Land of Kaline

Welcome to “Tiger Town.” Since 1934, the City of Lakeland & Detroit Tigers have had the longest working relationship between any spring training city-host and a Major League Baseball team. Oddly enough, 1934 was the year Detroit Tiger Legend Al Kaline was born. He passed away on April 06, 2020; one of 11 Hall of Famers who have died in the last year or so. Just recently, son Mark Kaline posted a message of gratitude to the team for keeping a locker in the Tiger clubhouse with a uniform ready to go for his dad in the 2021 spring training this year as a sign of respect. In 1954, a 19-year old Al Kaline ventured into the City of Lakeland for the first time to report for spring training with the Detroit Tigers. Back then, Tigers trained at Henley Field just a mile and a half north of here. Joker Marchant Stadium didn’t open until 1966. He signed with the Tigers in 1953 and joined the team shortly after high school. Not only did he play for the Tigers his entire 21-year MLB career, he went on the work for the team as a broadcaster, a special assistant to the team President, and a series of coaching positions. Keeping the number 6 uniform in the clubhouse is a tradition 66 years old and counting. Yes, this is the Land of Kaline and it has called me back many times over the years. Visit the City of Lakeland long enough and it will start to grow on you as it did for “Mr. Tiger.” Here are two of my visits.

New York Yankees @ Detroit Tigers

2010 Spring Training: Detroit Tigers hosted New York Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium; named after a late parks and recreation director. In his first game against his old Yankee teammates, Johnny Damon was back to his Yankee killing ways with 2 hits, including 1 home run, and 2 RBIs, just like his days with the Boston Red Sox. The 2010 regular season ended in an 81-81 record for the Tigers, an even .500. Longtime voice of the Tigers Ernie Harwell passed away little after spring training on May 4th. He spent a big part of his broadcasting career calling the games Al Kaline played in. From 1960 to 2002, his career with the Tigers started and ended here in Lakeland, Florida. First game was called in Henley Field. The last game was here in Joker Marchant Stadium where he held an end of spring training press conference to announce his retirement. Another Tiger tradition was when Ernie Harwell would kick-off with a biblical recital of “Voice of the Turtle.”

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land.

Ernie Harwell lived in Lakeland, Florida and only missed 2 games in his 55-year career. Something unique to his life was that, after discovering he had an inoperable tumor, he clearly knew his time in this earth was coming to end. It was a farewell tour like none other.

Florida Southern College Moccasins @ Detroit Tigers 

2017 Spring Training: Detroit Tigers hosted Florida Southern College Moccasins on Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, the first game of the young season. There was a celebration of the longstanding relationship between City of Lakeland and Detroit Tigers. A new agreement of $37 million in renovations and a 20-year deal that ensures “Tiger Town” will be here for an un-precedented 100 years. Publix. the new sponsor, is a large chain of supermarkets that also has their Headquarters here in town.

The Florida Southern College Moccasins is a local Division II program. At the time, they had 9 National Championships and 41 post season appearances, were invited to open Spring Training 2017. Campus is located approximately three and a half miles south of this stadium. Baseball Almanac lists 12 Alumni who have played in MLB.

  • Greg Pryor (1968-1970)
  • Andy Mc Gaffigan (1977-1978)
  • Ralph Citarella (1977-1979)
  • Rob Dibble (1983-1983)
  • James hurst (1988-1989)
  • Carlos Reyes (1990-1991)
  • John Hudek (1987-1988)
  • Brett Tompko (1995-1995)
  • Eddie Gaillard (1992-1993)
  • Lance Niekro (2000-2000)
  • Matt Joyce (2005-2005)
  • Gus Schlosser (2010 2011)

Detroit Tigers selected Colin Kaline (grandson of Al Kaline) in the 2007 MLB draft. He did not sign and instead played for Florida Southern College. He later did sign with the Tigers and played in their minor leagues (2011-2012). SB Nation staff writer Ashley MacLennan reported that Manager Brad Ausmus offered the Moccasins a pitcher or two that he had as extras. Florida Southern College declined the offer. Regardless of the crushing results in this game, surely it was a once in a lifetime experiences and Moccasins begged to differ on anyone suggesting this was not a real game.

