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Fans, players share enthuasiasm at TigerFest

MLB.com @beckjason

DETROIT -- Ron Gardenhire took the job as Tigers manager knowing he'd be playing the hand he's dealt as the team rebuilds. He probably wasn't figuring on sitting down at the table at Comerica Park for a hand in January.

Yet, as fans waited in line outside Comerica Park on Saturday morning for TigerFest as well as single-game tickets, Gardenhire spotted a game among a group of fans, grabbed a seat at their folding table and took a hand.

DETROIT -- Ron Gardenhire took the job as Tigers manager knowing he'd be playing the hand he's dealt as the team rebuilds. He probably wasn't figuring on sitting down at the table at Comerica Park for a hand in January.

Yet, as fans waited in line outside Comerica Park on Saturday morning for TigerFest as well as single-game tickets, Gardenhire spotted a game among a group of fans, grabbed a seat at their folding table and took a hand.

Later, Gardenhire stepped in behind the ticket window at the box office and surprised the fan with the lucky first spot in line for tickets.

This is right in Gardenhire's strike zone. As much as the Twins' run of division titles helped endear him to fans in his previous managerial tenure, his personality and his ability to relate to fans was a strength in allowing him to connect with fans in Minnesota.

"It was really exciting for me to get out there and mess with a few people out there," Gardenhire said. "And to sell the first ticket was kinda cool. Actually, I'd never been out in the ticket lines like that."

The feeling was mutual. While Gardenhire impressed fans, the passion of the fans at Saturday's TigerFest also made a big impression. The stars that became household names in Detroit over the years were either gone or not in attendance this weekend, and the faces in their place were young. But even with a potential year of growing pains ahead, the anticipation among fans at Comerica Park looked familiar.

Video: Gardenhire talks building talent, fundamentals

"Everybody's clad in Tiger outfits," Gardenhire marveled. "Things like that are really touching. I see the passion, and you know what, that's what's really exciting when we go around town. And then to see everyone standing in line for tickets, there's a big passion here, and that's good.

"There's a great history here with a lot of great teams and world championships. You know what, we're seeing it first-hand with Jack Morris and Alan Trammell going into the Hall of Fame. There's a lot to be really excited about with Detroit baseball. I'm just happy to be a part of it."

Not that his players were all that surprised by the excitement.

"This is the Detroit Tigers, man. Michigan loves their Tigers," right fielder Nicholas Castellanos said. "It's been around since, what, 1901? One rebuild isn't going to make or break them."

Video: Nicholas Castellanos sees his role as a leader in '18

Though TigerFest wasn't an instant sellout like years past, tickets sold out a few days ago. By the time gates opened, lines in front of Comerica Park stretched out to Woodward Avenue, just like past years. The forecast of spring-like weather didn't hurt; the high temperature of 50 degrees downtown would feel balmy on Opening Day, let alone the end of January. Even as Gardenhire mingled with fans earlier in the morning, the mid-40s temperatures were warmer than the normal highs here this time of year.

The warmth, though, still centered on a relationship between a team and its fans, carrying over from the Winter Caravan earlier in the week.

"They've been fantastic," Michael Fulmer said. "We were in Frankenmuth and I kid you not, there were probably a thousand people, and every single body that got on the mic, they basically almost started chants. They were so enthusiastic, so loud. And here, too, people were trying to get us to stop but we had to get to our next stop. I feel bad. But it's awesome to see the reaction that we're getting from these fans."

The intersection of past and future was evident, and fitting. Brandon Inge, Todd Jones and Don Kelly, all fan favorites over the last decade, returned to say hello and sign autographs. At the same time, fans lined up down the hall of the Comerica Park press box to get autographs from infield prospect Dawal Lugo, who came over last summer as part of the J.D. Martinez trade.

Kelly, who was a Tigers instructor for part of last season before transitioning into a full-time scouting position with the club, chatted with Lugo between autograph and seminar sessions. Likewise, current and future Tigers intersected this week.

Fulmer was a prospect when he first came to TigerFest two years ago, having joined the organization the previous summer as the headline prospect in the Yoenis Cespedes trade. This week, he was among the established Tigers getting to know new and future teammates, and encouraging fans to do the same.

Video: Michael Fulmer on what he learned in 2017

"I think it's just getting used to some of the new names," Fulmer said. "I think it's cool. They call it a rebuild, but I don't think it's much more of anything but just getting younger, more athletic, and I think it just takes time for those young guys to get reps in the big leagues. I think the more reps you get, obviously the better off you are.

"We're excited. The team chemistry is already there. I met some of these guys for the first time and I feel like we've been teammates before. I'm super-excited with how this year's going to turn out."

That excitement might not translate in the standings like years past, though Gardenhire isn't accepting expectations. If anything, this TigerFest seemed to go beyond expectations about results, with Gardenhire fittingly at the front.

"We moved some people around and I know there's some uneasiness here, but also there's some hope," Gardenhire said. "That's what baseball brings, that's what spring brings, is hope. You never know what's going to happen. I've seen all kinds of crazy things in this game.

"You know what, we've got talent. We've got some good talent. We've got some veteran leadership. If we can keep healthy and all those things, we can have a lot of fun. This is a learning game, and that's what we're all going to do together, grow with each other and learn with each other and make these guys enjoy coming to the ballpark and our fans enjoy watching these guys play."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

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