- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) - Torii Hunter puckered up next to the mouth of a wide-eyed alligator - and it was hard to tell if the fun-loving Detroit outfielder was more amused or terrified.

“He was calm,” Hunter said of the unexpected visitor to spring training. “I guess he’s used to being around people.”

Hunter and the Tigers are laughing their way toward opening day, approaching spring camp with a mix of relaxed lightheartedness and serious focus under new manager Brad Ausmus.

Whether it’s a player posing with a reptile or a backup catcher donning a women’s swimsuit next to Kate Upton, the three-time AL Central champions certainly look like they’re the class of the majors when it comes to viral photos.

The Tigers also had fun under Jim Leyland, whose old-school sense of humor was always a hit. But Ausmus seems to be going out of his way to foster a sense of clubhouse camaraderie.

“At the end of the day, we’re playing a game,” Cy Young winner Max Scherzer said. “We’re playing a game for a living, and you’ve got to have fun in this game, because there’s so much failure, inherently, within baseball.”

The Tigers have been a loose but professional bunch throughout their run of success, and Hunter was acting very much in character when he tweeted a link Tuesday to the blurry picture of him and the alligator. He said later he puckered but didn’t actually kiss the animal.

The gator’s arrival was apparently the result of a visit by some players to a nearby theme park.

“We had the rookies go and do a report,” Hunter said. “They had like a camera and microphone, and walked around and different animals - tarantulas, pythons, everything. … We did a film and then at the end of it, they had a delivery.”

“A knock on the door, and somebody opened the door - it was a delivery for Miguel Cabrera. Miguel was about to get it, and the box started moving - like something was moving in it - and Miguel took off running.”

The alligator turned out to be relatively harmless, its mouth bound shut.

“We just had fun with it, took pictures with it,” Hunter said.

Leyland, Detroit’s manager for the last eight seasons, was known for his ability to relate to players much younger than him.

“He was having fun in his own way,” Scherzer said. “He can moonwalk, he can dance. The jokes he tells are so X-rated I can’t even tell you. It’s stuff like that.”

The 44-year-old Ausmus took over in November, with his Dartmouth pedigree and refined manner - but he clearly understands the importance of team bonding.

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