LAKELAND, Fla. -- The last time Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch visited Tigertown for Spring Training, Ron Gardenhire was the manager, prospect Riley Greene was putting on a show and trying to force his way into the lineup, and Joker Marchant Stadium was seating fans at full capacity.
That was a couple weeks before the pandemic brought baseball to a halt a year ago. As he looked around the facility this week, Ilitch expressed optimism -- not just with the prospects on the field and A.J. Hinch in the dugout, but with fans returning to the ballpark in a limited capacity.
He’s hopeful that the attendance, and the safety protocols involved this spring, can be a model for bringing fans back to Comerica Park when the team heads north and the season begins to unfold.
“As it relates to fans, our team is working hard back in Detroit with government officials and health experts to make sure that we're able to welcome fans back to Comerica Park in a safe manner,” Ilitch said on Tuesday. “And as it relates to attendance capacity, that's going to be guided by government officials and by the health experts. But I'm very confident that our team is going to be able to execute the protocols and procedures to safely welcome fans back to Comerica Park for Opening Day. So very excited about that.”
The state of Michigan announced last week that up to 1,000 fans will be allowed at outdoor sporting events at large-scale venues. The state health order will be revisited next month based on COVID numbers and other available data.
Ilitch indicated that the Tigers have been in communication with state and local officials, and provided information from MLB and other clubs on attendance.
“We have a very good working relationship and dialogue with not only the state of Michigan but with government officials at multiple levels,” Ilitch said. “We've laid out very clearly all of our capabilities, and we've shared industry information and data that's available from other clubs and other locales, and all of that, I think, has been very appreciated by all the government officials that we meet with.
“At the same time, we've heard from government officials, what their key interests are in terms of keeping people safe, which is exactly where they should be focused, and making sure that we're developing protocols and processes and confidence so that they can hopefully allow more and more fans to attend games at Comerica Park as the season goes on. And I think if the trends continue along the positive lines that we've seen around COVID, not only in Michigan and Detroit but throughout the country, I'm hopeful that that will continue.”
The Tigers played a 58-game schedule last season without fans in the seats. Asked how that and the possibility of fans returning affected their offseason dealings, Ilitch said the club stuck to the plan formulated by general manager Al Avila.
“When I look at what we're doing, I think we're on the right path,” Ilitch said. “Al has been clear from day one. He's got a plan, and as an organization we're executing that plan. It's a plan that we know works. We've done it before, and it's homegrown talent that is the foundation of championships. And so we continue down that path, and it's exciting, because so many of our young prospects are now on the cusp.
“The most difficult part is the patience. But I'm just like the fans -- I want to see our young players make the big leap. And it's good to see so many prospects in camp today.”
Ilitch said a few times on Tuesday that Detroit's prospects are on the cusp of the big leagues. He also confirmed that the plan is to supplement the young talent in time with free agents, a blueprint they conveyed to Hinch when he interviewed for the managerial post last fall.
“Al and myself were very, very clear and upfront with A.J., and laid out the plan, which is essentially to build a young core of homegrown talent, that then we will fill in and supplement through free agency as we need to,” Ilitch said. “And A.J. understands that, is completely on board with that. And we know this is the plan that can work. We've done it in the past in terms of rebuilding the Tigers. We're going to do everything that's required to do it again.”