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On frigid day, TigerFest draws massive turnout

DETROIT -- If there was any question how fans would take to the return of TigerFest after a year's hiatus, two sights might have answered them.

The first was the line of fans waiting to get into Comerica Park before the gates opened to the public. It started building before 9 a.m. ET, two hours before the official open. By the time the gates opened, the line not only stretched to Woodward Avenue, as it has in past years, it wrapped around the block that encompasses the parking lot and came back to the ballpark.

The second sight came hours later as the festivities were winding down and players were beginning to find their bags for their trips home. The lines were gone, but one more group of fans slowly made its way down the sidewalk from downtown. It was a wedding party from a nearby church, heading over for pictures in front of the Tiger statue.

It's a fairly common sight in the summer, when wedding groups will head down to the field for memories. But in January, it's something else.

If not for the snow on the ground and the rock salt on the sidewalks, it would've been hard to tell that baseball season is still more than two months away. Yet, in some ways, TigerFest is more special than the season itself.

"It's probably the most personal thing you get to do with the fans," catcher Alex Avila said. "You get to put a face to the three million people [in attendance during the season]."

It was an opportunity they didn't have last winter, when renovations at Comerica Park closed off the park for any big offseason events. The Tigers put together a Kids Convention to try to promote some availability, but it wasn't the same. The personal interaction, the autographs and the storytelling weren't there.

The reception Saturday amid freezing temperatures in Michigan showed what it meant for fans. Many players felt the same.

"There's been excitement in the air every time," reliever Phil Coke said. "Last year was the only time I missed it, but it seems like there's constant excitement every time we come to town, because I think everybody is recognizing the upward trend. We just want to keep that going."

Even when the Tigers haven't been coming off a good season, they've sold out TigerFest. The anticipation seems to build regardless. Pair up a team coming off an American League pennant with a group of superstar players, however, and the anticipation percolates. The crowds who followed the winter caravan to its public stops were a hint.

It didn't take long last month for tickets to sell out for TigerFest. Scalpers were making the rounds Saturday morning like it was a postseason game. Never mind that nobody was going to throw a pitch on the snow-covered field.

For veterans like Avila and Justin Verlander, it was a return to what they missed last year. For newcomers such as Torii Hunter, it was an eye-opener.

Hunter went on winter caravans when he was part of the Twins and got to know Tigers fans while wearing a Minnesota uniform as well. He hadn't seen this.

After team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and vice president/assistant GM Al Avila held a question-and-answer session with fans, Hunter went on the stage and on the radio to answer fan questions. He had just started talking about getting to know Detroit fans when somebody shouted out, "We love you!"

Hunter didn't miss a step.

"And I love ya back," Hunter answered.

Part of the reason for that playoff atmosphere and enthusiasm, of course, are the expectations. Manager Jim Leyland realized that. He knows how many fans reacted when the Tigers got off to a slow start last season.

He wants his players to appreciate the enthusiasm. He doesn't want them to get wrapped up in the expectations. The next time this team will be together, they'll be trying to built that excitement anew in the relative quiet of Lakeland, Fla., in just over two weeks.

"It's great for the fans to be excited and [have] a lot of expectations, and we embrace that," Leyland told fans. "But at the same time, when you're the manager, you just have to work hard. We're starting from scratch. Last year means nothing. Getting to the World Series and losing it, or getting there and winning it, doesn't mean anything in 2013.

"I don't want to dampen any spirit of the fans or anything. They should be all excited. I don't blame them. I'm glad they are. But when you're a manager, it's a little bit different. It's my job."

Detroit Tigers, Alex Avila, Phil Coke, Torii Hunter