What do you do when the Army builds a pilot training ground for the soon-to-be-war effort in 1940, and by the '60s, it's no longer needed? Instead of leaving it to rot, turn it over to the "Great American Institution" of baseball, of course.
Opened in 1940, an airfield was built as a school for up-and-coming pilots in the then-Army (the Air Force wasn't a separate branch until 1947), and it would eventually be called Lodwick Field. Complete with barracks and training buildings, it reached its fullest potential during World War II and was running at full capacity through its end in 1945.
Once the war ended, the barracks starting going dark. However, instead of mothballing them as the Army tends to do, the Detroit Tigers — whom moved into the city for spring training in 1936 and played at Henley Park in downtown — approached them and asked if they could use those barracks and open spaces attached for their spring training facilities. Permission was granted, and the newly-christened "Tigertown" was opened in 1953. Everything the team needed — from lodging to a cafeteria and recreation area — was right there at their disposal.
All except a main stadium, that is. The team still played their games in Henley Park, away from Tigertown.
Eventually, the entire airbase was closed in 1960, and the city was more-than-glad to give it to the Tigers, who built Joker Marchant Stadium, named from the offset after the longtime Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director that made the Tigers' stay here possible. The stadium was only closed for one year since, in 2002, to allow for the renovations seen today; teams played at a newly-rehabilitated Henley Park once more to allow work to proceed unimpeded.
Started in 1963 in anticipation of having the new home, the Lakeland Tigers — whose name was changed to "Flying Tigers" in 2006 in honor of all the aviation history both at the site and in Lakeland as a whole — have been the only Florida State League affiliate the Tigers have known in their tenure in Lakeland, having won the league championship four times: 1976, 1977, 1992, and 2012.
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There are a few stands available, though not as many as probably should have been, given the never-ending queues throughout the game.
They were worth the wait, though, as the food was quite good and pretty varied: cold Dietz & Watson sandwiches, burgers, a "torpedo dog" (a footlong with chili and cheese), and even nachos supreme.
The best thing is, though, are the prices. The items themselves are a tad above-averagely priced, but they offer "value meals" - a rarity I haven't found yet in my FSL travels - consisting of a few different sandwiches (I got a "Hangar Burger", a quarter-pound burger with the fixings) and got a 16 ounce drink and small bag of chips for only $2 more, cheaper than the price of that drink alone.
If you're not even marginally-proud to be American, not only should you probably stay away from baseball (and maybe even apple pie) in general, but definitely keep your distance from Joker Marchant.
Thanks to the aforementioned history of the site, the theme is mainly military and specifically Air Force interspersed with typical Floridian Mediterranean flair. There are three (!) tiger mascots, and one of them wears a WWII fighter pilot's jacket. Some of the food kiosks have camouflage motifs and military-named food. There's even an "Officers' Club" for groups of 25 or more.
Due to the renovation in 2002, everything still feels new, even with all the history the stadium exudes. The video scoreboard in right is large and easy to read, the audio is loud and clear, and being located halfway between Interstate 4 and downtown Lakeland makes it about as centrally-located as you can make it.
Here's an interesting fact-of-note: there is a tiny scoreboard in left-center that shows the inning and score, but nothing more. Upon researching, that was installed in 2005 when, after Hurricane Charley came through the area and damaged the newly-renovated stadium, the replacement main video scoreboard almost arrived late for the first spring training game, so the city installed it as a contingency. It wasn't needed, as the replacement to the damaged board arrived a few days before, but the small "Plan B" board wasn't removed.
Immediately surrounding Tigertown, there's Lake Parker to the east, residential to the east, and less-than-a-five minute drive to both U.S. Route 98 and downtown Lakeland, the two areas full of restaurants, shops, bars, and things-to-do. It's not quite walkable to those places, but you're definitely not in the middle of nowhere.
So, I turn into the Tigertown entrance and there's a large open field on the right as the entrance road itself is lined with banyan trees with Spanish moss hanging from them. People were parking in that field, yes, but something else I never expected was happening: they were tailgating.
At a minor league baseball game.
Like, REAL tailgating, complete with grills, cornhole, and kids playing catch.
The last time I saw tailgating of any kind in my reviews were Tropicana Field, Raymond James Stadium, and the FAU Arena. Therefore, I don't think anything else needs to be said about the fans, as that's a new level of awesome I had yet to see on my trip around the FSL.