Osceola County Stadium

New York Yankees @ Houston Astros

2012 Spring Training. Houston Astros hosted the New York Yankees at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Florida; a year where they would play their last season in the National League. After this, they went from the National League (NL) Central Division to American League (AL) Western Division. All the other teams in the AL West we’re building championship caliber teams at the time. Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers were still relevant after playing in the 2010 & 2011 World Series. Albert Pujols was starting the first of his 10-year $240,000,000 contract with the Los Angeles Angels; the same time when Mike Trout would be the Rookie of the year and a strong candidate for the MVP every year after that. Oakland A’s were matched with Detroit Tigers in the 2012 AL Division Series and Seattle Mariners played in an AL Wild Card Game. In other words, the Houston Astros were moving to a division that was feverishly developing their organizations from the ground up for sustainable winning. But, Astros were also working on a 5-year rebuild that would put them in a position to win in that group. This was the same year that Houston Astros signed Carlos Correa as the overall first round draft pick. Chicago Cubs and more recently Chicago White Sox have done something similar; focusing on player development, down to the A-ball level. Players from the 2017 championship team, like Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez, were already with the organization. Long time Astro Carlos Lee was traded to the Miami Marlins later that year.

A game with the New York Yankees was good practice for that; facing a line-up that included players like Raul Ibanez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Robinson Cano in the lineup. There is always a huge following for the New York Yankees when they are in Kissimmee, Florida. It’s more of a barnstorming atmosphere than the typical methodical spring training game. Of the list of parks visited, Osceola County Stadium is my most attended. But this is true in all the Spring Training venues. There is always a short-list of teams who have the potential to sell out higher priced tickets in any spring training park that they arrive at; a dynamic reserved for a larger market team or a defending champion.

When the Houston Astros pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training the following year, it was a new year, a new division, in new uniforms, with new ownership in Jim Crane, and a new front office; eventually a new president in Reid Ryan, son of legendary Nolan Ryan. Jeff Luhnow was on hand to meet all invitees on their first day at the alternate fields next to Osceola County Stadium. The new general manager hired by the Houston Astros the previous December. The first few days of reporting are usually the best time to interact and get autographs. You’re up close and personal with the players, who rotate from station to station during their drills and exercises. Sometimes it’s just a rope that separates you from the action.

As I walked around, I passed a player and, as a gesture, I wished him good luck. “Thanks,” he said as he headed for the batting cages. Initially, I didn’t recognize him. After looking again, I asked if he used to be a pitcher. “Yes!” he said. He was a position player who reported early to do some work in the batting cages. But it was only natural that he be with pitchers and catchers. It was Rick Ankiel who debuted as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999. Issues with control ended his pitching. His toughest outing was game one of the 2000 NLDS, when Tony Larussa slipped him in under the media radar after many of his pitchers were injured that post season. After a series of setbacks, he came back in 2007 as a centerfielder and reinvented his career. He made the 2013 Houston Astros squad but was released a month later, then picked up by the New York Mets and finally made his last MLB appearance June 08, 2013. In one word; resilient.

The Houston Astros trained here until 2016. After that, they moved to a $148.6 million complex in West Palm Beach that they now share with the Washington Nationals. Sadly, this would eventually leave a void for baseball in Central Florida. Florida Fire Frogs (Atlanta Braves Advance-A Affiliate) called this home until they also moved to a new facility last year in Sarasota, Florida. But, since 1984, Osceola County Stadium has withstood the test of time. Its still a haven for USSSA tournaments, the building along the right field line houses their Hall of Fame and Museum.

Citi Field

2010 Regular Season at thenew Citi Field. Just a year earlier, the New York Yankees would have their own inaugural season in 2009 at the New Yankee Stadium. Going into Citi Field, they were also defending 2009 World Champions after defeating the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies the previous Fall. It was early in the season. But, just the day before, the New York Mets had a team meeting to stress the “importance of winning.” They would go on to win (8) of the next (11) games: they had momentum on their side. Regardless of what the situation is, when these two teams meet, they play with the utmost urgency. Needless to say, there was a lot at stake here. Constant trash-talking from fans in the stands reminded you of that.

Design of Citi Field includes the main entrance exterior that strongly resembles the old Ebbets Field. The lobby area housed inside is the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Below is the inscription along the barreled wall.

“I life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson.

The original “Home Run Apple” measures (9) feet high and is located just outside of the main entrance of Citi Field. It was replaced by another “Home Run Apple” measuring (18) feet. Twice as tall, it carries on the tradition of popping up beyond centerfield when a Mets player hits a Home Run. Transitions to other the parts of Citi Field are not so smooth. Walking around the park leads to obstructed or blocked views of the field. The major trade off to the Jackie Robinson Rotunda is that the skybox suites or other facilities lined behind home plate do not allow a view of the game as you walk down the hallways in that area; reduced to seeing the game on occasional monitors.

