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Spring Swing: Tigers determined to drive back into playoffs

Big League Stew

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Other teams might have full modern and monstrously oversized spring training complexes where any and all of their possible needs could be addressed.

In Arizona, the Rockies and D-backs talk about the palatial Salt River Fields. And the Dodgers and White Sox can lose each other at massive Camelback Ranch. In Tampa, Yankees can simulate an Empire State of mind if they wish.

But there isn't a site that blends a "let's just chill out — we're at camp" vibe with the facilities and elbow room needed to prepare for the regular season than Joker Marchant Stadium. It's modern and old at once. Not too big, but not cramped. Aesthetically, there's no better venue for fans to watch games.

Plus, it has Jim Leyland, Al Kaline and Justin Verlander(notes). Sounds like Detroit Tigers fan paradise, right?

If the Tigers underperform again and miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season, there's no blaming this place.

The workday begins like it might at any camp — with morning stretch — but not before video on the stadium big board of billiards legend Jeanette "The Black Widow" Lee coaching Leyland at billiards during a recent team banquet.

The only thing: It was Leyland who schooled the champ. After telling a TV reporter he didn't want to "embarrass himself," he ran the table. On Jeannette Lee. Jim Leyland is a hustler.

Watching the replay with the rest of the team from the field, Leyland humorously narrated a couple of his finer moments with intentionally obnoxious commentary. The players cracked up.

It might sound trite to say something like, "That's one of the reasons he's one of the best managers." Leyland is very good at being one of the boys.

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He's also good at hiding his cigarettes. Even as he smokes them.

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A couple of team benefactors and big Tigers fans named Bob Adas and Tom Lauzon got to spend the day as guest coaches. Dressed in full uniform, they were on the field for workouts, in the dugout for the game and at the manager's desk for the postgame press conference. Above, one of the guests talks to an enraptured Magglio Ordoñez.

It seemed like the ultimate fantasy camp experience. Leyland was very accommodating in letting the fans walk among the Tigers as they got their work done. Leyland even consulted with them on a hit and run.

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Slugger Miguel Cabrera(notes) reportedly is working out serious off-field problems, but he's always a top MVP candidate. He was visualizing an at-bat with new teammate Victor Martinez(notes), who is just out of range.

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The Tigers uniforms feature an understated but appropriate reminder of Sparky Anderson, their Hall of Fame manager, who died during the offseason.

I have more Tigers content coming Tuesday, including a capsule view, along with looks at lefty Phil Coke(notes), infielder Will Rhymes(notes), Verlander and Mr. Tiger — Al Kaline.

Follow Dave throughout spring training on Twitter — @AnswerDave — and check out the Stew on Facebook for more coverage.

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