Home opener is simply bigger in Detroit

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Craig Skeltis paints the blue outline of the Olde English D logo behind home plate at Comerica Park. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

Lynn Henning, Detroit News staff writer

To no one's surprise who knew him during his double-tour years as the Tigers bullpen closer, Todd Jones doesn't remember a particular Opening Day game or save.

Rather, when he thinks back upon those days at Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park, he remembers visuals, atmosphere, and how a game could act as a touchstone for a town and its team.

"Opening Day was one of the few ways to mark your time in the big leagues," Jones said from his home in Georgia, where he lives three years after retiring from baseball. "It was a tip of the cap to things brand-new.

"In Detroit, Opening Day's bigger. It's a sign to the fans that it won't be cold and gray anymore -- that the Tigers will be there every night to give you something to watch and wait for."

Ask him for a stream-of-consciousness reflection on Detroit's Opening Days and Jones is ready:

"The governor or mayor or some dignitary will throw out the first pitch and get booed terribly. Then, Miss Michigan will sing the national anthem. Maggs (Magglio Ordonez) or Cabby (Miguel Cabrera) will hit a home run, and Brandon (Inge) makes another amazing play, and (Jose) Valverde notches another save.

"A big hug from Jim Leyland while we're walking off the field and a huge Opening Day postgame spread put out by our clubhouse manager, Jim Schmakel."

Never mind Valverde arrived in Detroit a couple years after Jones retired. That self-effacing Deep South right-hander still prefers talking about other players — even when they represent the very job and place he occupied during those Opening Days.

Fans make it special

Alan Trammell, too, can talk about Detroit's unofficial "Welcome to Spring" celebration, all from the perch of a man who experienced it as a player, manager, and coach during four decades from 1978-2005.

He understands the continuity and distinctions that a day and different parks have provided.

"Tiger Stadium, the people were on top of you," said Trammell, now a coach for former Tigers great Kirk Gibson with the Diamondbacks. "Comerica Park — the Opening Day crowd was the same, no less loud, but the proximity was different.

"What's different about Detroit is that the fans are going to come out, regardless of what kind of team you might have, unlike the West Coast where it might not be the event it is in the Midwest. In towns like Detroit and Chicago, even if it's 40 degrees, it's time to get out of the house and the condos and play baseball."

Willie Horton's regard for Opening Day is also personal to his experience and his place in Tigers history.

Horton is a native Detroiter. He grew up as a city-dwelling fan who evolved into a Tigers hero of such importance he has a Comerica Park statue dedicated to him.

"I'd be up all night," Horton remembers of those hours that preceded an Opening Day game at Tiger Stadium, where during the 1960s and early 70s he would be stationed in left field.

And then Horton would go about a routine he still follows as a special assistant to Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.

"I'd go to the ballpark and meet all the people, all the professional people down there, the people who really are still part of my life," said Horton, who slammed 325 home runs during his 18-year career. "You know, the whole crew — the ushers, the vendors, the grounds crew. The game doesn't just start with us. It starts with the people at the ballpark — and the fans.

"We're very fortunate to have the fans in Detroit who love the athletes and love their sports. All the great people. I call them my extended family."

He is now 68 years old, but Horton said Thursday nothing would change this year. He expected to be up half the night, excited and nervous, all before heading to the Opening Day clubhouse today for his usual rounds of conversation and counsel.

Bearing the cold

Dan Petry will be there, as well. He'll be working with Channel 2's Dan Miller during pregame and postgame shows.

Petry's role is a bow to the 11 seasons (spanning three stints) he pitched for the Tigers and to the decision Petry and his wife, Chris — both native Californians — made in making Metro Detroit their full-time home.

"For me, Opening Day was refreshing after you had spent all that time in Lakeland," Petry said of the team's Florida spring camp. "Now you're going home."

Petry remembers Opening Day 1990, and how it "was colder than heck" as he rejoined the team following a two-year stint with the Angels. It was so frigid that Petry should have been wearing a snowmobile suit.

But he tossed aside his windbreaker for pregame introductions. He didn't want to conceal the more important wardrobe beneath it.

"I just said there's no way I'm going to wear my jacket, not when I was so proud of that Olde English D and the cream-colored uniform," Petry said. "You're just so proud when you stand on that baseline — it's almost like when you're introduced at an All-Star Game or at the World Series.

"I had left for those two years and I was so happy and proud to be back."

Petry pitched for the Tigers in a single home opener: 1984, three days after Jack Morris had thrown a no-hitter at Chicago.

"I gave up a run in the first," said Petry, who was the winning pitcher in the sixth of nine consecutive games with which the Tigers opened their 1984 world championship season. "I think Buddy Bell got a single, and then Larry Parrish got one. And both later became Tigers managers."

Which means they, too, understood Opening Day in Detroit.

And how it differs from all other days, holidays, and celebrations a baseball-loving city and a state so giddily observe.

Opening Day

Gates open: 12:30 p.m.

Highlights: A flag raising honoring the late Sparky Anderson; national anthem by Committed; moment of silence for the late Bill Lajoie, Steve Boros, Cecil Kaiser and Woodie Fryman, as well as those who died in the earthquake and tsunami in Japan; "God Bless America" performed by Scott Stapp, lead singer for Creed

Promotion: "April in the D" Rally Towel for the first 10,000 fans

On deck: Royals

Series: Three games, today-Sunday, Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: 3:05 today, 4:10 p.m. Saturday, 1:05 p.m. Sunday

TV/radio: FSD today-Sunday, Fox today/WXYT today-Saturday, 1270 Sunday

Probables: Today — Kyle Davies (0-0, 6.75) vs. Max Scherzer (1-0, 10.80); Saturday — Bruce Chen (0-0, 9.00) vs. Phil Coke (0-1, 7.71); Sunday — Luke Hochevar (0-1, 6.17) vs. Rick Porcello (0-1, 9.00)