Lakeland, Florida has been the Spring Training home of the Detroit Tigers for 77 of the past 80 seasons. Only a three year break during World War II (when the Team trained in Evansville, Indiana) interrupts what is nevertheless the longest-lasting relationship between a franchise and its Spring Training home in the Majors.
Detroit’s Florida “Tiger Town” developmental complex (and the Tigers’ Spring Training home since the opening of Joker Marchant Stadium, in 1966) has hosted the team since 1953 -- when what had been training ground for American and British combat pilots was converted for the Tigers’ use (the taxi-way to the former main runway and hangers that protected the aircraft are still present). This is interesting history -- American/World, baseball, civic -- and were a tour given for the facilities, I would have taken it.
Marchant Stadium, named for a former Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director, is the centerpiece of Tiger Town, and has genuine appeal. The Mediterranean-style architecture of the exterior and abundance of palm trees give off a relaxed, Spring Training feel -- which fits and works nicely in the setting of a Single-A sized minor league ballpark (complete with a left field berm).
Expansion projects (including a large scale overhaul in 2003) have brought the capacity to around 8,000, not including the berm. The dimensions are fairly similar to Comerica Park, with both being 420 feet to straightaway center, and Marchant’s left and right fields measuring 340 feet versus Comerica’s 345 and 330, respectively. There is reportedly another renovation on the horizon, related to Florida’s effort at preventing more Spring Training tenants from migrating west to Arizona. This latest project is set to run from 2014-16, and is designed to improve the workout facilities as well as the crowd experience (replacing sections of bleachers with actual seats, increasing the shaded areas and room to walk, etc.), though seating capacity should remain the same.
Spring Training, like baseball itself (perhaps, at times, to a fault), can have very romantic and nostalgic connotations for fans. With its long history and perceived intimacy, there’s really nothing else like this particular approach to the preseason in other sports -- and so it captures the imagination, conjuring images of childhood, nice weather, and a break from reality and obligations. Fairly or not, these elements raise the bar of expectations, and this Spring Training experience did not clear this bar. All in all, my time in Lakeland was enjoyable: I’m glad I went, and imagine I’ll return. But it was not all it could have been, and my overall experience and impressions left a good amount to be desired.
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There is a good range of choices, with some Michigan flair like the Flint Coney Island dog, and Little Caesars Pizza (of course), combined with local flavor (the strawberry shortcake was a big crowd favorite, with the annual Florida Strawberry Festival having just wrapped-up in nearby Plant City). There is also a range in terms of value. For instance, I had a pulled-pork sandwich that was about the size of a dollar menu hamburger; it was decent, but came with nothing else (fries, chips, etc.), and somehow cost $8. However, my wife paid the same amount for a very satisfying turkey burger with fries. So, a little above average: nothing overly impressive and no great finds, but certainly not terrible or a wholesale rip-off.
There are generally lines, and it is fairly crowded, but for the most part all of this is manageable and navigable, and most of the concession staff are fast and friendly. Some of these matters will be targeted by the upcoming renovations, as well-- designed to expand the space behind the grandstand, and install a wraparound concourse, which will allow for even more roominess and increased concession areas.
One final concessions-related note: patrons are allowed to bring one bottle of water in apiece, though the stadium website explicitly indicates otherwise, rendering this positive essentially moot (unless you will be attending numerous/future games).
Lakeland is like much of Central Florida -- it is pleasant enough (nice weather, palm trees, and lakes), but also somewhat industrial and strip-mall-y. Marchant Stadium's atmosphere fits this mold -- sort of situated in a neighborhood area, but also in the midst of a stretch of storefronts, without really anyplace in walking distance to hang out before or after a game. Similarly, from your seat, there are some of those lakes and palm trees to view-- as well as the surrounding baseball training fields of Tiger Town -- but part of the vista also includes some industrial factories in the background. Even inside the stadium, there is the laidback and innocent feeling of Spring Training, but also a tiki bar on the left field berm sponsored by Hooters. So the dichotomies abound.
Another odd aspect is the sort of arm's-length feel of the relationship between the organization and city. For example, fans must pay extra to watch the Tigers take batting practice, and there are a limited number of these passes available each game. Perhaps as an extension of this (or perhaps because I did not have a special batting practice pass), I did not see any of the fan-player interaction one might imagine in Spring Training: no autographs, very few balls tossed into the stands, etc.
Reflecting this arm's-length feel, I spent a decent amount of time in Lakeland's downtown area, which is about a 5-10 minute drive away, and I saw next to no sign of the Tigers, or even of their Lakeland minor league affiliate, the Flying Tigers: no gift shops or memorabilia, and only a few limited pictures and references in one or two bars/restaurants. Lakeland definitely does not feel like Tiger Town in these aspects-- and the team's approach feels somewhat corporate and standoffish, as well -- all of which is noticeable and strange, especially for a pairing that has such a long history together.
There is not much to Marchant Stadium's neighborhood, as it is pretty much situated just off of a highway. It's not really a tailgating environment, either-- though an onsite, pregame picnic (for a $20 fee, that does not include game entry or any sort of team interaction) is offered.
Before or after the game, Lakeland's downtown is very charming, however. There are a pair of lakes to walk around or otherwise enjoy-- and Lake Mirror, with its accompanying gardens and parks and related facilities, is especially lovely. A short walk over to the downtown and there are boutique shops, bars and restaurants-- all very friendly and welcoming. Harry's Seafood Bar and Grille in particular is highly recommended.
The fans are generally very friendly, and it is especially nice to see the absence of any negativity towards the many visitors. These visiting fans are noticeable due to wearing their team's gear -- not through any disrespectful or self-conscious behavior on their part-- and this is appreciated and respected, as well. These dynamics, especially, have a very Spring Training and Midwestern feel to them (the same goes for the crowded walkways), which never feel anxious or jostling -- but instead, polite and patient.
The demographics consists predominantly of snowbirds or families, so the experience in general is pretty laidback: sometimes a bit chatty, but also at times so quiet the loudest noise is the chirping of birds nesting in the light standards. There is no noticeable vulgarity or crassness, though (aside from the odd Hooters presence/advertising), which is a big plus.
One negative -- maybe just a pet-peeve, but I think it's worth mentioning -- I noticed most fans in the bleacher section where I was did not tip the walking concessionaires. The weather was pleasant -- not overwhelmingly hot, and certainly not cold -- but I tend to feel at least a "keep the change" (if it's less than a dollar) is generally warranted.
Marchant Stadium is situated about a mile off of Interstate 4, where numerous chain hotels and restaurants are located, making for a pretty quick trip down to the park. It is also about 2-3 miles north of downtown Lakeland, where there are some nicer, older hotels, as well as a Greyhound Bus depot and Amtrak station. Lakeland's proximity to I-4 also helps if flying down to Florida; Lakeland has a very small and limited airport, so more likely avenues are to fly into Tampa or Orlando, which are connected by I-4, and which Lakeland sits roughly halfway in-between (it's an hour either way, give or take).
Since the stadium sits basically on a driveway off of a busy road, ingress and egress can be a bit hectic and confusing. But most people around-- including the plentiful traffic police -- seem to understand what's at work, and handle things accordingly and cordially. Some of the nearby neighbors try to make some money off of parking; it worked out fine for us, at $5, but we probably would have been just as well off parking at the stadium lot (a grassy field) for just a couple dollars more.
Getting into the stadium itself is fairly painless, after a quick stop at the security gate to have the friendly staff check out your bags. Once inside, there's really not much to see until you get to your seats or the popular outfield berm area-- and aside from the game itself and the numerous gift shops, there's also not much else to do (for kids or adults). The restrooms are small -- most with just a single door from which to enter and exit -- but wait time is nevertheless nominal.
My only real problem occurred in completely unexpected and unnecessary fashion. Early on during the game I'd gone to use the restroom between innings, and when I was ready to go back to my seat, there was one out and another batter had just stepped up for his at-bat. Since my seat was in a bleacher section, and in the middle of a long row, I stopped a step or two from the top in the stairwell. My plan was to monitor things from there, while staying out of anyone's way/sight-line (no one else was there or coming or going), and wait for a break in the action, rather than getting in everyone's way.
