Henning: Lakeland, Tigers enjoy special relationship

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Dwell for a moment on that evocative word “Lakeland.”

Thoughts, associations, images, overload the mind.

There is a mental picture of Marchant Stadium’s green grass awash in sunshine. There is the background sound of birds squawking and ospreys cheep-cheeping as they fly to and from Lake Parker, on Tigertown’s most eastern point. White baseball uniforms etched in a blue Olde English D are worn by players who line up for morning calisthenics like boot-camp soldiers.

There is the crack of bats and the thump of pitches slamming into catcher’s gloves. You might hear, also, in your meditation the click-clack of cleats — metal, still favored by some — along concrete sidewalks trod by players on their march from the clubhouse to four practice fields named: Cobb, Gehringer, Cochrane, and Heilmann, hailing four Tigers greats from yesteryear.

These sights, sounds, and emotions explain the almost supernatural relationship that exists between the Tigers audience and an Eden-like locale where each February and March a team from Detroit unveils its new baseball year.

People dream about Lakeland and imagine the trappings in most cases long before they make a first trip here. Those journeys tend to be more like religious pilgrimages. There is a hallowed air to visiting the place of Detroit baseball’s yearly rebirth.

There is also, in ways first experienced and later observed, a kind of heavenly ecstasy that engulfs those who make the trek to Lakeland for a taste of baseball paradise.

This feeling is unique to baseball and to spring camp. And in the marriage between Detroit and Lakeland it reaches a kind of profundity, sanctioned by the longest single relationship between one team and one spring-training town in all of baseball.

The Tigers first made camp here in 1934. Eighty-three years later it remains the source for each year’s baseball events. The team convenes. Its roster is finalized. The first inklings of fortunes ahead are forged here.

And now, on a breezy day at this old Florida town where the citrus industry once reigned and still has its footprint, the scene at a practice-field quadrant is as pure as it was when Ty Cobb and Charlie Gehringer and Al Kaline and so many other men of extraordinary baseball skill tuned their talents ahead of a long season ahead.

Fans in shirt sleeves and wearing sunglasses sit on metal risers and marvel at the men and physical gifts being polished on these four fields. They see crisp pick-ups of ground balls pitchers handle, repeatedly, followed by snap-throws to first base. They watch as those same pitchers race to snare a relay from the first baseman who was forced to snag a grounder far from the bag.

They hear manager Brad Ausmus say “good work, Greenie,” to Shane Greene after a deft piece of defensive choreography. And they watch, entranced, as a pair of Tigers teammates stand, resting on bats, waiting their turn to hit, and talk about who-knows-what in the fashion of baseball cohorts who happen also to be friends.

Renovations bring new life to Tigers’ Lakeland digs

Fans line the fence and perhaps are treated to an autograph. They might kibitz with a star as he leaves the field and heads for that new, incredibly beautiful Tigers clubhouse with its Cherrywood lockers and glitzy dining area.

That clubhouse, by the way, is down a corridor bearing life-like photos and images of Tigers history: the great players, the championship moments, from Sam Crawford, Cobb, Mickey Cochrane and Hal Newhouser, to Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer and a dramatic wall-sized photo of Magglio Ordonez’s follow-through, in the gloam of a Saturday evening in October, after he launched his World Series-clinching home run in 2006.

It is one dynamic scene. A veritable trip through baseball’s version of the Louvre.

The newly made-over ballpark is another reason people all the more will fall in love and in rapture with Tigers spring camp. It’s stunning reconstruction, this $48 million project. Thoughtfully conceived, wonderfully crafted. It will make an afternoon at a Grapefruit League game that much more blissful and memorable.

The work was done and financed for the simple reason Detroit and Lakeland have become virtual twin cities. There is a link, spiritual and generational. And very much economic.

The Tigers bring $45 million each spring to this central Florida town. Anyone who has made the trip here understands how a city and county are affected. There are hotel rooms to be reserved and restaurants to be descended upon. People save and budget for these trips because the experience is so exceptional, even eternal.

Again, it goes back to that word “pilgrimage.” This is a trip people aspire to make. It can be life-changing for those who first taste the sweetness of the sun, the sight of that emerald turf and those graceful players carrying out their early baseball ballet.

There is no time, no place, no feeling, to match this spring splendor. There simply is nothing like Lakeland.