Polk County hasn't changed much in 40 years. The Fossil Museum is still 20 minutes down Route 33. Albeit upgraded, the Tigers have the same home clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium as they had when Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, Billy Martin and Willie Horton were Tigers, when Mark Fidrych prepared for his first 1976 start on the mound at midnight and Dave Rozema tried to clean his new Corvette with a Brillo pad.
The clubhouse at Joker Marchant is one of the places where Prince Fielder grew up, so, to a degree, he's come back home as a free-agent prodigal son. Jim Schmakel is still the clubbie, the same guy who, when Prince was ages six to 11 and his father Cecil was a Tiger, let him hit in the cages, gave him a uniform, provided him with baggy uniform pants and gave him candy bars.
"What's better than bats, balls, unis and candy bars when you're a kid?" Prince laughs, but then Prince laughs a lot. "I used to wrestle with Tony Phillips. But I learned a great deal, especially that you can wrestle and have fun, but when it's time to work and time to play, it's dead serious."
From the time he signed his nine-year, $210 million contract, Fielder has been "amazed" at how Tigers fans have treated him. "It has been unbelievable, and it makes me realize what history these fans have with their team," he says. Go to Joker Marchant and there is the ever-distinguished Kaline. Willie Horton is working with hitters in the cage.
Detroit has a remarkable baseball tradition. Cobb. Greenberg. Gehringer. Newhowser. Trucks. Lolich and McLain. Tramell and Whitaker and Morris and Gibson. Some credited the 1968 World Series champions with saving Detroit in a summer or riots and unrest.
As the downtown was abandoned and the last department store closed in the mid-'80, survival hasn't been easy. "Sports has really meant a lot to the city," says Jim Leyland. "The Red Wings. Pistons. The Lions now. And we've had a pretty good run here."
Leyland came out of retirement and managed the Tigers to the 2006 World Series. Because owner Mike Ilitch has cared so much for his city and those the economy had passed, this is in many ways a golden era for the franchise, years beyond Tiger Stadium, where Prince Fielder hit BP homers as a pre-teen. In the six seasons since Leyland returned, the Tigers have averaged more than 2.7 million in attendance; the club record was the 2.7 million they drew in the World Series year of 1984. They set new records of three million and 3.2 million in 2007 and 2008, and coming off a season in which they reached the ALCS and Justin Verlander won the Cy Young and MVP and the club won 95 games, there is the hope that they will establish another attendance mark.
It is a credit to Leyland, Dave Dombrowski, Al Avila, Mike Chadd and the organization. They drafted, signed and developed Verlander. They drafted and signed enough talent to trade for Miguel Cabrera, one of the game's best hitters. They went out and traded at the 2011 deadline for Doug Fister, who went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 10 regular-season starts and won two more games in the postseason.
But when Ilitch shelled out $210 million for Fielder, it sent waves around a city whose hope and pride has been rekindled by the rebirth of the auto industry. "I came in here, watched one day of BP and figured out that I need a parking spot way at the end of Tigertown," says Delmon Young. "I don't need any dents in my car."
In addition to Prince, there is Cabrera, who had 48 doubles, 30 homers and a 1.003 OPS; Brennan Boesch, who had 16 homers in 115 games; Jhonny Peralta, 21 homers at short; and Al Avila, 19 homers and a 143 OPS+.
Could defense be a problem? Probably. Leyland recalls he won the 1997 World Series with Bobby Bonilla playing third for the Marlins, and says Cabrera has good hands, a very strong arm and works hard. He says Brandon Inge has been a huge surprise at second base.
Inge worked out all winter in Ann Arbor, Mich., doing mixed martial arts and strength and agility training. He claims to be in the best shape of his life. "I was embarrassed by last season [when he hit .197 and was sent to Toledo], so I decided to kill myself, come back and try to hit 25 home runs."
With his knee reconditioned, Inge has shown surprising range. He claims not to have had any problems with the double play (especially with his strong arm) and says second base is a better position than third to use his range. So now Inge will have started at every position but pitcher and first base, and, remember, in college he was a closer who threw in the mid-90s.
With Verlander, Max Scherzer, Fister, Rick Porcello and possibly Jacob Turner, the Tigers have a power rotation they hope won't be overly impacted by any defensive problems they might have behind them.
The Tigers are going to hit bombs. With Prince and Cabrera in the middle of the order behind Austin Jackson and Boesch, they should be the most powerful team in the AL Central. And to no one's surprise, Prince has fit in as if he was there last October, starting with the fact that he constantly reminds folks that "this is Miguel Cabrera's team."
After the Tigers signed Fielder, Leyland received calls from five or six baseball associates raving to him about Fielder's work ethic and how much teammates like and respect him. "He's everything I was told and more," says Leyland.
Now Jim Schmakel is fixing uniforms and handing out candy bars to Jaden Fielder, Prince's seven-year-old son. It's the way it is and long has been here in Tigertown, miles from the Fossil Museum and a mini-mart selling worms.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.