LAKELAND, Fla. -- Live abroad for six years, return to the country, find the unforeseeable.
The NFL, already a colossal colossus, somehow got still larger, bleeding over the calendar, butting into late February and all March with its news and chatter, threatening to pummel all other sports to mulch in an attention-starving death match.
The college basketball regular season seems to have shrunk until you wonder if they ought save the electricity by not playing it and just starting off with March Madness, whereupon some of the 0-0 teams really will have gripes about snubs.
Yet of all the developments fresh and stale, all the things that seem slightly peculiar after extended absence, maybe nothing trumps this: the energy around the Detroit Tigers.
"There's a lot of pride going around," said Steve Heald, semi-retired Ann Arbor dentist, Tigers fan since 1949.
"You know what, it's like a new dynasty coming up," said Larry Dusman, vacationing bodyguard from Plymouth, Mich., in his fifth year running at spring-training Tigertown.
"We've got people from Michigan here all the time," said Jim Leyland, Detroit Tigers manager and down-to-earth appreciator of surroundings.
Of course this makes sense from afar. The Internet has told of Detroit's last seven seasons, its two World Series appearances, its three American League Championship Series bids, its five finishes above (or well above) .500, the Triple Crown for Miguel Cabrera, the nerve-calming presence of Justin Verlander. Yet the Tiger energy seems distant until sitting among the thickly packed Michiganders on the berm under the 16 palms behind left field at Tigertown, beneath the thickets at the little Hooters bar and Corona stand and Haagen-Dazs counter, looking back at the packed stands in the scalding sun, and hearing Michigan things, everything from two geezers wondering why they never hear anything about Barry Sanders anymore, to the woes of ticket attainment.
It's a heyday here.
It's a heyday you couldn't have spotted from the middle of the last decade. Not only does it emanate from a city we hear about mostly for barrenness, but it comes not so removed from the 43-119 of 2003, 72-90 in 2004, 71-91 in 2005. When Dr. Heald came to Lakeland for spring training in 2006, he said, he could walk right in and sit most anywhere, right at first pitch. Now it's a big thing to barrel down here from Michigan by plane or on the 20-hour drive down Interstate 75. Now Dusman says, "We went on StubHub and couldn't even get the seats." Now Heald and wife Ann have run a bit late with house guests, so he's out in left field, sitting on a railing.
"I mark times in my life by how the Tigers did," he said, and this would be the third crescendo of a 64-year Tiger fanhood that began in childhood.
First would come 1968 when, he said, "The Tigers did an awful lot of coming from behind that year and had a good time doing it." In the World Series from which they rebounded from down three-games-to-one, "[Jim] Northrup hit one over the center fielder's head, and even I couldn't have done that. And, of course, I was a fan of Al Kaline. Very much the American League Stan Musial." The verve of Victor Martinez today recalls the verve of Norm Cash of then, back then.
Next came 1984, when Detroit roared out to 35-5 and, Heald said, "It always seemed like they were going to win it all."
Now comes this multi-year patch, which lacks a World Series title but compensates in consistency, expectations soaring after finishing final-four and final-two the last two Octobers.
So into Joker Marchant Stadium they pour. Like many Grapefruit League sites, it's tucked into the community -- right behind a Honda dealership, right next to a retirement home, and like many sites, the locals beam proudly about the park. Yet unlike many sites, it has an old-Florida feel in its Mediterranean architecture, set to remain through a coming renovation.
"This is just a quaint little park, people love it ... and we fill it up quite a bit," Leyland said. "It's a great little place."
He spoke from the calm center of all the hope, from the office of the 68-year-old manager who has seen just about all. In the room with the blue carpet with intermittent orange and blue tiger paws, behind his desk that holds his flat, brown briefcase, a big black landline phone, his container of pens and markers, his orange lighter, with his sock feet up on the desk, he notes a lull in reporters' questions.
"Must be boring," he mutters gloriously.
Another spring training has started to wane, and it's time to think about the pain of roster cuts. "You never feel good about stuff like that," Leyland said. "You don't ever get used to it. What you do know is that it's part of your responsibility. But you don't ever get used to it."
But then, "We're pretty set in most places. We're pretty much an established team now. There'll be just a couple of things at the end that'll be just a little shaky, well, not shaky, but shaky, just a little hairy, however you want to put it." Lately he spent 4 1/2 hours in his office at night, shaping the best lineup against left-handers and right-handers, the bullpen ... "You try to cover all your bases, so when you start to sit and have meetings at some point, you could cover your tracks a little bit and you're ready for it."
Another big season looms for Detroit. They have readied in Lakeland. A good chunk of Michigan has bolted south for a bit. Some 9,441, including ample Canadians, have filed out from seeing the Blue Jays and Tigers in the pretty little park. And when the room empties and someone mentions this might be the best Grapefruit experience going, Jim Leyland doesn't look up from the new smartphone he's studying.
He just says, "We think so."