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Flying Tigers more than a nickname

Team name pays homage to historic bravery, parent affiliation
May 2, 2012
Irreverent team names are the norm these days in Minor League Baseball, so one could be forgiven for thinking that the Lakeland Flying Tigers are part of the same trend that brought us the Blue Wahoos, the IronPigs, and of course, the Flying Squirrels.

But the Flying Tigers moniker is in fact a serious-minded homage to the two most important aspects of Lakeland's Florida State League experience. The Detroit Tigers are the parent club (an affiliation that stretches back to 1967, one of the longest in the Minors), and the Flying Tigers compete within Detroit's Spring Training home of Joker Marchant Park.

And then there's the "Flying" portion of the equation. Joker Marchant is located within the sprawling confines of "Tigertown," a complex which includes practice fields, clubhouses, player dormitories, team offices, a cafeteria and storage facilities. Prior to serving as this all-purpose center of Detroit's Florida operation, Tigertown was the "Lakeland School of Aeronautics." Between 1940 and 1945, more than 8,000 Air Force pilots were trained here in preparation for combat, and some of them flew over China during World War II as part of the "Flying Tigers" fighter group.

This history lives on at Tigertown. The Aeronautic School's two massive airplane hangars are still in use, largely unchanged in appearance since being constructed more than 70 years ago.

One, reeking of gasoline, is used by the city to store maintenance and groundskeeping equipment, while the other is occasionally put into service to host community events.

Nearby the hangars is the runway, which separates Joker Marchant Stadium from the Minor League practice fields and backlots used by Gulf Coast League players as well as those in extended spring training.

"These days, when you cross that runway, you're either with the Major League club [during Spring Training] or with the Flying Tigers," said Flying Tigers GM Zach Burek. "The players might not think anything of it, but they're walking across the same runway that was used by many brave men learning the ropes -- men who were preparing to risk their lives."

While the runway exists as a relic of a past era, the original mess hall building is still used for just that purpose. The entire organization eats here during Spring Training, and it is staffed year round so that all of the players and team personnel on the complex at any given time have a convenient place to get three solid meals a day. (This is especially important for the organization's Latin players, who may lack the transportation options and language skills to do so on their own.)

All of the tables are decorated with intricate photo collages, featuring Detroit Tigers greats and memorable moments from the franchise's history.

Near the mess hall are the player dormitories, housing that is mandatory for all players in the Gulf Coast League and extended spring training. Flying Tiger players have the option to live there as well, but Burek explains that "most of the team stays off site because their schedules are so different [from GCL and extended players]. It's literally night and day."

The dormitories, like the rest of Tigertown, are owned by the city. But the Tigers recently committed $1 million toward a renovation project, with some of the money going toward emphasizing the organization's history throughout the building.

"When guys come in here, they'll see photos of players like Al Kaline and Willie Horton. Not only were they instrumental in winning a World Series for the team, but they're still an instrumental part of the organization. They're here every Spring Training, and we want to make sure our guys know who they are and what they accomplished," said Burek.

The dormitory includes a mammoth recreation room (featuring pool and ping-pong tables alongside plush chairs facing a flat-screen TV that is inevitably tuned into that evening's Tigers game), as well as less obvious but still crucial amenities such as an ESL classroom for the Latin players. This area is overseen by Sharon Lockwood, Detroit's "coordinator of international player programs." While I was touring the facility on Monday afternoon, she and Flying Tigers pitcher Victor Larez entered the classroom carrying bags of refreshments for a planned "Movie Night" that evening.

"We show a lot of inspirational movies. Recently we saw '127 Hours,' but of course there's a lot of baseball," said Lockwood. "Anything that involves persevering and overcoming obstacles."

In addition to coordinating day and evening classes (depending on the players' schedules), Lockwood travels to Tigers affiliates such as the Class A West Michigan Whitecaps whenever there is a need for her services and expertise. But her presence in Tigertown is indicative of the complex's continued relevance and adaptability, nearly 70 years since the end of World War II.

"There are so many moving parts here," said Burek. "A lot of people think that guys just show up and play baseball, but that's not the case at all."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog.