Spring Training’s intimacy draws Tigers’ fans from everywhere

'Hope springs eternal' in the sun of Lakeland, Florida

There’s a magnetism to spring training.

Fans of all ages from all corners of the world are drawn to the sun soaked ballparks of Florida and Arizona to watch Major League Baseball’s preseason.

It’s a unique force, one that blends optimism and expectations for a season before it’s been weighed down by setbacks with a chance to experience moments in the company of both those who share your passion, and baseball heroes.

“It’s a very different feel than the regular season,” said Tony Delcavo, a Denver Colorado native and lifelong Detroit Tigers fan attending spring training for the 11th year in a row. “It’s a lot more informal; you get to talk to the players. It’s a small crowd, it’s much more intimate.”

That intimacy is felt the moment you step through the gates.

The Tebow Effect

Whatever Tim Tebow decides to do in his life, his rabid fan base is likely to follow.

Tebow, a former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback, now plies his trade as a baseball player in the New York Mets organization. The son of missionaries, Tebow publicly preaches his Christian faith and has drawn a fan base of devout followers.

And none more so than Debbie Stivender.

Stivender, from Lake County, Florida, attended preseason action between the Mets and Tigers wearing a cross necklace and a blue shirt with a Jesus fish logo emblazoned with the words “TEBOW”.

A lady in a Tim Tebow shirt
Debbie Stivender holding a microphone after an interview at the Detroit Tigers game at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.  (Thomas Ketko)

She discussed how Tebow’s time with the Florida Gators helped her get through one of the most difficult stages of her life.

“I’ve been a booster of the Florida Gators since 1986, and when Timmy came on board I got colon cancer,” said Stivender. “I watched him through my treatments when he was at Florida, he’s been an inspiration”.

What is it that she likes so much about Tebow?

“I just like his ethics, his morals, his work habits,” said Stivender. “He’s so disciplined, and he’s such a good Christian.”

Stivender is now cancer-free, retired, and spending her time doing things she never used to have time for. Like attending preseason baseball games to try and meet her idol.

“It’s on my bucket list,” said Stivender about meeting Tebow. “That’s what I’m after, so if you can find him, let me know!”

By Peter Mendelsohn and Nicole Fiorini

You can spot it in the smiles of fans as they wait in winding lines for selfies and autographs. You can hear it in the laughs of families as generations sit side by side in the stands. And you can see it worn on the faces of kids as they lean over railings to reach for runaway balls.

It’s simple, and magical, and just romantic enough to serve as a reminder for why baseball has been America’s Game for well-over a century.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise then that so many fans have turned these six weeks — bridging the gap between spring and summer — into an annual tradition.

Hy Safran, a Royal Oak, Michigan, resident and self proclaimed ‘most obsessed’ Tigers fan, has only missed two of the last 13 spring trainings.

“Hope springs eternal at spring training,” Safran said with a smile, just steps away from the scoreboard at Publix Field in Lakeland, Florida.

His family has had Tigers’ season tickets for 77 years and he’s the first to half-jokingly admit that he engages with players to an almost comedic, if not worrisome extent.

But being able to interact with those heroes you cheer for 162 times a year is part of what makes spring training so special.

“It’s unique because players are accessible,” Safran said. “There’s access for the fans, fans from all over the country.”

Spring training stadiums are a fraction of the size of Major League ballparks. The smaller venue lends itself to the kind of intimate interactions Safran speaks so fondly of, and like those venues, it’s the smaller moments that best illustrate what makes these six weeks so special.

Look in a boy’s eyes as he turns back to his mother after getting his ball signed, or a young girl climbing on to her father’s shoulders to steal a better view, or that married couple from Minnesota holding hands in the stands for the 50th straight summer.

That’s where the real magic resides.

For six weeks every year under the Florida sun, the intimacy and optimism of spring training puts the rest of the world on pause to bring fans and families closer to not only the players, but to each other as well.