Reflections on Spring Training 2019
Last year, I wrote an article stating some of my general thoughts on my Spring Training experience. As a former Detroiter and Tigers fan, I miss whole pomp and circumstance of Opening Day and those warm summer evenings or sunny weekend afternoons at Comerica Park. One of the great benefits of living in Central Florida, is that I am just short 40 mile commute to Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.
This benefit has allowed me to catch the Tigers during Spring Training as well as attend games for their Florida State League affiliate, the Lakeland Flying Tigers. This has given me a whole new perspective on the game of baseball in the last several years. As each year passes, I learn more about the Tigers franchise and the game itself.
I attended four Spring Training games this March, beginning with a road game at the Yankees in Tampa on March 3. The Tigers took a split squad to Tampa and most of the highlights of that game were watching Aaron Judge hit two homers. It was a great experience visiting another Spring Training facility, particularly George Steinbrenner Field. The atmosphere gives you a feel for the historical significance of the New York Yankees.
Fast forward to March 16 (Pirates) and 17 (Braves), I caught two home games at Joker Marchant. This weekend included tailgating, interacting with Tigers fans and personnel and watching practices. It added a new layer to my Spring Training experience and left me wanting to explore these aspects deeper in the years to come. We even bumped into the legendary Jim Leyland who was gracious enough to snap a photo! And finally, I watched the Tigers vs Braves at Champion Stadium at Walt Disney’s Wide World of Sports on March 22. This in the final season of the Braves training at Disney and will be moving down to North Port (Sarasota) in 2020. In Lakeland and at Disney, the Tigers roster looked more like their potential Opening Day lineup.
The best part about these four games is that I attended them with a different groups of people, all of whom added something different to that particular game. I decided to revisit my article on Spring Training 2018 and realized some of the same themes ring true a year later.
One of those themes being, baseball fans are loyal. This fact reigned true in the conversations I had with fans at the ballparks. Conversations were had with fantasy campers, minor league season ticket holders, vacationers, relocators (like me) and opposing team fans. This all led me to believe the average Spring Training baseball attendee is very loyal to their team and well informed about the game in general. What also remains true is my observation that baseball is truly a multi-generational game. I enjoy sitting at a Grapefruit League game and watching the crowd and the people you pass on the concourses. I noticed people at every age and walk of life camped out in the Florida sunshine.
And as noted before the 2019 season also reminded me that Spring Training is really about the process and experience. While many of the players are under serious pressure to prove they are big league caliber, fans are relaxed and enjoying the moment. The record does not matter yet, just the flow and pace of the game. It’s a chance to see what the new players look like, what we might expect from those returning and who might emerge from the farm system to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster.
One thing in particular I’ve come to admire about the Detroit Tigers franchise is the long term commitment that’s been made with the city of Lakeland. It hit home for me when leaving the Braves ballpark on Friday. The Braves spent only 22 seasons calling Disney their Spring Training home. The Yankees have only been training in Tampa since 1996, leaving Ft. Lauderdale after 33 seasons. Two years ago, the Astros left Kissimmee and the Nationals left Viera for a joint venture in West Palm Beach.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have the longest standing relationship of any franchise with their Spring Training home, dating back to 1966. As you approach Joker Marchant Stadium and turn on to Al Kaline Drive, you cannot help but notice giant sign that reads, Tiger Town. The best news is with the recent stadium renovations, the franchise and the city have renewed their commitment for the foreseeable future.
As the Tigers head north this week and the Grapefruit League schedule comes to a close, I have mixed feelings as we approach Opening Day. As a Tigers fan, I understand the team is in rebuilding mode, so I can only expect so much from the season. The rebuilding process, however, has been a blessing in disguise for me. It’s allowed me to dig deeper into the game, to follow the farm system in greater depth and look for the bright spots as looks to become more competitive in the years to come.
As a baseball fan in general, I am excited to see which teams emerge as the front runners throughout the season and how the division races shape up. As a Florida resident, living within a few hours of all 15 Grapefruit League teams, I can’t help but think… I can’t wait for Spring Training again.