LAKELAND, Fla. -- The sunny skies and warm temperatures made for a good atmosphere as Tigers pitchers and catchers filed into camp Monday morning. Even though formal workouts don't begin until Tuesday morning, many spent Monday on the field, including manager Brad Ausmus, checking out batting practice from the position players who arrived early.
Even so, there's a shadow over the Tigers complex beyond the palm trees in the sun. As Detroit mourns the loss of Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, the sentiment is felt here, more than a thousand miles away.
For more than a decade, the Tigers operated with an end goal of winning a World Series for Ilitch to go with his four Stanley Cup titles from the Red Wings. Now, as the Tigers' window of contention with the current squad begins to close, they're suddenly left to try to win in his memory.
"It was definitely shocking," catcher Alex Avila said. "I mean, even when you know something is inevitable, something like that, somebody passing away, someone that you know, there's no way to prepare for that. And I know a lot of people over the past few days have had heavy hearts. …
"Hopefully it maybe could be a bit of a rallying cry for this team as well, going into this year. Being a part of the team for many years, winning four straight division championships, always trying to get him that title and not being able to, I know it doesn't sit well with a lot of guys in the clubhouse."
Avila grew up around the Tigers organization, hanging out around the team during his high school years with his father in the front office before becoming the Tigers' catcher in 2009. He saw Ilitch many times. Fellow catcher James McCann didn't have nearly as much time around the organization and Ilitch, but has a fond memory of his generosity and interest in baseball.
"Last TigerFest, my flight [home] got canceled and there was a Red Wings game [that night], so we actually got tickets to go over there [to Joe Louis Arena]. He had me come up to the owners' box and hang out with him for the entire game," McCann said. "Just the type of person that he was, the impact that he had on so many people, directly and indirectly, honestly it makes you feel bad that we never got him a World Series ring that he wanted so bad.
"I think it casts a theme over the entire season. I was only able to be around for a little over two years at the big league level, but I had a few interactions with him."
The Ilitch family is still working out details over memorial displays, but said in a statement Sunday night that a memorial opportunity or recognition event will be planned at the Tigers' Spring Training complex. It would be fitting, because along with the new Little Caesars Arena that will open later this year in downtown Detroit, the Tigertown renovation was one of the last projects authorized by Ilitch, working with the city of Lakeland to upgrade Joker Marchant Stadium and the team's facilities.
Though work is still being completed before the Tigers open their Grapefruit League schedule next week, the scope of the complex is clear. A massive building looms beyond the right-field fence housing a new Tigers clubhouse, which looks as big or bigger than their comforts at Comerica Park, as well as a weight room, team offices and game suites. The concourse has been widened underneath the stands and now runs around the outfield. What used to be the team offices and clubhouse now holds a party deck for fans to watch games in a social setting.
"Probably six, seven years in the old digs, and then coming here and checking this out," Avila said. "Yesterday I got in and got lost and couldn't find my way around. It's so much bigger than the old clubhouse and everything. It's good."
Like the construction crew, however, the Tigers have work to do before then. Workouts officially begin Tuesday for pitchers and catchers, and Saturday for the full squad. As they do, Ilitch will be on their minds.
"It's been a tough couple days," Avila said, "but I think Spring Training will be a distraction too. But there really is no way to prepare for that. You just have to deal with what life brings you."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.