. We all saw the Phoenix Suns play the New York Knicks when we went down to Arizona a couple years ago.
In Florida, we pretty much followed our Detroit Tigers. We usually buy tickets to sit on the outfield berms. They are cheaper, and it’s an opportunity to get autographs as players and coaches head to their cars or team buses (Autographs is Kevin’s job. Nice collection of memorabilia he has. Not for sale.).
Before too long, we walk around the ballpark, especially when the minor leaguers wearing numbers in the 80s and 90s really entered the games in the later innings.
The roaming was not what it used to be because of the chance we could give a shout out to a young man whose father takes us back to our childhood. That young man is outfielder Cam Gibson, the son of former big leaguer and current Fox Sports Detroit analyst Kirk Gibson.
The younger Gibson, who will start this season at high Class A Lakeland, played ball at the same school his dad starred at as a wide receiver from 1975-78, Michigan State. Bryant graduated from there. Kevin caught on to that Spartan vibe and got his leather lungs on from the berms to quote Spartan football coach Mark Dantonio, “Go Green!” Cam acknowledged it both times.
Fun in real seats
There were some moments when we did not sit on the berm. For instance, we acted like big shots on March 19 and got seats in The 34 Club. It was an all-you-can-eat seat and that kind of set the tone for the week. There were burgers, hot dogs, desserts, beef wellington, various vegetables, etc. Bryant and Kevin informed/warned me that Little Caesars Pizza would be coming later in the game.
We also saw Kirk Gibson and former Tigers manager Jim Leyland in the club, which celebrates the longest running relationship between a Major League Baseball team and a Spring Training city that dates back to 1934. Leyland is a special assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila.
The other major happening was getting a foul ball out of pity while avoiding injury at Spectrum Field in Clearwater on March 22 as the Tigers took on the Philadelphia Phillies. My brothers met up with a mutual friend of theirs and I stayed in my seat down the right-field line as they walked around the ballpark.
It was somewhere in the middle of the game and apparently Nick Williams was batting for the Phillies. A ball was lined foul and headed in my general area. People in the row in front of me got out of the way, and I was more frozen out of focus. I put my right hand out in front of me just to block it. It hit the fleshy part of my right hand just below and between my index and middle fingers.
I let out a noise when I was struck, then tried to downplay it while flexing the hand some. An usher came down and asked if I was OK. The kindness around me was nice, but I didn’t want the attention. I was given the ball after it trickled down a row or two for taking the brunt of it. Not sure that was right. My dad told me before that at my age, if I get a ball hit to me in the stands, find a kid to give the ball to. But there was not a kid immediately around me and no one complained.
Did I mention that MLB’s spring training hats make me weak? We also visited Hogan’s Beach Shop in Clearwater, brother, and I could not resist there either. Whatcha gonna do?
I did not get caught up in the games all that much. I wanted to see the relievers have smooth outings. Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene were solid. Alex Wilson had an OK outing against the Phillies, but he did give up a solo homer to Adam Rosales.
I also wanted to see what some of the Tigers’ prospects, including the guys that came back in last season’s trade deadline deals for Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila. The sample sizes were too small for the likes of Daz Cameron, Isaac Paredes, Jose King, etc.
We saw over a third of Christin Stewart’s spring training at-bats against the Phillies on March 22. The former Tennessee Volunteer was 3-for-5 with a run scored in Detroit’s 6-2 win.
The ball jumps off of Stewart’s bat. He had 58 home runs in the last two minor league seasons, and is recognizing secondary pitches better, according to The Athletic Detroit’s Emily Waldon, who religiously follows the Tigers’ minor league system. Can the 24-year-old show enough defense in the outfield in Toledo this season, or is he Victor Martinez’s replacement at designated hitter?
We saw an awful lot of Niko Goodrum last week. Last week was probably important to finalize the roster, and those in the running saw a lot of playing time. Goodrum was definitely one of them. The non-roster invitee who can play multiple positions made the team.
My brothers and I also saw a tri-state area product get shelled in Bryan, Ohio, native Matt Wisler. Wisler was competing for a spot in Atlanta’s bullpen and his relief outing against the Tigers on March 23 at Champion Stadium in the ESPN Wild World of Sports Complex sealed his fate to Triple A Gwinnett.
Wisler did not get anybody out in the seventh inning. All seven hitters he faced reached base and scored, from high A guys like Cameron and Daniel Pinero to major league mainstays like James McCann and Alexi Amarista. Wisler allowed six hits and one walk in the Braves’ 11-3 loss to Detroit.
Wisler might be at a crossroads. After making 45 starts with the Braves in 2015 and 2016, he was moved out of Atlanta’s starting rotation last year for more veteran help like R.A. Dickey and Jaime Garcia. Now, the Braves are developing enough pitching talent where Wisler is being passed up. A couple examples are in Atlanta’s starting rotation in second-year big leaguers Luiz Gohara, 21, and Sean Newcomb.
Message of hope
Signed autographs can go in some different extremes. It can be illegible, perhaps annoyed, scribble. Or it can send a message.
James McCann signed Kevin’s ball with a Bible verse, Mark 10:27. That verse says, Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
In some way, it is part of the positive culture the Tigers are trying to build while many experts and fans think they are likely to lose 100 games with a rebuild in full effect. But it goes much deeper than that.
McCann’s wife Jessica gave birth to twin boys on Dec. 6, which was nine and a half weeks before her due date. Christian and Kane McCann spent seven weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. James and Jessica McCann are deep in their faith and used it to pull them through a trying time.
Bryant did congratulate the blessed father on the additions to his family as he signed an autograph on his way out of Champion Stadium on March 23. Good to give as you receive.
Ken Fillmore is sports director for KPC Media Group’s daily newspapers.