Tiger Town is the last great traditional spring-training site still used in Florida. The Tigers have been training in Lakeland since 1934 (taking a break for the war years, of course) and playing in Joker Marchant Stadium since 1966. In those many years Tiger Town has evolved into a complete training complex that includes the ballpark, other training fields, dorm, training facilities, and team clubhouses. If you want a whiff of old-time Florida spring training, a stroll through Tiger Town is in order.
Year Opened: 1966; renovated in 2003
Dimensions: 340L, 420C, 340R
Local Airport: Orlando or Tampa
Home Dugout: Third base
Address/Directions: Al Kaline Dr., 2301 Lakeland Hills Blvd., Lakeland. Take exit 33 off I-4 onto Hwy. 33 South. Tiger Town and the ballpark are approximately 2 miles on the left. There is signage pointing out two parking areas next to the ballpark.
As one would expect from such an old facility, Tiger Town is one of the more historically interesting sites in the Grapefruit League. It was built on the site of a World War II flight school, the Lodwick School. Between 1940 and 1945 more than 8,000 cadets, including British Royal Air Force cadets, attended the Lodwick School of Aeronautics, and more than 6,000 graduated. Some of the remnants of that school still exist, including two hangars that have been renovated and used for various purposes. (You can see them in the city-owned industrial complex next to the Joker Marchant Stadium parking lot. Sadly, the most recent renovations to Tiger Town included the removal of a runway beyond the outfield wall. The photo below shows the two hangars on the bottom that still stand. Click on any image for a larger version.)
In keeping with the site’s history the ballpark décor changed before Spring Training 2007. Detroit’s Florida State League affiliate received a name change to the Lakeland Flying Tigers and adopted an aviation motif throughout the ballpark. As a result, concession stands are called canteens (among other things), and there’s a lot of camouflage in the concourse, as shown above.
Thanks to a 2003–2004 renovation, Joker Marchant is still one of the most pleasant venues in spring training. The $11-million renovation, designed by HKS, brought about new faux red-tile roofs that create lofty shaded, covered concourses and bright stucco towers, arches, columns and walls that anchor the exterior. Tigers fans might remember the garish orange seats in the grandstand; Joker Marchant now features ballpark-green individual armchair seats with cup holders, with three new rows along the backstop, bringing fans within 50 feet of home plate.
A new vertical backstop screen replaced the old canopy screen, while the seating bowl was angled toward the infield and extended down the right field line 94 feet, bringing fans closer to the action.
The concourses provide much-needed shelter from rain and the sun and features new and renovated restrooms, re-themed concessions, and improved signage. Ornamental fencing and natural wood trellises accent the perimeter and entry gates to create an open plaza.
The outfield area has been upgraded with a 16-foot-high, above-grade grass seating berm and trellised patio lined with mature palms, while the batter’s eye hides a new maintenance building. The bullpens were relocated to the outfield area in full view of the stands and dugouts.
As a condition of the renovations, a new lease keeps the Tigers in Lakeland until 2019.
No matter where you sit, bring the sunscreen. Only the last 10 rows of the grandstand — those sitting in front of the suite level — sees any shade at all, while anything beyond the dugouts is in a sun field. It’s even worse in the outfield berm area, where you’ll be staring into the sun for much of a typical afternoon game. You’ll also be fighting the sun in the left-field bleachers, which are a little unusual; this section is large and pitched at more of an angle than the rest of the ballpark. We don’t recommend you sit out there unless you have no other options or want a place to let the little ones wander and burn off some energy.
Detroit fans tend to be pretty loyal to their Tigers, even when times were bad in recent years. The capacity of Joker Marchant is now around 9,000 (8,000 seats, with room for 1,000 or so out on the berm), and attendance is pretty steady: Crowds of 5,000 or more are fairly common. It’s still a good place to visit if your favorite team is in town, but don’t be surprised if you’re a Red Sox or Yankees fan and the game is sold out.
The addition of six new furnished suites, themed after Tiger all-time greats Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Willie Horton, Al Kaline, and Hal Newhouser, provide a comfortable perch to watch the game. Flanking the suites on either side of the press box and suites are two open-air covered patio lounges, four new restrooms, and a food service catering pantry.
Tigers spring-training games are fairly low-key events, thank goodness. About the only between-innings excitement comes when the grounds crew interrupt their infield grooming to dance along with what has become the National Anthem of Baseball, the Village People’s YMCA.
The best thing about a Tigers spring-training game, however, is the laid-back atmosphere and easy accessibility to players and staff. If you go, watch for Tigers President David Dombrowski sitting behind home plate — he’ll be the guy with the stopwatch, checking out his pitching staff.
Joker Marchant Stadium was built in 1966 for $360,000 and named after the city’s popular parks and rec director, Marcus Thigpen “Joker” Marchant (MAR-chant).
For the most part, you can find the normal ballpark fare at the ballpark: hot dogs, peanuts, soda, pizza, beer, ice cream, etc. We’d recommend the Torpedo Dog.
The pizza, of course, is Little Caesars: Tigers owner Mike Illitch made his money by launching the Little Caesars pizza chain. Of much better quality are the smoked turkey legs, the barbeque pork sandwiches, the Italian sausage, and the occasional strawberry short cake. Why strawberry short cake? The region around Lakeland, especially Plant City, is known for its early-season strawberry crops. At Joker Marchant, the strawberries are also served with ice cream, and wandering vendors offer the strawberry delicacies. They’re also available at a booth down the third-base line, which also serves Edy’s ice cream.
Most of the beer served at Joker Marchant Stadium is of the standard corporate type. For something to remind you of home, a portable beer stand down the left-field line offers a variety of microbrews, including some from Michigan-based Bell’s.
The Tiger Town complex encompasses four practice fields in a cloverleaf layout, Joker Marchant Stadium and Kaline Field, a small diamond located past the Marchant Stadium left-field corner. Before the start of spring training all practices take place on the four cloverleaf fields and Kaline Field. A roped-off path runs between the practice fields and the clubhouse, and that’s the place to snare players once they leave practice, which traditionally has begun at 10:30 a.m.
Once games start, the minor leaguers take over the cloverleaf fields, with the major-league squad decamping to Kaline Field or Marchant Stadium. On game days or before practice the place to snare an autograph is “Autograph Alley,” down the right-field line, near the team offices and home clubhouse. Players mill around Autograph Alley and chat with fans in addition to signing autographs. Autograph Alley is manned from the opening of the gates two hours before game time to about 20 minutes before the actual start of the game.
If you arrive early enough, you can hang around the parking lot and irritate players as they arrive. You can also hang around the parking lot and try to attract their attention as they leave.
Parking is $7 on adjacent lots. Get to the ballpark early: because there’s only one main entrance to the ballpark parking lot and traffic gets congested on Lakeland Hills Boulevard.
Here’s a super-secret back way into the Joker Marchant Stadium parking areas especially handy if you’re coming from the south. There’s an overflow entrance on the south side of the parking lots. To access it, go east on Bella Vista Street and hang a left (north) on Gilmore Avenue.
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