The Tigers hosted about 50 children and their families for a dinner earlier this month with front-office folks, pitching coach Jeff Jones and radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson. As far as the kids knew, this was supposed to be the highlight of the event.
The dinner was wrapping up when Jones and Dickerson got up to the front of the room and thanked everyone for showing up. At that point, the buses were lining up outside, waiting to take them on a shopping spree to a local shopping center.
The look on the kids' faces rivaled a lot of highlights that went on during the season. Each child received a $125 gift certificate good for any store at the Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Mich., where chartered buses took them after the dinner.
As Tristin, one of the kids involved, put it, it was nothing they expected.
The dinner is an annual event the Tigers have been putting on for the past several years with the generous help of their concessions provider, SportService. The families come from Matrix Human Services' Angel Tree program, which serves families in need around the Detroit area, and the Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange, which works with children in foster care while trying to find them permanent homes.
The shopping spree came about five years ago with help from one former Tiger. Shortly after Dontrelle Willis came over from the Marlins and signed a three-year contract, he heard about the holiday dinner and wanted to help. He made a large donation and asked Tigers officials to use the money to buy gifts for each and every kid at the dinner.
The tradition lives on year after year, in part through generous donations from Tigers broadcaster Rod Allen and Tigers front-office members and employees. Many of them volunteer their time at the dinner and shopping spree, too.
While children of all ages take part in the dinner, Tigers community affairs manager Alexandrea Thrubis said they often focus on teenagers because they can be the toughest ages for families to shop for. With a gift card in hand, they have the opportunity to shop for themselves, though some end up buying gifts for others along the way.
Some end up buying shoes. Some buy sporting goods. Some pick up Tigers gear. The key is that they all end up with a smile for the holidays.
It still had Jones smiling when he returned to Comerica Park last week for the news conference announcing Anibal Sanchez's contract extension. As a Detroit native and area resident, he's a regular on the trips.
"Everything went great," Jones said.