Getting to the stadium is very easy, as it's well-signed throughout town, and being on a good-sized, four-lane road helps with ingress and egress.
That parking lot where they were blowing my mind and thinking I walked into a football game instead is - lo and behold! - free.
(For those keeping track at home, the Florida State League's western teams are split as follows:
- Four free parking: FAE Stadium, McKechnie Field, Steinbrenner Field, and Joker Marchant Stadium; and
- Three paid parking: Bright House Field, Charlotte Sports Park, and Hammond Stadium.)
There is an overabundance of parking spaces, both on concrete and in the grassy field, so you should never have a problem finding a place for your car.
Once inside, the bathrooms are right-sized and clean, but the corridors are kind of narrow, and when they were wide, supporting pillars got in the way, so it felt tighter than it was, and caused issues with the long food queues. The lone point off is for that fact.
It's a great stadium with a good amount of features, and for a measly $6-$9, you can sit in most places and have a great time. Factor in food (and free parking), and you're talking $40-$50 for a family of four. Not too bad for a great night under the stars and lights.
Worth mentioning again is the awesome military motif. Seen everywhere, you leave just feeling a tad more patriotic, especially when you know the meaning behind it isn't just a recent push to give thanks to our brothers and sisters overseas, but something 60+ years in the making for Lakeland and the Tigers' organization as a whole.
Another plus is the large berm in left field. Complete with trellises and picnic tables, it's a great place to watch the game. As a supporter of such activities, one could just kick off their shoes and watch the game with the grass beneath their toes and be more comfortable than sitting in otherwise-comfortable seats.
Also available are a large number of seats for a small party (six) and the previously-mentioned Officers' Club. Get a group of 25 or more, and you get all-you-can-eat-and-drink (no alcohol) with a great view of the field and with a roof to keep the sun off you at all times.
The Tigers' and city of Lakeland's relationship extends past 75 years, with almost 50 of those years providing summer ball from the Flying Tigers. The house that was built out of this arrangement is an obvious labor of love, not only for the team, but for also the previous occupants of the acreage, the United States Air Force. Every small detail, from the Detroit diner-styled food kiosk under the overflow bleachers to the "P-47 Thunderbolt"-inspired logo, invoke the past of both the team and the city.
Not lost in this ode to history are all the modern touches one expects in MiLB stadiums of today: video scoreboards, a variety of food choices, and plenty of in-game entertainment. A visit to Joker Marchant Stadium is a special experience, one that will have you leaving feeling complete and satisfied. If you're ever in or around Lakeland (it's only 40 minutes from Disney) you must put a game here on your to-do list.
Located just south of I-4 on Lakeland Hills Blvd in what is known as Tiger Town, Joker Marchant Stadium was opened in 1966 and has undergone extensive renovations since then as spring training grew into the major attraction that it has become. The stadium boasts a capacity of 9,000 although you will rarely see a tenth of that used during a minor league game.
Parking is free, just turn onto Kaline Drive from Lakeland Hills and you will see the large lot. Getting out is easy as well, although you can only turn right onto Lakeland Hills from Kaline, so if you need to go south, it is better to take the south exit from the parking lot.
Tickets are either $6 for the box seats or $5 for the reserved seats (add a dollar for Saturday games) but it really doesn't matter so much with so few fans. Fans are so quiet that you could hear the buzz of the lights for the entire game.
Joker Marchant Stadium is another one of those Florida State League ballparks that is used for spring training and hence far too big when the minor leaguers are in town. That is not a bad thing by any means, I love the extra space and the fact that you can pretty much sit anywhere, except the bleachers down the line which are closed to fans.
There isn't much else here to note. There are suites on the second deck that are named after famous Tigers, including the Cobb Suite.
The left field fence is shorter than usual and may allow for some great homer-saving catches. Beyond it is a berm which seemed to be open to fans but was not being used much.
Along first base there is an extra netting for some reason that leaves only the seats above the dugout free from obstructions. This makes the third base seats a better bet, particularly when you consider that the sun shines into the first base seats for the early part of the game.
Overall, Joker Marchant is another enjoyable FSL park. I always appreciate these places where there is far more space than necessary as I can move around at ease to take pictures from a number of different angles.
Reasonable ticket prices ($4-$6), a historic venue, superb customer service, scoreboard with stats for both teams, a great game (in May, 2013), warm Florida sun, and a Detroit Tiger affiliate. What’s not to like?
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