Renovations bring new life to Tigers’ Lakeland digs

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — So deep and so mutually valuable is the Tigers-Lakeland, Florida, relationship that the old ballpark, while comfortable, simply wouldn’t do.

Joker Marchant Stadium is part of a $48 million re-do at Tigertown, the one-time World War II pilot training base, which decades ago was converted into a baseball facility and during the past year has been transformed into what is almost sure to be known as the Grapefruit League’s crown jewel.

The new Tigers clubhouse building with an administrative office sits on the top floor at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida.

Inside the gleaming beige ballpark, which has been expanded and has ditched its old soft-yellow motif, new roofed grandstand areas have replaced hot, sun-baked bleachers and seats along the third- and first-base lines. Concourses are wider and, on the upper tier, have been built to catch westerly breezes.

Hospitality suites, as well as restroom and concession areas, have been added, remodeled, or hugely expanded. Two additional elevators have grown from the lone lift of yesteryear. There is a 30-foot scoreboard beyond center field, flanked by twin bell towers and perched atop a tiled-roof plaza. Beyond right field, new administrative offices are part of an 85,000-square-foot complex devoted to building better, and happier, baseball players. There is a 60-player-plus clubhouse with cherrywood lockers and a dining/kitchen area that could have come from the Ritz-Carlton. There is a 9,400-square-foot weight room, the biggest in baseball, with $500,000 of new equipment. There are hydro-therapy tanks and 21st-century amenities galore.

Even the ballpark’s name has been altered: Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium is the new title, reflecting a whopping sponsorship investment from a Publix grocery chain based in Lakeland that has 1,100 stores nationwide.

“There hasn’t been a day over the past four years where there wasn’t a thought process tied into this,” said Ron Myers, the Tigers’ director of Lakeland operations, as he strolled through the re-crafted ballpark Monday, sidestepping construction workers and painters still busy with work Myers said is “95 percent” complete.

“This wasn’t a Band-Aid,” he said. “This time we did it right.”

The ballpark’s facelift is part of an immense renovation meant to further bind the Tigers and Lakeland. The longest relationship between one big-league team and spring-training site in all of baseball, dating to 1934, doubles as the Tigers’ minor-league headquarters, with six baseball fields, dormitories and dining halls for young players, and enough medical and training resources to make it the Tigers’ base for rehabilitating injured players of all levels.

The Tigers’ upper Single A team, the Lakeland Flying Tigers, are also based here and this season will be back playing their games at Publix Field after spending a year at downtown Lakeland’s Henley Field, where Ty Cobb and Charlie Gehringer and a young Al Kaline all played ahead of Marchant Stadium’s opening in 1966.

The move was spurred by 12 months of steady construction, which also led to the Publix/Marchant ballpark’s field being lowered 22 inches. It has since been rebuilt, re-sodded, and now can drain in 20 minutes following a heavy thunderstorm, all part of a ballfield’s $600,000 makeover.

“We did a two-year project in 15 months,” said Bob Donahay, director of Lakeland Parks and Recreation, which was co-producer of the renovations.

Why, and how, the project came to be born four years ago is a story of money every bit as much as it is about baseball and the Tigers.

The state of Florida has been losing spring-training teams regularly to sweeter deals and facilities in Arizona and began 20 years ago to spend cash on keeping teams — and tourist dollars — in Florida.

The Tigers bring to Lakeland each spring an estimated $45 million in baseball-driven dollars, with another $18 million during the Single A team’s schedule. The $48 million in financing is a product of state, county, and city funding. The Tigers pay $530,000 annually to the City of Lakeland, as well as all utility costs.

For all of the reconstruction and reconfiguring, seating capacity remains about 9,000, with the extended left-field and right-field areas taking on a sleeker, leaner look, especially along the old sun-baked third-base line where high-rise bleachers that could turn into a broiler on sunny days have been condensed, with precious shade covering most seats.

“Look at the seats, how the shade will creep down continually through the day,” Myers said, pointing out seat and sun angles along each base line. “Shade is the commodity.”

Myers stood in a cool-breeze concourse, overlooking the field and rows of forest-green chairs beneath him along the left-field line.

“These are box seats,” he said with a sweeping wave, “anywhere in the big leagues.”

Workers tend to details on the new scoreboard Tuesday at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida.

Some areas of old Marchant have been retained but enhanced. A grass berm beyond the ballpark’s left-field fence will still invite sun-bathers and crowd overflow. But directly beyond center is a focal point, the new scoreboard that replaces a smaller, rudimentary version that once sat beyond right field.

The scoreboard sits atop a tile-roofed plaza Myers calls “the Corona Cabana,” complete with a 40-person bar, picnic tables, and concessions that will serve all kinds of fare, including Detroit-style Coney dogs.

Streaming beneath the right-field administrative offices is a 100-foot-by-4-foot horizontal high-definition “ribbon board” that is part of the ballpark’s technological overhaul. There is an adjoining “Margaritaville patio” in right field, as well as a “Fowl Line Café,” where one side of the divide will serve chicken, and the other side more traditional ballpark goodies.

Myers and a group of planners spent months visiting spring-training complexes in Florida and Arizona asking questions, which always included: “What would you have done differently?”

Thoughts on sight lines, concourse width, sound systems, suite variety, elevator access, concession and ticket access — every conceivable part of ballpark life, especially with a heavily senior crowd’s needs in mind, was incorporated into the new Publix/Marchant plan that rose only a few million dollars over initial estimates.

Décor and landscaping also have their influence on a new baseball venue.

Facing the parking lot, on the very southern end of the new administrative offices, is a white six-foot Olde English D, next to three-foot letters pronouncing that this site is at least a part-time home to the “Detroit Tigers Baseball Club.”

There are 100 new palm trees that have planted on the complex.

“You drive in here and you’re gonna think you’ve seen Beverly Hills,” Myers said, emphasizing that aesthetics, while important, weren’t the project’s first priority.

“Player development was always our focus,” he said. “Then we wanted to offer customers the best possible hospitality, and also use the best technology. The idea was, when you’re at a ballgame here, you’re gonna think you’re at a major-league park.”

Tigers pitchers and catchers reported Monday to Lakeland ahead of Tuesday’s opening workout. The full team reports Friday and will begin formal full-squad drills Saturday, with the opening spring game Feb. 23 against local college baseball team, Florida Southern.