The usher, however, gruffly waved me along, saying I couldn't just stand there. In the course of the five minute conversation that followed-- while literally no one else came or went by -- I politely offered to show the man my ticket, and explained my preference to wait for a stoppage in play and avoid disturbing everyone else, while he continuously dismissed whatever I said: shaking his head and waving me along, and even threatening to call the police. Ultimately, some concessionaires started to come up the steps behind me (a full 15-20 feet away); the usher became even more animated and vocal, and I replied that of course I would now move, and that there was a break in the action at that point, anyway, which is all I had been waiting for.
I really could not believe his behavior, and the interaction was one of the worst I've had at a sporting event. I won't say it ruined my day or trip, but it did negatively affect a good portion of the game that followed. I wrote the organization regarding my run-in (specifically, I emailed the Lakeland Tigers Administration and Operations Manager) -- as a frustrated patron, as well as being a representative of Stadium Journey-- but I unfortunately received no reply.
I have mixed feelings on this front. On the one hand, I can definitely see myself returning; the trip as a whole went fairly smoothly, my wife and I enjoyed our time, and our first child is on the way (which would be a fun excuse for a repeat visit). At the same time, the "Spring Training experience" was not quite what I imagined-- and I don't think this is just me. In passing, I mentioned to an acquaintance where I had gone, and (never having been) he smiled and asked if there was a lot of interaction, people getting autographs, closeness to the team, etc. This is what I envisioned, too, but it really felt more corporate and like a standard minor league game and venue than what I expected.
So yes, I imagine I will be back-- but I would also probably try to get some sort of package for multiple games, in the hopes of avoiding sitting out in the warm bleacher section all day (the only tickets that were available, even weeks in advance), and/or I may tour other Spring Training sites, to compare and contrast the feel elsewhere. I would also probably manage my child's expectations, going in, as-- even though I still had a very nice vacation and trip overall -- the child in me was a little disappointed with what I had romantically envisioned as "the Spring Training experience."
This is the quintessential pro-con exercise.
Yes, there are loads of gift shops-- but many appealing items were dated ("2013 Spring Training," imposing a potentially unwelcome shelf-life) and/or overpriced, even for a sporting event (most of the more attractive t-shirts were in the $45 neighborhood).
Yes, it is lovely stadium and an historic venue-- but the view from the stands is pretty average (given the locale), and there is no tour for the facilities or exhibit referencing the team's history/connection to the area. The closest such commemorations are a couple of faded plaques that are tucked off to the side of an unlit stairwell honoring figures like Tiger great Al Kaline and Marchant Stadium's namesake (though a star is deserved for resisting the temptation of corporate naming rights).
There is also a very cool and pervasive Tiger Town U.S.A. logo around the facilities, replete with combat plane flying in front of tiger stripes-- but nowhere is this image available on any merchandise, nor is it even given context or explanation (not even in the game program). These efforts drop the ball on a wealth of history and nostalgia that fans would likely enjoy and appreciate.
And yes, there is definitely a Spring Training "vibe." But much of that may just be an offshoot of the climate-- as there are also those matters of charging extra and limiting access to batting practice, and an absence of kid-themed activities that make for a feeling of disconnect (mirrored by the host city's relative apathy towards the franchise).
Lastly, while the vast majority of employees are genuinely nice and helpful, there is also the issue of an usher picking a fight with me (as well as the subsequent ignoring of my attempt to reach out to a team representative following the incident, and in advance of writing this review). I will nevertheless award one more star here-- in consideration of the very friendly Guest Services staff that went above and beyond in helping my wife repair a tear in her skirt. This was definitely commendable and exceeded expectations.
Again, a very mixed reaction -- much more so than I anticipated going in. I am curious to learn (from others, as well as from future Stadium Journeys) how this compares with different Spring Training experiences and venues. My parting thought would be that if you haven't gone to Spring Training yet, don't hesitate to do so -- in Lakeland, or elsewhere -- but also manage your expectations. What you find will most likely be enjoyable, but at the same time it might not satisfy the nostalgic daydreams the kid in you hoped for, or be quite what you hoped for the kid in your family to experience, either.
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