There was the embarrassing headline in bold, black letters: Detroit Tigers loyal to Lakeland. The Tigers, who have conducted their spring training camp in Lakeland since FDR was president, have signed a deal to stay on there for 20 more years.
Loyalty in professional sports? Unheard of. What’s next?
Here are the shocking details. The Detroit Tigers have trained in Lakeland — a Central Florida town of just under 100K between Tampa and Orlando — since 1936. That’s 78 years, if you’re keeping score.
We’re not talking about day before yesterday here. In 1936, America was still mired in the Great Depression. The world had not yet suffered that great Teutonic migration know as World War Two, the most horrific event under one name in human history. First class postage stamps were three cents. That year a Georgia girl named Margaret Mitchell published a novel entitled Gone With the Wind, which sold a few copies.
Tigers’ first baseman Hank Greenberg was in his third season with Detroit in 1936, but missed most of the year with a broken wrist. He recovered nicely though, going on to hit 331 career homeruns, post a lifetime batting average of .313, and be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Over the past 78 years, most Major League Baseball teams have changed their spring training homes more often and more quickly than Charlie Crist changes his positions on the major issues of the day. A major off-the-field game played by MLB general managers is playing one Florida or Arizona town against another in order to get the newest and most costly facilities, the biggest tax breaks, the biggest chunk of parking and concessions money. In dealing with spring training towns, or wannabe spring training towns, every baseball GM is in touch with his inner Scott Boras. The only rule is to get the last drop of blood. Don’t leave a nickel on the table.
In the midst of all this economic rape and pillage, here are the Detroit Tigers, loyal to a town that has been their spring home from Hank Greenberg through Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander (with stops along the way for such as Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, and Sparky Anderson). What’s up with Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski? Doesn’t he know big-league teams are supposed to love ’em and leave ’em?
I’d hate to have to be the one to tell Bud Selig about this. He’s going to be really sore when he finds out.
But season your admiration for a while. This loyalty, admirable though it may be, comes at a price. The price being $37 million in improvements to Joker Marchant stadium, where the Tigers play spring training games and their Class A minor league team plays in the summer. (No, Joker Marchant is not a stand-up comic — but a former Lakeland Parks and Recreation Department director.) The improvements will include additional shading, a 360-degree walk-around, improved vending and concessions areas. The improvements are to be completed by January of 2017. Perhaps when Bud hears about this stuff he won’t be so cross with Dave.
Here’s Lakeland City Manager Doug Thomas summing up the deal in a press release: “We have developed a package that is cost-effective for the city and continues to support the estimated $45 million in economic benefits associated spring training and additional $18 million in economic impacts from the Flying Tigers to our community. [Estimated by whom, Thomas does not say. Don’t believe these two numbers for two seconds.] In return, the Tigers will be provided contemporary facilities designed to enhance player development and improve the fan experience so it will allow them to remain competitive with their counterparts in Major League Baseball.”
Well, government functionaries and executives of large private concerns getting away with something, usually at taxpayer expense, talk like this. And there doesn’t seem to be any way to shame them out of it. But not to worry. This last can easily be translated into plain English, to wit: “We’re spending a packet of money that taxpayers will have to make good on to keep these guys here.”
I guess we can be pleased that loyalty still exists, and that Lakeland will “hold that Tiger” for an entire century. But while enjoying their favorites in spring and keeping up with them during the regular season, some Lakeland taxpayers, upon reflection, may feel like their Tigers have made scratching posts of them.