The wind chill was still below zero outside on Wednesday morning as Tigers clubhouse employees loaded up box after box of gear onto the truck headed for Spring Training. It was a little warmer where the truck was sitting in the stadium tunnels, but nothing like it will be when it reaches its destination.
It's the strongest reminder yet that baseball season isn't that far away for this frigid city. But for a change, thanks to an American League championship, the weather isn't the only reason to look ahead.
The loading of the truck is a annual rite of spring, albeit a quiet, cold one. It's the 29th time for Tigers clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel, and nearly half that for clubhouse assistant Tyson Steele. Even many of the movers for the company the Tigers hire out have been doing the routine for years now. Yet the tradition still has its subtle changes.
It's actually a two-day, two-truck event. The first truck, carrying clubhouse equipment, will leave Thursday on the nearly 1,200-mile journey for Lakeland. By the time the 10-man crew completes the approximately six hours of loading, the truck will be completely filled to the top, a load estimated at around 28,000 pounds. A second truck, carrying remaining clubhouse stuff, front-office equipment and luggage for everyone from team executives to media, won't be nearly so full when it leaves over the weekend.
Years ago, the truck carried much more from the clubhouse, including the weight room equipment and television sets off the tops of lockers. Improvements to the facilities at Joker Merchant Stadium have erased that need; much of the freight now consists of clothing, bats -- it's easier for the clubhouse personnel to mark the bats in Detroit than when they get to Lakeland -- and video equipment. Still, a relic or two gets mixed in.
Among the highlights: A hat stretcher, believed to be an antique among Major League teams, that the Tigers take on road trips with them. The team has had it since it was supplied by the New Era cap company in the 1980s, but the machine dates back years before that.
Despite the advancements, there's still more equipment being shipped down than before. And preparing it is a job that begins long before truck day. Soon after the season ends, Steele said, the process of taking inventory begins.
"Inventory and packing is what is comes down to," Steele said.
As cold as the weather is, the Tigers have had it worse loading the truck. When the team called Tiger Stadium home, they often had a tougher time with the elements. More than once, winter weather on the way down has delayed the truck by a day or two.
Though pitchers and catchers don't officially report to camp until next Thursday, and the full squad five days later, many of the players will already be in Lakeland by the time the trucks get there. Of course, most of them aren't driving from Detroit, either.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.