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At Tigers' tryout camp, players chase dream

From ex-big leaguers to bucket-list participants, all grateful for chance
MLB.com

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jack Patrick wasn't really sure what to expect Monday morning as he pulled into Tigertown, got his gear and walked to the back fields. He's from Michigan, so he grew up around the Spring Training lore of Tigers baseball here. But he had never been to a tryout camp.

On the same field as Patrick was Steve Clevenger, a six-year Major League catcher who spent last year in independent ball. He has been working out at the MLB Players Association camp.

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jack Patrick wasn't really sure what to expect Monday morning as he pulled into Tigertown, got his gear and walked to the back fields. He's from Michigan, so he grew up around the Spring Training lore of Tigers baseball here. But he had never been to a tryout camp.

On the same field as Patrick was Steve Clevenger, a six-year Major League catcher who spent last year in independent ball. He has been working out at the MLB Players Association camp.

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On a nearby field was Nolan Reimold, a teammate of Clevenger for three years with the Orioles and an eight-year big league veteran trying to get back in after taking off most of last year.

"I feel pretty good. I'm ready to play," Reimold said. "Just looking for the opportunity like a lot of other guys are."

Alongside him was Ryan Larson, an Orlando, Fla., native who played on the University of Florida's national championship team last year with Alex Faedo, the Tigers' first-round Draft pick in 2017.

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"It was definitely interesting to see everyone, because they're all on the same level, same playing field," Patrick said. "It was different, because I wasn't experienced with all that. I was just playing in high school, playing with kids my age. It was a whole new game with all these big dudes out here. You get everybody coming in and they're all doing their best to get that spot."

This is the nature of the open tryout, where players trying to stay in or get back into the game show their stuff alongside former athletes who simply want to say they tried. The Tigers are one of the last if not the last team to hold open tryouts. Some clubs hold invite-only camps, while some don't have any at all.

Once upon a time, teams used camps like these to find depth for their farm system. This is where a grinder or an overachiever could be found to play alongside prospects.

"This is my first one I've ever been to," said Clevenger, a seventh-round pick of the O's in 2006. "It's a cool opportunity to come down and see everybody get a first-chance experience."

The Tigers have success stories out of here. Wynton Bernard went from tryout camper in 2014 to Eastern League batting champion the next year at Double-A Erie, earning a spot on the 40-man roster and a trip to Major League camp. Jiwan James spent a year as an everyday center fielder at Class A Lakeland after the Tigers found him in '15.

Those stories are becoming rare. Like other teams, the Tigers have emphasized stocking their farm system with prospects and don't have as many openings. Unlike other clubs, they haven't given up on the open tryout.

"There's always guys out there that played a few years and generally didn't perform that well, then they're looking to try to get hooked up somewhere. You get that every year," Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield said. "We're in a little different situation, not that it's any significant factor, that we've got a lot of our own guys and we want to play those guys and give them opportunities. So we don't have a tremendous amount of need. But, having scouted for many years, you always keep your eyes open, because there's lots of stories through the years and things can happen."

Plus, Littlefield said, the nostalgia of it can be a good thing.

"I think it's a nice opportunity regionally for people to come in and get a chance to try out," Littlefield said. "There's some value in being a partner in the community with everything that people did here to help us out with the facility. So for the time being, [general manager] Al [Avila] feels strongly about that and we'll continue to do it."

So, for two hours Monday morning, Tigers Minor League coaches and amateur scouts worked out a crop of 60-70 players. One after another, outfielders unleashed throws from right field to second base, then third. Some skipped throws along the infield dirt. Others hit the fence in foul territory. A few hit the glove of the man at third base. Infielders made throws to first base. Catchers fired to second.

Pitching machines usually tuned for batting practice were turned up for balls closer to game speed. This is where bucket-list campers tend to get weeded out and players with pro experience can get noticed. One Tigers employee whose car was parked just beyond the left-field fence cringed each time a right-handed hitter went deep.

"If you talk to a group of scouts about the tryout camp lore, you'll hear so many funny stories of things that have happened," Littlefield said.

Out of all the campers, less than a dozen were kept around for another look. Reimold, Larson and Clevenger were among them. After another few rounds of batting practice, they were told the club would be in touch after checking their organizational needs.

"This one seems like it was run pretty well," said Reimold. "They did it up for us. They made you feel like they wanted to actually take a look."

Others were thanked for their time as they packed their bags and went back to their cars. Some will look for another camp, another opportunity to open eyes. Some, like Patrick, might come back next year to argue they've made progress. Others will cross out this item on their bucket list and tell their kids or their friends about the time they tried out for a big league team.

"You're at a bar with a few people and you tell them what you do and they go, 'Oh yeah? Well, I tried out for the Brewers,'" Littlefield said. "Well, this is the tryout."

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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