A massive renovation project is under way at Joker Marchant Stadium, forcing the Lakeland Flying Tigers to go back to their roots.
The Flying Tigers, Detroit's Class A Advanced affiliate, will spend the entirety of their 2016 home campaign at Lakeland's Henley Field. This historic facility, built in 1925, preceded Joker Marchant Stadium as the Detroit Tigers' Spring Training home and has hosted a variety of Minor League teams as well. Henley Field currently serves as the home of the Florida Southern College baseball team; the college is currently in the process of purchasing the stadium from the city of Lakeland.
"We've been working on a lot of behind-the-scenes items for the past several months," said Flying Tigers general manager Zach Burek. "Florida Southern has a full schedule of Division II college baseball, so we've had to plan our Florida State League schedule with that in mind. … There are some challenges, but this is a unique opportunity to play at a facility where Gehrig, Ruth, Ted Williams and Al Kaline all played."
With a capacity of just 1,000, Henley Field now has the distinction of being the smallest ballpark in Minor League Baseball. In 2015, the Flying Tigers averaged 973 fans per game at Joker Marchant Stadium.
"It's very intimate, fans are right on top of the action," said Burek. "You get an old ballpark feel, with metal benches and no enclosed press box. But it's neat, there's covering for all of the seats so you're protected from the heat and elements."
Construction at Joker Marchant Stadium has forced Lakeland to find a temporary home for 2016. (Tom Hagerty/MiLB.com)
The 2016 season marks the latest chapter in a long relationship between Henley Field and the Flying Tigers. The Florida State League franchise, established in 1960 as the Lakeland Indians, played at Henley Field for the first five seasons of its existence. The team enjoyed a return engagement for the entirety of the 2002 season, which was also precipitated by renovations to Joker Marchant Stadium.
Joker Marchant Stadium is the centerpiece of Detroit's "Tigertown" complex, which opened in 1966 on the grounds of a World War II-era aeronautical training facility (hence the "Flying Tigers" nickname). The current round of renovations, costing an estimated $40 million, will result in a drastically different ballpark. Scheduled improvements include a new grandstand, administrative offices and an expanded concourse, as well as an array of player-related amenities.
"Our overall perspective is that, when this is all said and done, we'll have one of the nicest Spring Training and Minor League Baseball facilities," said Burek. "The fan experience will be enhanced, with covered and shaded areas as well as more group and hospitality areas. From a player perspective, there will be an enhanced clubhouse and weight room and training areas, so this accomplishes our goals from both a player-development and fan-experience standpoint.
"We're not going to miss a beat. We're looking forward to our team and fans being involved in a fun and exciting season at Henley Field, and then in 2017 we'll be right back here with a brand-new ballpark."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.