Generations of Detroit Tigers’ fans come together for Spring Training

From Kaline to Cabrera, Joker Marchant Stadium has brought the faithful out in the sun

Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium
The Detroit Tigers have played at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium since 1966. Braden Jones

LAKELAND, Fla. — While eight-year-old Kai Cabal was playing catch on the left field berm, there was 91-year-old Barbara Cvengros, sitting under the sun.

These were just two of the fans who came together on a recent Tuesday to watch their Detroit Tigers take on the New York Yankees at historic Joker Marchant Stadium, as part of the ritual of Spring Training.

Legends from Al Kaline up to Miguel Cabrera have created a timeless atmosphere for the location, and have bridged generations of fans. Some have had the opportunity to watch the evolution of the team.

The Legend of Al Kaline

LAKELAND, Fla. — Baseball has served many cultural functions since the turn of the 20th century, but perhaps none greater than that of American myth-maker. For today’s older generation of Detroit Tigers fans, no name carries a greater sense of reverence than Al Kaline.

The consensus greatest Tiger of all time is Ty Cobb, but ask any fan of a certain vintage about their favourite Tiger ever, and the answer almost invariably comes back: Kaline, one word, spoken with an admiring grin.

The Hall of Fame right fielder, nicknamed “Mr. Tiger”, spent the entirety of his decorated 22-year career with the team, retiring after the 1974 season as Detroit’s all-time home run leader. Judging from the amount of No. 6 Kaline jerseys spotted in and around the Tigers’ spring training venue of Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, however, you’d think he still played today.

The stadium sits at the corner of Kaline Drive and Horton Way (named after fellow Tigers legend Willie Horton), but for many Detroit fans, that honour just isn’t enough.

Too bad it isn’t Al Kaline Field.

Tigers fans loved him for his play on the field, of course, but perhaps more than that, for a demeanour befitting the working-class town he represented.

He wasn’t the type to say “How come you guys aren’t appreciating me?” He’s not that kind of guy. He let his bat do all the talking.

New Tigers fans have their own heroes now, names like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. It’s generational. If you’re of a certain age, he’s one of your favourites. But many younger fans don’t even know who Al Kaline was.

The march of time may dim the legend of Al Kaline, but there can only be one Mr. Tiger.

By Ryan Cuneo

“Since forever,” Cvengros said about how long the Tigers have been part of their lives. This was their first time at a Spring Training game, just a quick stop in their road trip through Florida from Detroit. She is 91 years old, and her son John is 65.

For four weeks in March, Florida reflects the culture that resides in Detroit through the summer. As people line up to get to the ballpark wearing their Kaline, Verlander or Cabrera jerseys, the tradition of baseball in Michigan becomes visible.

The franchise has been in Detroit since 1901, and it has never been renamed. Tigers have been training in Lakeland since the 1920s.

“I’d listen to the translucent radio in Elementary School, ’68 Tigers, ’84 Tigers, World Champions,” John Cvengros said. “I’m a retired school teacher now, so it was the optimal time to come”.

John and Barbara chose to watch the game sitting on the berm rather than on a seat behind home plate.

Right next to them, some children were running around in eager anticipation. Detroit lost the ball game, 7-2, but it did not seem to affect the younger fans in attendance.

Harry Nongueskwa, a long-time Tigers fan, expressed the importance of creating an accessible environment for young people.

“If you don’t get the younger generation to come baseball it will go down hill,” Harry said.

Asked what makes spring training so appealing for the younger generation he said it’s “the atmosphere, it is so fun to come here.”

The children at Joker Marchant Stadium seemed to be doing exactly that and enjoying the atmosphere.

Some children were running around the berm with their gloves in eager anticipation catching a foul ball from their hero on the field. There were other children sitting on the grass mesmerized by the hot dogs and ice cream in their hand.

Kai Cabal was accompanied by his father and catch partner, Isiah. The eight-year-old has played baseball for three years, and by the looks of his serious demeanour and steady arm has no plan of slowing down anytime soon. He was eager to watch the game in anticipation of seeing his favourite player Miguel Cabrera.

World War II veteran Peggy Brown threw the first pitch at the ball game. The 94-year-old epitomized the value of tradition on the baseball field creating an atmosphere of camaraderie and warmth at the Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

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Posted: Mar 19 2018 11:57 am
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports Baseball Sports