Henning: TigerTown continues to embrace makeover

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Among the new features at Joker Marchant Stadium this spring is additional protective netting, which was installed earlier this week. MLB has pushed for the increased measure for the safety of fans.

Lakeland, Fla. — A year ago, everything was revamped and dramatic.

Joker Marchant Stadium, or as the corporate sponsors have dubbed it, Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, had been treated to a nearly $50-million makeover that turned one of baseball’s best spring venues into a showplace the Tigers could say, legitimately, was tops in Florida.

Changes since last year are subtle. That includes the big one — 30-foot-high netting that extends from the dugouts down each foul line.

A visitor Friday didn’t even notice it as he strolled along the walkway behind the ballpark’s first-base seats. The netting is almost invisible.

“Thank you,” said Ron Myers, the Tigers’ director of Florida operations. “They call it ‘camouflage’ — and it’s going to make our jobs a lot easier.

“Before, on every pitch we were on our feet making sure no one got hurt.”

Netting is vogue in 2018 as all big-league parks, including Detroit’s Comerica Park, get serious about line-drive fouls that have been on the verge of turning deadly.

Extra netting always was considered a pain for the simple reason baseball is about intimacy. It’s an open-air game where in, especially during spring-training games, players and front-row fans are almost interlaced. Baseball people have never been big on barriers, even when foul balls can veer into stands like bullets.

“Safety has a price,” said Myers, the Flint native and Central Michigan University alum who for the past 15 years has overseen the TigerTown complex. “This section here (102) was extremely dangerous.”

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There was no danger, no anxiety, Friday, eight days before the Tigers were to begin their home-field Grapefruit League schedule against the Blue Jays. Players had gone home for the afternoon. The ballpark was a study in spring-training serenity.

Temperatures were stuck in the 80s during what might be one of the warmest-ever first weeks of Tigers spring camp in the 84 years since Detroit began training here.

The ballfield’s emerald turf early Friday afternoon was soaked in sunshine. Here and there, workers strolled by with brooms or with paint cans. Forklifts hummed through the concourse loaded with palettes of cargo.

A handful of visitors, cameras in hand, stopped to gaze at the field and pose for selfies.

Only a three-hour drive from Wednesday’s shooting horror at Douglas High, Friday’s scene seemed almost uncomfortable, the essence of pastoral, peaceful America juxtaposed against such anguish.

But that also is why the game, and why spring training, can be viewed as important and essential. Baseball’s blessings offer refuge. The game’s innocence and order make sense in a world that so often can’t be explained.

A new look

Realities remain. And, not surprisingly given 2018’s perils, security has been boosted at TigerTown. It’s part of upticks introduced at all big-league sites, spring and regular-season, the past two years

There are more fences and more security people at the Lakeland complex. It’s nothing intrusive. Nothing that keeps people from ambling onto a bleacher seat to watch players practice at the back-field quadrant. Rather, it’s part of being prudent. And part of an overall upgrade in service at a Grapefruit League park that will see more than 100,000 folks spill through the gates during the next five weeks.

“We went from 45 ushers and three ticket-takers to 109 people,” said Myers, who says tickets for spring games are down only 3 percent, even as a tough rebuilding year hits the Tigers. “We’ve gone from three EMS units to five.

“Again, safety has its price. It became a different venue when we went 360.”

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Myers refers to how the ballpark changed as part of TigerTown’s overall remodeling. There is a seamless flow from the seats surrounding Marchant’s infield to the outfield berm and Corona plaza to the right-field Margaritaville Patio, with its orange, blue, red, yellow, and green Adirondack chairs, canopied by multi-colored awnings.

The new ballpark, which was essentially re-done in 11 months after the Tigers headed north two years ago, now has more roof-shaded seats than any big-league spring facility in Florida or Arizona.

“This complex went from good to very good,” said Bob Donahay, Lakeland’s director of parks and recreation who teamed with Myers and with the Tigers to re-do not only the ballpark and field, but to build elegant new clubhouses, weight rooms, and offices beyond the right-field fence.

Myers, Donahay, and the Tigers visited 150 ballparks — big-league, minor-league, spring venues — as they took notes on what worked and didn’t work elsewhere. They came away with touches and details that have made for a masterpiece of a ballpark and Tigers minor-league HQ.

“Everything’s built to last a long time,” Myers said, citing, as one example, polywood Adirondack chairs that “will last 15 years compared with the old steel chairs.”

Outside the ballpark, the south parking lot shows a $100,000 upgrade. There is new asphalt. And newly painted parking spaces etched in white.

“Two months ago,” said Myers, “that parking lot was filled with debris from the hurricane (Irma).”

Myers looked across the field, at the distant Corona patio with its blue-and-yellow (Corona beer’s colors) seats atop the left-field berm.

“All those seats are sold,” he said, a reference to season tickets that have been slurped up.

“To see people come in here and enjoy this so much — that’s gratifying.”