Henning: Lakeland’s aura remains 50 years after first tour of Tigers’ spring home

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Say the word aloud to anyone from Michigan.

“Lakeland.”

Notice how faces become thousand-watt bulbs.

“Lakeland.”

Sunshine. Warm weather. The fading of winter’s wrath in the north. The joy of baseball, back for another long, luxuriant go-around.

The Tigers have been setting up spring camp in Lakeland since 1934, the longest such relationship between one team and one town among all of MLB’s clubs.

Other teams have moved about Florida, or relocated to Arizona. The Tigers have stayed rooted on a World War II pilot-training site that since has been turned into a radiant baseball complex known as TigerTown.

Here, an annual spring ritual is staged, spiced by green grass, palm trees, Lake Parker’s shore, and whistling ospreys soaring toward their light-tower nests.

Fifty years ago this week, on March 16, 1973, there was a first pilgrimage to Lakeland and to a site that across generations has been a kind of balm for body and mind — and spirit.

It was part of your basic college spring-break adventure that saw six of us from Lansing and surrounding villages wheel our way to Florida stuffed in a white Oldsmobile Delta 88.

We were at Daytona Beach mostly fixated on college-age priorities: sand, surf, and girls. But baseball, absolutely, was in mind, which is why Jerry Pecora and I hit I-4 for a 112-mile jaunt to Marchant Stadium and for an evening game against the Cardinals.

It must be remembered this was only a year after Disney World opened. The I-4 corridor wasn’t to be confused with the car-congested, strip-mall-and-office-building jungle that since has been squeezed by condos and restaurants and all the concrete and asphalt a Sunshine State tract can absorb.

The drive, to and back, was fairly desolate.

But there was a tingle, too, tied to the sheer bliss of finally, at last, traipsing across grounds and into a ballpark that had for so many years spurred imaginations.

The word is key: imagination. Before they show up, people from our part of the north tend to gorge on images of what a Garden of Eden spring training in Lakeland must be. All those dreamy scenes of sunshine and guys on the field. The sounds of bats meeting baseballs. Of pitches thumping into mitts.

Earlier, they would have seen newspaper photos of a Florida-bound equipment truck loading at Tiger Stadium. A first taste of spring was, at last, palpable.

And then people arrive here. And never have I met a single person who was not swept away by the Lakeland experience.

They see the Tigers celebrities, up close, laid back, often within conversational distance.

“Screen-door baseball,” I’ve always called spring training for its breezy, blessedly casual coziness. What’s fascinating is that the kicked-back atmosphere doesn’t for fans weaken the aura of seeing these guys in the flesh, tuning up for a long season ahead.

Grapefruit League games are the grand stage, always. People skip through Marchant’s concourse holding hot dogs and drinks. They head for seats feet or yards from guys they came to see on a tropical Florida afternoon.

Peace and merriment, embodied by a baseball venue.

And that might be the most powerful impression from 50 years of these moments. A spring-training baseball game seems always to say, “Things are good. We’re going to be all right. We’ve got problems and divisions and serious issues, but this gathering reassures us. Binds us. Inspires us.”

Thus, many folks make these trips to Lakeland an annual escape. Many others have made Lakeland their winter address. Many live here now, fulltime.

A guy who can recall that night 50 years ago in such detail he remembers what he was wearing (print burgundy-and-white slacks — hey, it was 1973 — burgundy shirt with white placket, red windbreaker) can relate.

More than two years of my life have, cumulatively, been spent in Lakeland, thanks to all those spring-training assignments, which began in 1979, with the Lansing State Journal.

It was Kirk Gibson’s first camp with the Tigers. And he, no surprise, created such commotion I ended up with an extended, 18-day stint. Michigan State’s two-sport superstar threatened to make the team. I was milking the news value for an extra week of duty.

There was a moment among thousands that spring still being savored.

It happened on a Friday at Winter Haven, 20 minutes from Lakeland, where the Red Sox then were training.

Chain O’Lakes Park was everything a quaint spring-training ballpark tucked among greenery and lakes could be in flavor and atmosphere. Beyond the outfield fence were orange groves that framed a ballfield in a kind of Renaissance-art portrait.

Near the end of the game, it was common at a place like Chain O’ Lakes for media members, on the way to a team’s back-tract clubhouse, to simply sit on the grass in foul territory as they waited for final outs and for postgame chatter with the manager and players.

I sat there that afternoon, on that lush grass, getting whiffs of orange blossoms, taking in the innocence and grace of a scene so entrancing.

These moments of feeling as if you’re in another realm have since been reprised at Lakeland on too many days and nights to count.

I felt it again this week — during a game Tuesday when 8,203 folks showed up at Publix-Marchant to see the Tigers and Red Sox duel. I watched folks, bagged Tigers merchandise in hand, slide into their seats for an afternoon of pure escapism.

I saw all the people and blankets stretched across that wondrous green berm beyond left field.

I spent a few hours earlier on the TigerTown back fields, watching kid players, minor-leaguers, compete and dream and be coached and counseled. And it was glorious.

Never has it been forgotten, never will it be forgotten, any of this. None of it. Not a moment from that first adventure in 1973. Not a moment, ever.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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