Keep on truckin': Equipment heads south

January 31st, 2018

DETROIT -- The gusty wind rushing up Woodward Avenue was a reminder for Wednesday morning commuters that winter still has a firm grasp on Michigan. The reminder that spring is on its way was still hidden in the bowels of Comerica Park, supported by 18 wheels.

As the first of two tractor-trailers filled up with Tigers equipment bound for Lakeland, Fla., Spring Training crept up on the horizon. By the time the truck was ready to go Wednesday afternoon, the sun was creeping out from the clouds over Detroit, sending it on its way.

"Spring hopes bloom eternal," longtime Tigers clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel said. "Here we go again."

Spring Training tickets

The hopes are different now than in springs past, as the Tigers begin their rebuilding project in earnest. But for Schmakel, who begins his 40th Spring Training in charge of the Tigers' clubhouse and equipment, it's an annual tradition he has down to a science, even as the cargo changes.

When Schmakel started the job four decades ago, there were more players who lived in Michigan year-round and needed to send their gear south. One year, Schmakel even drove Jack Morris' dogs down to Florida with him.

Weight equipment wasn't as much of the cargo back then, because so few players lifted weights. Then it became not only popular but a critical part of player preparation, leading the Tigers to essentially pack up their weight room and send it south with them. Once the Tigers opened their renovated Spring Training complex last year, complete with a state-of-the-art training room, Schmakel didn't have to ship weights anymore.

Some of that weight is replaced by video and computer equipment, once a luxury but now precious cargo with the rise of advanced metrics and new-age analysis.

"We do have more video stuff," Schmakel said, "but our video guys, Andy [Bjornstad] and David [Allende], are very efficient and help us out by not overloading us. But there is a lot more video equipment."

Spring Training information

While the names on the back of the jerseys have changed -- and this year, so has the front, with the Olde English D style updated to match the caps -- the need to ship the jerseys and other gear hasn't. For all the changes, the Tigers are likely to have about the same number of players in camp as last year, somewhere in the low 60s barring a blizzard of late-offseason signings.

"Mark Cave, my assistant, is also my seamster," Schmakel said. "If we need something really quick, he's able to do them. We have blank jerseys. If it's something where the guy's coming in in two or three days, Fanatics, which is Majestic, they're very good at getting us the stuff within a day or two."

While bats and baseballs are an obvious must, most of them are shipped directly to Lakeland these days. The players usually take care of their own gloves.

As the Tigers' 82nd season of training in Lakeland nears, there are still reminders of that history on the truck. The Tigers pack the same mechanical hat stretcher -- a long-ago gift from the president of the New Era cap company -- that they've used for decades. The bicycle that Schmakel uses to dart around the Tigertown complex usually goes on the second truck, which leaves next week with luggage from Tigers front-office members and support personnel.

Schmakel, his staff and the crew at Frisbie Moving & Storage began loading the truck around 7 a.m. ET on Wednesday. By 9:30 a.m., it was fully packed and ready to head south, a model in efficiency bolstered by experience.

"We work all winter for this day," Schmakel said. "And as you can see, we did pretty good. We got it out quick. But we have a lot of stuff we have to pack. New equipment comes in throughout the month of December and January. We have new fleeces, new hoodies, new dri-fits, new T-shirts for Spring Training, new socks. We have all sorts of new equipment that we have to get organized and ready to unload off the truck in Lakeland."

Add up two full trailers, and nearly 80,000 pounds of equipment makes the two-day trek south from Detroit to Lakeland. Once it arrives in Lakeland, it's greeted by a small army of clubhouse assistants, many of them college students from Michigan and Ohio who use this as an internship of sorts in sports management.

The faces and freight change, but the tradition doesn't. Nor does the warm Florida sunshine greeting them.