In its (58) year history, the New York Mets have played in five World Series (1969, 1973, 1986, 2000, 2015); winning two of them in 1969 & 1986. Both those teams represent a renaissance era for the organization. The 2021 regular season marks a new beginning for the New York Mets franchise. On November 06, 2020 Associated Press reported that Steve Cohen, CEO of Point72 Asset Management and lifetime Mets fan, closed on a deal to purchase the New York Mets at $2.64 Billion; increasing his financial interest in the New York Mets from 8% to 95%. The Wilpon and Katz families (previous owners) will retain the remaining 5%.

Many changes on the way. But, the biggest game-changer was the recent signing of superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor for a year at $22.5 Million. The plan is to lock him in for the long term (similar to what the L.A. Dodgers did with Mookie Betts). If they do, and with the potential for other signings in the horizon, the New York Mets stand to be a big threat in baseball. “Yes, it is what the Mets fans wanted to see, their team acting like a big-market bully,” wrote Ken Rosenthal in “The Athletic.” For the Mets fandom, its hopefully an end to disfunction within the organization and the start of a new renaissance era.

New York Yankees @ New York Mets

Yankee Stadium

Philadelphia Phillies @ New York Yankees

2009 Regular Season at the New Yankee Stadium for the inaugural season to see the Yankees take on the Philadelphia Phillies in an interleague game. Ironically enough they would face each other again this same year in the 2009 World Series. It’s late spring and the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies were looking to repeat as the New York Yankees were looking for World Championship #27 to commemorate their new home across East 161st Street. Needless to say, there was a post-season atmosphere. Saying the wrong thing could get you punched in the mouth; when in the Bronx. The city of brotherly love is only 95 miles away; lots of fans with active “Phillies” gear on hand.

I had the opportunity to see “Old Yankee Stadium” in its final year. Here, I had yet another chance to see the New Yankee Stadium in its first year; two gracious invitations that I’ve appreciated as a baseball fan with every year since. I was amazed to see how much of the “Yankee Tradition” was seamlessly transplanted in the new park. It helps that, in both parks, the No. 4 train & D train is still beyond right field; running back and forth over River Ave.

Memorial Park was not quick done but it didn’t take away from the experience. This, in contrast to the Chicago White Sox and their move to the New Comiskey Park across the street. It was sterile; going from “Baseball Palace of the World” to the last of the cookie-cutter stadiums. As we all know from experience, there is no such thing as a small move. And, it’s especially true here. Think of all the hardware, the championships, and the baseball history that was systematically transported. Nothing was lost; familiar elements of the Old Yankee Stadium with all the state-of-the-art technology. Construction cost came in at $2.3 Billion. The old one still stood across the way, boarded up, as if it were a giant storage unit.

The iconic Architectural frieze across the roofline was new and improve, brighter than ever. Placement of signage, banners, and video compilations reminds you of how many Trophies are housed here. As the game started, the Bleacher Creatures roll call made their way around the starting nine as they’ve always done. The ground crew took a break from dragging the field to perform the YMCA dance. God Bless America was played in the seventh inning, as opposed to “Take me Out to the Ballgame. And, every time Derek Jeter came to bat, a voice from the past would silenced the crowd. “Now batting for the American League, from the New York Yankees, the short stop, number two, Derek Jeter, number two.” – said Bob Shepard. The Sandman (Mariano River) did not enter. After a combined 23 hits, the Philadelphia Phillies held their lead and won 4-3.

The New York Yankees ultimately went on to win World Championship #27 in 2009. In turn, Manager Joe Girardi would change his uniform number from #27 to #28 the next year, setting the new milestone. The New York Yankees accomplished the same feat of winning in the inaugural year of their new home, just as they did in 1923 when they first opened “Old Yankee Stadium.”

Steinbrenner Field

Washington Nationals @ New York Yankees.

Was able to catch a game before the rain, and before COVID-19. New York Yankees celebrate their 25th Spring Training at Steinbrenner Field here in Tampa, Florida. For the most part, 4-5 weeks of Spring Training go by really fast. Chances of rain in Florida make it a hit-or-miss if you decide to take the road trip. In this case, it worked out. The New York Yankees hosted the Washington Nationals and played 5 innings before the downpour. That’s a complete game on any scorecard, success! Yankee Masahiro Tanaka pitched the first two innings and the New York Yankees out hit the Washington Nationals. News broke later the same day. Yankees Pitcher Luis Severino had a torn ligament in his right elbow that would require Tommy John surgery. He would be out for the 2020 season. 

