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Tigers' truck begins 1,167-mile trip to Lakeland

Clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel has overseen process for 41 years
MLB.com @beckjason

DETROIT -- The 50-degree weather at Comerica Park on Monday morning felt more like Opening Day than the final days before Spring Training. But the signs of the approaching baseball season were more visible in the bowels of the stadium.

There, boxes and crates and trunks and bags were stacked as high as the lockers in the Tigers' clubhouse. They stored everything from bats and baseballs, helmets and jerseys to clubhouse equipment. The mechanical hat stretcher Detroit has used for decades -- a gift from the president of the New Era hat company -- was packed away somewhere. So were a couple crates of laundry detergent.

DETROIT -- The 50-degree weather at Comerica Park on Monday morning felt more like Opening Day than the final days before Spring Training. But the signs of the approaching baseball season were more visible in the bowels of the stadium.

There, boxes and crates and trunks and bags were stacked as high as the lockers in the Tigers' clubhouse. They stored everything from bats and baseballs, helmets and jerseys to clubhouse equipment. The mechanical hat stretcher Detroit has used for decades -- a gift from the president of the New Era hat company -- was packed away somewhere. So were a couple crates of laundry detergent.

It's all headed on a 1,167-mile trip to Lakeland, Fla., where the Tigers open Spring Training next week. And for the 41st year, it's clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel's job to make sure the players have everything they need once they are there.

"Can hardly wait," Schmakel said. "Especially after last week and the minus-15 [weather], we're ready to go."

When Schmakel was preparing for his first Spring Training with the Tigers 41 years ago, he could pack everything onto one truck and still leave half the trailer empty. As weight equipment became more important, licensing agreements resulted in more gear and front-office members brought down filing cabinets' worth of records, Schmakel would fill two trailers end to end.

The last few years have seen that trend reverse. Detroit's renovated Spring Training complex includes a state-of-the-art weight room for year-round use, eliminating the need to bring much training equipment. The filing cabinets have been replaced by electronic records and cloud computing. Even all the video equipment that would make the trip in recent years has been reduced thanks to the recent investment in player development at the facility, putting some of the necessary gear down there. Still, expect video operations coordinator Andy Bjornstad to put some new gadgets to use that he picked up over the winter.

Even the bat shipments, Schmakel explained, are lighter. Most of the bats and balls are shipped directly to the Spring Training complex these days anyway.

"Since bat technology has improved, we probably use a lot less bats nowadays," Schmakel said. "They were all ash bats back then, and they'd splinter, and they'd break. With the evolution in bats with maple and birch, they don't break as many bats anymore."

One type of equipment that has increased is bicycles. Schmakel uses a bike to wheel quickly around Tigertown and keep track of everything during camp, and players have bought him bikes over the years as a token of appreciation for his work.

The Tigers will still fill a first truck, which Schmakel calls the equipment truck, with about 40,000 pounds of gear. The second truck, which carries most of the front-office shipments and remaining clubhouse gear, will have some space left.

Some things, however, don't change -- like the process Schmakel, his assistant Mark Cave and their energetic crew of clubhouse attendants use to pack up and move out.

"It basically starts when the season ends," Schmakel said. "We clean out what the players want sent home. We organize what they leave for Spring Training. If someone gets traded or released or moved in some manner, or retires, we'll send his personal stuff home. But the minute we get them out of here, like in two weeks, we start counting everything -- helmets, bats, balls -- to see what we need for Spring Training. …

"We stage a lot of stuff in the visiting clubhouse because during the winter they do ticket sales events in the clubhouse. So there's a lot of stuff over there -- helmets, suitcases. We start on the road this year, so we have to take all the suitcases down."

There are gems buried among all the clutter. An old jersey from Arcenio Leon's Spring Training as a non-roster invite two years ago sat in one plastic bin, mixed in with other office equipment. One of the duffel bags the crew uses to carry gear has Kenny Rogers' name on it, assigned to the left-hander a decade ago during his Tigers tenure.

Once the gear is loaded up, the tradition continues. The Tigers have used the same moving company and drivers -- Frank and Bob -- for years to bring the equipment to Florida. Bob serves as the leadoff man, driving the first truck, and Frank handles the cleanup spot. Each will time his drive in order to avoid rush-hour traffic through major cities like Atlanta.

Once the first truck arrives Wednesday afternoon, many of the clubhouse assistants who loaded the trailers are on hand to unload the equipment, having flown to Florida the previous day.

"We'll probably empty that truck by about 1 or 2 in the afternoon," Schmakel said. "And then we work 12 hours a day for the next two or three days just to put everything in their slots. It takes about two or three full days to get all of our stuff in place, and by then we're on the 12th and the players are in full force."

Tigers pitchers and catchers hold their first workout on Feb. 13. The first full-squad workout is Feb. 18.

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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