Tigers in awe of upgraded spring facility

Tigers in awe of upgraded spring facility

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The new speaker system at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium was testing out music as the media took a tour of the renovated ballpark. As the tour was wrapping up, somebody played Europe's "The Final Countdown."

Credit the scoreboard and construction crews for a sense of humor as they continue to work.

With just over a week until the Tigers open their Spring Training schedule, the crews are putting together the final pieces of the $48 million project, including a 32-seat bar atop the left-field berm, the 34 Club down the right-field line and some of the offices in the administration building beyond the right-field line. Though some finishing touches might still be in play when the Tigers host Florida Southern College on Feb. 23, the fan experience enhancements are expected to be complete, allowing them to use the exhibition game as a test run before the Tigers open their Grapefruit League schedule against the Orioles the next day.

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When the gates open, they'll show a complex that underwent not just an extensive facelift, but a modernization, in just over a year.

"We did a two-year project in 15 months," Lakeland Parks and Recreation director Bob Donahay said. "And what we did in 15 months, we went 30 years [in updates]."

Some of those updates were needed to bring the historic facility up to current standards. While the stadium has stood out for its old-school feel and intimacy, reflecting the 80 years the Tigers have trained in Lakeland, not all of it was sentimental. While team offices were spread out across the complex, utilizing several smaller buildings, the clubhouse strained to accommodate early spring rosters, cramming players into narrow corridors, non-roster invitees into hallways and the video department into an old broom closet. The stadium concourse, meanwhile, tended to suffer gridlock before games as fans went from autograph areas to concessions and back out to seats.

The renovation -- a partnership between the Tigers, the city of Lakeland, the state of Florida, the Polk County Tourism and Visitors Bureau and Publix Supermarkets -- brought the facility up to date with newer ballparks in Florida and Arizona. At the same time, it raises the standard.

"It's a tremendous facility, one of the best in the game now," manager Brad Ausmus said. "You walk through the clubhouse with a sense of pride."

Some updates are already in use. The new clubhouse rivals the Tigers' home clubhouse at Comerica Park. Designed with input from longtime Tigers clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel, the space can house 60 players or more. The dining area, formerly the size of an apartment kitchen, now rivals a cafeteria, complete with a chef as written in Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement.

"It's beautiful," staff ace Justin Verlander said. "They did an amazing job."

Down the hall, the Tigers' weight room measures 8,400 square feet, which the team claims to be the largest in baseball. The Tigers furnished the space with equipment, including an Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill that allows rehabbing players to run while regulating pressure on healing bones and joints.

The manager's office more than doubled in size. The historic Ty Cobb photo, complete with a tear that Jim Leyland created as a Minor League manager when he threw his spikes at the wall, is not hanging in there yet.

Above the clubhouse and weight room sit the administrative offices, which look out from the right-field fence onto the field -- and a stadium that added a bunch of amenities while keeping its old feel.

"We tried with everything to make the fan experience better," Donahay said. "From the fan standpoint, we spent hours and days looking over every area."

The right-field corner features social areas like the Pepsi Porch, allowing groups to congregate while still enjoying a view of the game. The left-field berm now includes a shaded bar and berm chairs; fans can buy season tickets for that specific area. A kids area down the left-field line will include five bounce houses when complete. The right-field scoreboard has been replaced with a video board in left-center.

The giant grandstand bleachers down the left-field line were knocked down and replaced with box seats -- and plenty of shade. That was a theme around the park, with more covering for seats all over the stadium. After 26 people were treated for heat exhaustion over a two-game weekend stretch last spring, according to Donahay, the need was clear.

"Our priority was shade," Lakeland operations director Ron Myers said. "We have more shade than any other park."

They also have easier accessibility than ever before. What had been one elevator to carry fans to the upper concourse is now three. Concourses and walkways were widened to fit more foot traffic. With the new outfield areas, the concourse now goes around the entire stadium, allowing fans to take a lap of the park.

The playing field, too, was upgraded at a cost of $680,000. The field was lowered 22 inches, the drainage system replaced, and Celebration Bermudagrass was installed. The dugouts were widened to accommodate expanded rosters, and look a lot like the bigger dugouts of Comerica Park.

"We couldn't go longer, so we went wider," Donahay said.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and Grapefruit League team executives will see the facility on Thursday, when Lakeland hosts the annual Governor's Baseball Dinner and Grapefruit League media day. The public will get its first look when the Tigers hold their annual barbecue next Tuesday night.

Once the first pitch is delivered next week, the Tigers will begin a 20-year agreement that will carry them through a 100th Spring Training in Lakeland. They'll hit the century mark with a ballpark that now feels very much like a modern facility with a hint of old-school charm.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.