Tigers convert Lakeland headquarters to public shelter from Irma

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
The Tigertown clubhouses in Lakeland, Fla., with their concrete walls, were being used as protection against Hurricane Irma.

A baseball complex known to Detroit Tigers fans for its spring serenity and pastoral setting has turned into an escape route for those in the path of Hurricane Irma’s demolition.

Tigertown’s clubhouses in Lakeland, Fla., already are filling with families that will use its windowless, concrete walls as protection against winds that could, even in central Florida’s interior, surpass 100 mph.

Refrigerated trucks are filled with 4-5 days of provisions necessary to feed families, staffers, players and, most of all, first-responders who will be charged with clean-up and safety after the storm’s greatest intensity arrives, according to best weather estimates, about 2:30 a.m. Monday.

The 84-acre Tigertown complex’s dormitories and cafeterias will be a local headquarters for emergency personnel in Lakeland and Polk County.

“We’re on the front lines, and we’re prepared,” said Ron Myers, director of Florida operations for the Tigers, speaking by phone Sunday morning from his office in a building that was completed only last winter as part of a $40-million-plus Tigertown renovation.

“We’ve got about 60 families and staff members, all taken care of, living in the first-floor locker rooms. The dorms we’ve cleared of players and have moved them to the clubhouses.

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“We’ve made this ground zero,” Myers said, explaining that Tigertown’s housing and services will be made available for staffers from FEMA, the Red Cross, and other emergency groups.

The Tigers received one break by way of pure timing. The team’s Single A Lakeland Flying Tigers team, as well as to prospects who play on two Gulf Coast League squads, completed their regular seasons last week and players have returned home for short breaks or for the offseason.

“Two weeks ago,” Myers said, “we could have had more than a hundred players here.”

Only about six young Tigers minor-leaguers remain in Lakeland, as well as some who are rehabbing from injuries at the team’s southern headquarters, with its sophisticated treatment facilities, expanded greatly during last year’s renovation.

Myers said Sunday morning’s weather in Lakeland was a foretaste of what was headed Lakeland’s way. A light drizzle fell, accompanied by a steady wind, all at a location about 25 miles northwest of Tampa. Myers said a tornado had been reported to touch down early Sunday at neighboring Lake Wales.

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By late Sunday night, and into Monday morning, the specter of damage and danger, he said, was sobering.

“We’re going to be in the northeast corridor,” he said of Irma’s path. “And that’s probably the worst place to be.

“Our biggest concern will be wind. We may get a lot of rain, but we’re not going to have the storm surge they’ll have on the coast.

“But a lot of wind. This is a heavy band coming our way.”

Myers said of greatest concern, apart from human life, was Marchant Stadium’s tall light towers. Thirteen years ago, when hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne hit the region, most facilities in the surrounding Florida State League lost their light towers.

But physical damage was not Sunday’s first concern, Myers said, as Tigertown’s facilities and equipment were prepared for a mass influx of people and workers.

“We’ll make dinners and three meals a day for about 1,000 people,” Myers said, “with sandwiches and lunch boxes going to the field each day.

“The (Tigertown) dorm will come into play as we need beds. Every bed in town, every hotel, will already have filled up.

“We’ll have tree-cutters here – it’ll be a massive recovery.”

Myers said during 2004’s storms, cafeteria and Tigertown staffs moved into the players’ dorm and “didn’t go home for nine days.”

But the effort, he said, was a necessary and gratifying part of the Tigers’ alliance with Lakeland and with Polk County. The Tigers have been training in Lakeland since 1934 and enjoy the longest-running relationship in the big leagues between a team and its spring-training site.

“It’s really part of our responsibility to help the city out,” said Myers, “and switch over to an emergency situation when events dictate.”

Myers said that the refrigerated truck necessary to keep food fresh could be sustained by generators should power be affected, as seemed inevitable Sunday morning.

“Yes, we’ve been through this before, and we feel we’re safe,” he said. “We’re on the front lines and we’re ready to go. We’ll be on the clock.”