Spring training a mixture of history, escape and baseball

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Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, the home for the Detroit Tigers during spring training action. Kaj Larsen/Toronto Observer

LAKELAND, Fla — As the sunlight permeated across the Florida morning sky, fans gathered in front of a statue of Marcus “Joker” Marchant at Publix Field.

It was 30 minutes before the gates opened.

Anticipation filled the air.

Before the spectators were granted access inside the stadium, they were greeted to a history lesson from Doug, a longtime Tigers volunteer.

He delivered a speech to a crowd of baseball supporters about the importance of Lakeland to the spring-training experience.

“The Tigers first played in Henley Field before playing in Lakeland,” said Doug.

“Initially, Publix Field was an airport that was used to train fighter pilots during World War II. It was Marchant’s idea to bring the Tigers from Henley Field to Lakeland, which now is the home of “Tiger Town.”

History surrounds Publix Field. From the retired Tigers numbers in right field to Ty Cobb’s statue inside the concourse, there are constant reminders about the storied past of the franchise.

Since 1934, the Tigers played spring-training baseball in Lakeland. A city with a population of approximately 108 000, Lakeland welcomes fans across North America every February and March to take in baseball and the warm weather.

Despite it being two weeks until opening day, it did not stop baseball fanatics from attending Publix Field to take in the Tigers hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates Tuesday afternoon.

There was a fervent buzz in the ballpark, from witnessing Tigers third baseman Jeimer Candelario’s home run in the bottom of the second inning to the crowd dancing to “YMCA.”

For some spring-training attendees, it is a chance to escape difficult circumstances to revel in the optimism that MLB preseason brings.

Podcast: Experiencing spring training

Joseph Angelini is a yearly attendee of spring training. The London, Ont., resident sports his Tigers jersey any chance he can, representing his favourite team.

But Joseph is a former military veteran who served in Afghanistan.

He uses Florida and baseball as a therapeutic mechanism to persevere through his struggles.

“I was injured while in Afghanistan,” said Angelini.

“With the cold weather in Canada, I come to Florida as it helps my health. Not only do I get to go to Tigers games with my dad in the summer, but I also have the bonus of going to see my team in spring training.”

Soon, baseball’s regular season will commence, meaning the conclusion of spring training.

For many annual Grapefruit League visitors, they will leave Florida with a plethora of unforgettable memories.

It won’t be long until they are back to where they started — at the gates, waiting for spring-training baseball to begin once again.

Heading south for spring training

There are 1,169 miles that separate the Detroit and its spring-training facility Publix Field. Included among the 5,488 in attendance at Lakeland were people flocking from Michigan and far beyond to catch the Tigers take on the Pirates.

Sam McKenna and his mother, who traveled all the way from Calhoun, Mich. The pair were among the people hanging out in the outfield, which had migrated south to check out some spring-training ball.

As a big Tigers fan and a baseball player himself, McKenna took the trip to see his team play in person as early as possible, especially with plenty of delicious food on hand.

“It’s great, the sun is shining, and the food is great,” said McKenna, donning a Tigers jersey and eating a bowl of BBQ pork mac n’ cheese. “The food is very important to me — I love food. But yeah, it’s better than getting just a plain old hot dog or something,” he said raising his miniature batting helmet bowl of grub.

The Northern connection went beyond Michigan as plenty of Canadians helped make up the narrative at Joker Marchant stadium.

Another Tigers fan named Patrick discussed his connection to Canada and how it’s birthed a domestic rivalry involving the Blue Jays and Tigers within his family.

“My brother married a Canadian girl and so he’s living in Canada now for a very long time,” says Pat. “Of course, his kids grew up Blue Jays fans, so when we go to games between the Blue Jays and the Tigers in Detroit its always an interesting conversation.”

Be it for the good eats, great weather, or the baseball on the field, people head south each March for spring training to get away from the northern winters. Despite some of the lengthy flights and miles driven it takes to get here, they all collectively agree it’s worth the trip.

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Posted: Mar 11 2020 2:30 pm
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports Baseball Sports