For baseball fans, spring training means winter is almost over and pennant dreams can be renewed. But in Florida, baseball’s six week warm-up means big business.
In Polk County alone, the Detroit Tigers’ relationship with the city of Lakeland generates millions of dollars. City and county officials intend to keep it that way, and that’s why “Tiger Town” has undergone a major facelift.
On a recent picture perfect day for baseball, fans streamed into the newly upgraded Joker Marchant Stadium. Among the improvements is a giant HD video scoreboard in the outfield, multiple party patios and premium seats.
For fans like Debbie Grosh of Michigan, a trip to Lakeland means an annual escape from snow and freezing cold weather.
"There’s nice sunny weather and palm trees here,” she said. “I love spring training."
Grosh has been coming to Joker Marchant Stadium to root for the Detroit Tigers for several years. She said she was happy to see that the old silver bleachers had been removed and replaced with covered seating.
"Last year we came and we sat in the bleachers and it was very hot,” she said. “This is awesome. I think you can enjoy the game much more without the sun beating down on you like it was before."
The Detroit Tigers and the city of Lakeland have the longest-running spring training partnership in baseball at 81 years. The renovation and its $48 million price tag was jointly financed by the team, the city, Polk County, and the state of Florida.
Bob Donahay is Lakeland's director of parks and recreation. He said all parties were behind the project in order to keep the Tigers in the city for at least another 20 years.
"The reality of it is, this is $50 million dollars plus in our local economy every year,” he said. “Everybody was a willing participant."
Not every relationship has worked out that way.
A couple of years ago, the Atlanta Braves announced they were leaving Orlando in search of a new stadium. The team has trained at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports since 1998. Their original 20-year lease ends after the 2017 exhibition season.
Justin James of Lakeland is happy his team is staying put. He came to the stadium with his 8-year-old son Jackson and said he's can't imagine his hometown without the Tigers or their minor league farm team, the Lakeland Flying Tigers.
“That's all I've ever known,” he said. “I was born and raised here for going on 33 years. The Lakeland Tigers and the Detroit Tigers go hand-in-hand."
While the enhanced fan experience is designed to keep fans coming back to "Tiger Town," spring training is also a major revenue producer for the team itself. That's evident by the long lines at the new memorabilia shop where fans can stock up on navy blue and orange Tigers regalia.
And there's another big reason why the team has invested in the renovation. The sport of baseball has become much more competitive. Teams now view spring training as an important part of a winning season and the new upgrades to the facility reflects that mission.
Upgrades include a new 7,000-square-foot weight room -- one of the largest in spring training. There are new dugouts, air conditioned batting cages, hydrotherapy pools and an underwater treadmill for conditioning.
Superfan Debbie Grosh hopes the investment will pay off as soon as this season.
"They're going to do great,” she said. I have positive thinking.”
If the result on this spring training day is any indication, the Tigers are off to a great start. The team opened it up late in the game, scoring eight runs in the 8th inning to top the Atlanta Braves 10 to 7.
The last spring training game of the season in Lakeland is March 29 when the Tigers take on the Philadelphia Phillies.