The new Joker Marchant Stadium will be even better this spring

A newly renovated Joker Marchant Stadium will host the Detroit Tigers again this spring in Lakeland, FL.

It’s hard to believe, but spring training is just about upon us. Major league camps open up on February 14, the same day the Detroit Tigers are scheduled to begin their preparations for the 2017 season. And yes, how appropriate that the Tigers and much of baseball will open the spring on Valentine’s Day.

Tigers fans who regularly attend spring training in Lakeland, Florida (where the Tigers have trained since 1934), might notice some changes to “Tiger Town” this February and March. Those renovations, at an estimated cost of $48 million, involve both the team’s training facilities and its venerable spring training ballpark, Joker Marchant Stadium.

While Tigers players will enjoy the benefit of a new clubhouse, a new weight room, a variety of hot tubs, and a submersible treadmill, fans will also see some tangible changes. A 360-degree walkway has been added, allowing fans to walk around the ballpark while watching the action on the field. A year-round restaurant, taking the place of the administration offices, will be featured in right field. The Tigers have also added a new stadium club, along with a covered party and picnic area that can accommodate up to 200 people. In addition, the improvement project has added a number of shaded areas, so as to increase the comfort level of fans during those hot afternoons in Lakeland.

Under normal circumstances, the proposed changes should have taken up to two years. But the Tigers had only 15 months, an expedited schedule necessitated by the impending start of a new spring training season. As we speak, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the alterations. Officials with the project insist that all of the ballpark construction will be complete by the time the Tigers play their first home game at Joker Marchant, slated for February 24.

For those who have never attended spring training before but plan to do so this year, here’s a primer on Joker Marchant Stadium, including its history and attractions.

When did it joker Marchant Stadium open?

Built on the site of a military airfield and barracks that were part of the World War II effort, Joker Marchant Stadium first opened its doors in 1966, replacing Henley Field, the previous spring home of the Tigers. For those who might not remember, the ’66 Tigers were managed by Charlie Dressen at the outset of the season, but he soon suffered a heart attack, forcing the Tigers to replace him with Bob Swift. In turn, Swift would be replaced by Frank Skaff later in the summer.

In what turned out to be a year of tragedy, both Dressen and Swift died. Somehow, the Tigers managed a respectable record of 88-74 and finished third in the American League standings. Of course, those Tigers had plenty of talent, including Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, Al Kaline, Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich, all of whom would place crucial roles in a world championship just two years later.

Who was Joker Marchant?

The ballpark is named after a famous local resident of Lakeland, Marcus “Joker” Marchant. Known for wearing cowboy hats, Marchant was a star athlete at Florida Southern, where he played both football and basketball and also earned the nickname of Joker. The longtime director of Lakeland’s Parks and Recreations, he helped cement the relationship between the city of Lakeland and the Tigers’ organization. Marchant led the effort to bring the Tigers to Lakeland in the first place and remained steadfast in efforts to keep the Tigers in the community until his death in 1983.

In 2017, the ballpark will become officially known as Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, allowing his name to be retained while the city also brings in revenue through naming rights. The deal with Publix will remain in place for the next 20 years.

How much cooler, literally, will the ballpark be?

Joker Marchant Stadium, for all of its old-time charm, has always been an uncomfortably hot place to watch spring training games. In an effort to address that problem, the renovation has added six new covered sections to the park and increased the number of covered seats from approximately 1,200 to over 2,000. With a total capacity of about 8,500 seats, that amounts to roughly one-quarter of the seats now being located in shaded areas.

What’s the history of renovations at Joker Marchant?

Joker Marchant had undergone renovations in 1988 and 2003, but those were relatively minor projects, the latter costing approximately $10 million. The current renovation is by far the largest construction project that the ballpark has ever undergone.

How can I get autographs at Detroit Tigers spring training?

Before and after the game, Tigers players are known to sign along the right field line, near the location of the team’s clubhouse. Visiting players, however, can be tougher to approach for autographs, in part because they arrive at the ballpark in a bus that is housed behind a fence in a restricted zone.

What other events is Joker Marchant Stadium used for?

In addition to spring training games in February and March, the ballpark is also home to the minor league Lakeland Flying Tigers, Detroit’s affiliate in the Florida State League. The Flying Tigers open their home season on April 8 against the Tampa Yankees.

What is it like to go to a game at Joker Marchant?

Granted, I have not been to the ballpark since the late 1990s, but Joker Marchant Stadium gives you the feel of an old-style, spring training park located in a small town. Much like McKechnie Field in Bradenton, it’s a throwback ballpark that carries with it an aura of baseball in the 1960s. The seats are close to the playing field, so fans feel like they’re up close and personal with the players. Surrounded by palm trees, the stadium always looks attractive and well maintained, and I can’t imagine that will change now that the new renovations are in place.

Fans planning to watch games at Joker Marchant in 2017 should enjoy the experience; I know that I did roughly 20 years ago. Prior to the renovation, the biggest drawback to the park was the lack of shaded overhangs, which created a stadium that could sometimes feel like a hotbox, especially for someone like me coming from the cold northeast. Now that the new renovation has at least partially addressed that problem, the ballpark experience should improve even more substantially.

If you’re a Tiger fan, and you have the financial wherewithal to make a spring training trip to Lakeland, make sure you do it at least once. It is the kind of experience that will only enhance your appreciation for the game—and your joy as a Tigers fan.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.