On the Road: Catching an Early Flight in Lakeland
I am not a morning person. Not by a long shot. In the early part of the day I only feel half-there, moving at a corresponding half-speed and feeling listless and uninspired. Nights are more my time, absolutely.
So, I was less than thrilled to be attending a 10:30 a.m. game in Lakeland on Monday morning. Especially since I was waking up in Port Charlotte, located about two hours away (yes, here I am complaining about attending professional baseball games for a living. Cue an Artie Lange-style “Waaaah!”).
I pulled into Joker Marchant’s massive parking lot right on time, as the first thing I heard from the outside was a kid yelling “Play Ball!” over the PA. The presence of this kid, and the 10:30 a.m. start time in general, was because it was a “School Day” at the ballpark. This was the preferred transportation option:
As for Joker Marchant Stadium, it looks like it was built by Spanish conquistadors who watched a lot of Golden Girls re-runs. It’s got style to spare, as well as plenty of room to move. It was built in 1966 and has been renovated and expanded several times over, but there have been constants amidst the change. Throughout nearly the entirety of its existence, Joker Marchant has hosted Detroit Tigers Spring Training as well as the organization’s Class A Advanced affiliate.
That would be the Lakeland Flying Tigers, who added the “flying” adjective to their name in recognition of the fact that before it was a baseball mecca, the entire “Tigertown” complex (of which Joker Marchant Stadium is a part) served as a World War II-era aeronautical training facility.
I’ll get to those high-flying roots later on in the post, and for more (you always want more, right?) please read my companion piece over on MiLB.com.
After much strategizing regarding the ideal point of entry, I made it inside. From certain angles, Joker Marchant Stadium looked deserted. The massive left field bleachers section was closed off…
and down the first base line wasn’t much more populated. But behind home plate was a different story — there were 1400 kids from a variety of local Polk County schools, making their presence known via an auditory pitch that is only possible prior to the onset of puberty.
It may not be apparent from the picture, but those kids in the red shirts were from a school called “Ben Hill Griffin.” (For a brief moment, when I first saw the shirts, I thought they were wearing them in celebration of Minor League Baseball’s premier blogger. This bit of self-delusion quickly subsided, as the kids started chanting “Stranger Danger!” in response to me asking them if they’d like an autograph.)
The youthful atmosphere prevailed throughout. Between-inning contests were all standard kiddie stuff (like musical chairs and dizzy bat racing) and out on the concourse they were enjoying the make-your-own sundae station.
Standard issue concessions were available at the “Mess Hall”:
Unfortunately I didn’t find too much to celebrate, food wise. It was all standard-issue ballpark fare, at prices closer to the “Major League” end of the spectrum. I ordered nachos (aka “breakfast”), and it was as bare bones as possible: chips and a cheese cup for $4.50.
But, on the positive side of things, it was interesting to see an “Education Day” in action. The students’ tickets were all free (sponsored by local supermarket chain Publix), and prior to the ballgame teachers had been given a 58-page packet full of baseball-related lesson plans (covering everything from ballfield dimensions to the game’s history to keeping score).
Taking in the scene:
One of the great things about baseball is that there is no clock, but that doesn’t apply if you’re on a field trip. As the game progressed to its later innings, the crowd grew thinner and thinner as the students were sheparded back into the buses. By the end, only a smattering of retirees and unaffiliated day trippers remained.
I then transitioned into the next part of the afternoon – a tour of the surrounding Tigertown complex (courtesy of GM Zach Burek and group sales manager Dan Lauer). As elaborated upon in the aforementioned MiLB article, this former aeronautic base is now a one-stop shop for the organization’s Florida operations.
This old airplane hangar, one of two on the premises, is now used by the county to store groundskeeping equipment and maintenance vehicles.
Moving down the road, one finds the mess hall (uninspired nachos nowhere to be found in this case). It was a mess hall for aspiring pilots in the 1940s, and it has remained largely unchanged in function and appearance.
The cafeteria is open year-round, tending to the needs of players in Spring Training, extended Spring Training, the Gulf Coast League, and, of course, the Flying Tigers. All of the tables include elaborate collages of Detroit memorabilia:
We moved from there to the player dormitories, which at this time of year are largely occupied by those in extended Spring Training. (Flying Tigers have the option to stay here, but most don’t because the schedule differences between extended spring and the FSL are literally night and day).
The massive rec room recently underwent renovations courtesy of a crew from the DIY network, and various Detroit farmhands were put to use as part of the work crew.
Downstairs, one finds an ESL classroom. This is a crucial service for the young Latin players, many of whom are barely out of their teens (if at all). In addition to learning the language, they need to learn the ways of American culture as well.
While we were in the classroom, Sharon Lockwood (an “international coordinator of player programs”) and pitcher Victor Larez came in carrying refreshments for a planned “Movie Night” that evening.
A 24-year-old Venezuelan right-hander and his English teacher — these are the sort of baseball relationships that are easy to overlook, and a reminder that much more goes into the sport than simply playing it.
And with that, my tour guides and I emerged back into what was a beautiful Florida afternoon. This runway, once a training ground for men who would go on to risk their lives in aerial combat, is now what separates the Minor League instructional complexes from the Major League proving ground of Joker Marchant Stadium.
And with that observation, I’m ready to take off!
Thanks, as always, for landing here.