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Notes: Opening Day arrives in Detroit

Notes: Opening Day arrives in Detroit

DETROIT -- The Tigers started to feel the buzz around town when they came to the ballpark Monday morning and saw fans already milling about the streets. Once they saw the crowd in the stands during pregame introductions, they had a better idea of it.

"There's a lot of people walking around with Tigers stuff on," rookie Joel Zumaya recalled seeing on his way in. "Lots of them."

That's always the case for the home opener in Detroit. Most of the veteran Tigers have been through it already. Todd Jones went through it again after four years away from it.

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"It's more festive for several different reasons here," Jones said. "Opening Day is like a first sign of spring. They've had cabin fever all these months, it's been freezing cold and they're ready to get outside and enjoy it. Opening Day is more like a playoff game."

Actually, the weather had already been springlike for a little while in Detroit. Monday's first-pitch temperature of 54 degrees was nonetheless appreciated.

The playoff atmosphere is much the same description that manager Jim Leyland gave it, though he wasn't in a celebratory mood about it.

"Opening Day is almost like a playoff atmosphere," Leyland said. "And if you don't know how to handle it, you can almost get caught up."

It was an especially sweet opener for Leyland, who enjoyed his first home game in the job he coveted for years. Two of his brothers made the drive of just over an hour from Perrysburg, Ohio. Several others from town drove in, too. His wife and kids drove up from Pittsburgh; they'll drive back together Monday night and spend the off-day at home.

"It's a special day for me, obviously," Leyland said before the game, "but I think that's kind of a private thing."

Leyland has tried ever since Spring Training to keep the focus on the players and not him. That hasn't seemed to be a problem. Leyland received a polite, healthy round of applause during pregame introductions, but the loudest reception seemed to go to first baseman Chris Shelton after his five-homer opening week.

Among the fans cheering were many who had been around since the early morning hours. Some spent the pregame hours tailgating; others hopped around the restaurants and bars that opened early.

Many didn't have to drive far; others traveled in from around the country. Patrick Plachta flew in from Wisconsin on Friday to attend the opener with his brother in their upper-deck seats. Seeing the family in Midland, Mich., was a secondary benefit.

"When it's Opening Day, you pull out all the stops," said Plachta, who parked around 8:30 a.m.

More kudos for Shelton: Not surprisingly, Shelton followed up his happy reception from fans by receiving the AL Player of the Week award. His five home runs led the Majors last week, while his .583 average ranked second. He also had nine RBIs.

Shelton is the second Tiger in as many years to win the first such award of the season. Dmitri Young won the AL honor last year after homering three times on Opening Day.

The Bus stops at the CoPa: Someone jokingly asked Jerome Bettis before the game if he'd ever seen a baseball jersey as big as the No. 36 Tigers jersey he was wearing to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch. Bettis didn't fall for that one.

"Yeah, Cecil Fielder," he said with a laugh. "I know this is not the biggest. I've still got some room."

Bettis made his name in football growing up in Detroit, but he has a fair knowledge of Tigers history, too. He grew up following the great teams of the 1980s, including his favorite player, Lou Whitaker. He wears his Tigers hat proudly around Pittsburgh, much to the abuse of the locals.

"I've been a Tigers fan all my time," Bettis said. "I try to represent the Tigers every chance I get, so I'm always wearing my Detroit hat. People in Pittsburgh are a little upset about that."

He has a harder time following the Tigers these days in retirement in Pittsburgh. But he at least knows Shelton.

"He's got five home runs right now!" Bettis exclaimed. "I pay attention a little bit. I watch my guys."

Watch Dmitri run: Dmitri Young's slimmed-down frame presumably makes him faster, but that doesn't make him any more artistic on the basepaths.

It wasn't as intended, but Dmitri Young's stolen base Monday was his first steal of third in four-plus years as a Tiger. He did it against the Cubs while still with the Reds on June 12, 2001.

Presumably, his last one had a more textbook slide. Young lost his helmet as he skidded into third base sideways. Third baseman Joe Crede made a quick tag of the helmet, but Young's head wasn't in it.

Ex-Tiger Hitchcock passes: Former Tigers infielder and manager Billy Hitchcock passsed away Sunday at age 89.

Hitchcock is a better known as an Auburn Tigers, having led the school to its first bowl game in football and first conference title in baseball. After school, Hitchcock embarked on a 40-year career in professional baseball.

Hitchcock broke into the Majors with Detroit in 1942 before serving to World War II. He returned briefly in 1946 before the Washington Senators purchased his contract.

Hitchcock finished his playing career in Detroit in 1953. He rejoined the Tigers as a coach from 1955-60, capped by a two-game stint as manager. He earned full-time managerial stints in Baltimore (1962-63) and Atlanta (1966-67).

Jones throws bullpen session: Todd Jones' first pitch off a mound in Detroit again came in the bullpen. He threw a side session Monday morning under the eye of pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. The session went well, keeping hope alive for Jones that he'll be able to come off the disabled list when the Tigers head to the West Coast next week.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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