Little did we know that there were bigger problems, of the pandemic kind, around the corner. Recent additions to the 2019 World Champion Washington Nationals, free agents Starlin Castro and Emilio Bonifacio, were in the line up. Just the week before, the team had a second victory parade for their fans in downtown West Palm Beach near their Spring Training facilities, a complex they share with the scandal affected Houston Astros organization. 

Speaking of second chances, MLB announced this week that the 2020 regular season is set to begin July 23 or 24. Schedule is pending. 1800 Players will report in the coming days to Spring Training (2.0). That said, the strained labor relations between owners and players is yet another obstacle in the challenges ahead, something that will linger in the business of baseball for the next 18 months. It’s still unclear what the season will look like or how the protocol for the pandemic will play out. But, the game seems to be getting past the stalemate of issues. 

There will be a 60-game schedule or 2 months of baseball this year. Every team will have a universal designated hitter. Team rosters will start with 30 players instead of the normal 25 players. Each team will also hold an additional 20 players on reserve. They can be called upon for depth as the season goes. That would open doors for those fortunate minor league players who have been at the highest risk of career death. 

This game belongs to the fan. The billionaires and millionaires tend to forget that. The beauty of Baseball is being able to sit down to watch a game and to totally forget the problems outside the lines. And, when you get up from that seat, you somehow find the handles to the thing that was stressing you out. What to look for this year? Who knows? Moving forward, it will be fluid. There will be pent up frustration from months of quarantine, possible issues of cheating in the air, venomous offers from the owners, career uncertainty will give an ever present sense of urgency from players in different stages of their shelf life. In a 162-game schedule, August represents the dog days of summer. With a 60-game schedule which virtually starts in August, everyone is expected to play with fresh legs and with less concerns for fatigue. It will be a 200-yard dash to the postseason with no time for slumps. The fluidity may be explosive. It could be a season like none other, COVID-19 permitting.

House Built by Ruth

Los Angeles Angels @ New York Yankees.

A visit to the Old Yankee Stadium in 2008, before it was shut down. I missed seeing Crosley Field, Connie Mack Stadium, and Forbes Field. They were before my time. Also, I regret never seeing Tiger Stadium. Growing up in Chicago, I had a few opportunities to go visit and never went. Having a chance to see Yankee Stadium reminded me of the last days of Old Comiskey Park in 1989, the “Baseball Palace of the World,” the epicenter of the Negro Leagues, where Babe Ruth played in the first All Star Game of 1933. I did get to see that old park and appreciated being there those last days before Old Comiskey would close forever. But, seeing this one was priceless, “The House That Ruth Built.”

The Babe and that early Yankee team played here after literally being evicted from the Polo Grounds at the recommendation by the legendary and contentious John McGraw of the New York Giants. Yes, the same John McGraw who refused to play The Boston Americans in 1904, the winners of the American League, a league John McGraw did not accept as formidable opponents. This is the reason there was no World Series that year. In an article written by Don Jensen for Society of Baseball Studies, he explains that Babe Ruth was changing the game in dramatic ways with the Home Run and, at first, John McGraw was not a fan. “The team’s attendance soared as Ruth began hitting home runs out of the Polo Grounds, prompting an enraged McGraw to instruct Stoneham to evict their upstart tenants,” wrote Dan Jensen.

In today’s technology, its hard to fathom the importance of this Stadium in 1923. It was the first of its kind. Before then, baseball was played on fields or in ball barks, no where near the 58,000 seat capacity of Yankee Stadium. Baseball during the 1950’s marked the “Golden Age” in the baseball world, a time when New York City had three Major League Baseball Teams; the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, and the New York Yankees here. They were World Champions from 1949 to 1953, a “five peat.” With its decay in the 1970’s, Yankee Stadium became more of a stark contrast to the new cookie-cutter stadiums in nearby cities. The Steinbrenner Group bought the Yankees in 1973 and ushered in renovations for the Stadium and renewal of the Yankee Tradition.

Early baseball history gives us the urban legend of Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York. Then there were the Knickerbocker Clubs of the 1840’s playing those games at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. But, the “Cathedral of Baseball” was eventually found in The Bronx, New York. It hosted 37 World Series and Yankees won 26 of them here, a stadium that represents the most post season baseball games ever played in one place, an astounding total of 161. From the trials of the 1920’s, to the Golden Era of the 1950’s, to the rebirth of Championships at the close the 20th Century, any baseball fan can appreciate how many special moments took place here. That’s baseball.