TAMPA — The year the Detroit Tigers first began playing spring training games in Lakeland, Margaret Mitchell published “Gone With the Wind” and postage stamps were 3 cents. It was 1936 and a 25-year-old Hank Greenberg was coming into his own at first base for the team.
Through the years, the Tigers have remained faithful to the small central Florida town, a place where there are no seaside beaches, tarpon fishing or A-list strip bars.
After 78 years of spending springs in Lakeland, the team is as much a part of the town as the swans on Lake Morton, and on Friday the Tigers renewed their vows, signing a 20-year lease to play at Joker Marchant Stadium until 2036, the century mark for the marriage.
“I think of all the pro teams, the Tigers have the worked out the best rapport with the city and county,” said John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, which tracks attendance at sports venues and works to nurture the relationships between those teams and their respective cities.
The announcement bucks the trend of major league teams changing locations as they look for better deals, bigger and better renovated stadiums and ways to cut expenses. In recent years, many teams have explored sharing a spring-training facility with another club, something the Toronto Blue Jays, who train in Dunedin, and Houston Astros looked at last year.
The Blue Jays appeared ready to jump to Palm Beach Gardens to share a field with the Astros, but the deal fell through when residents of the area chosen for the site complained. South Florida officials still are looking for alternate sites for a stadium, leaving both teams, and the cities where they train, in baseball limbo.
Nine teams in the Grapefruit League have facilities on the Gulf Coast stretching from Dunedin to Fort Myers, and travel between the teams for games can get arduous, Webb said. Six teams train along the east coast from Lake Buena Vista to Jupiter.
“It is an issue,” Webb said. “Florida is a big state. We can’t change it. Southeast Florida is trying to bring another team down there, and I feel like it’s all going to come together.”
Which team, though, remains unknown. Tampa Bay area teams, except for the Blue Jays, seem locked into deals and happy with their facilities.
Now the Tigers have joined that long-time monogamous group.
The contract signed by Lakeland and the Tigers in 2000 expires at the end of 2016. The new agreement keeps the MLB team, its minor league Flying Tigers affiliate and a player rehab program at Joker Marchant Stadium and the TigerTown complex through 2036.
“We have developed a package that is cost-effective for the city and continues to support the estimated $45 million in economic benefits associated with spring training and additional $18 million in economic impacts from the Flying Tigers to our community,” Lakeland City Manager Doug Thomas said in a prepared statement. “In return, the Tigers will be provided contemporary facilities designed to enhance player development and improve the fan experience so it will allow them to remain competitive with their counterparts in Major League Baseball.”
The team and the city had been in negotiations over the past two years, which included tours of all the facilities in Florida and Arizona.
From that, city officials were able to settle on a way to make improvements to Joker Marchant Stadium that would satisfy the Tigers for the next two decades.
“The Detroit Tigers are thrilled this new agreement will ensure the ball club will maintain its winter home in the city of Lakeland for an unprecedented 100 years,” Tigers CEO David Dombrowski said.
The proposed stadium design calls for separate major and minor league clubhouses, improved seating areas including additional shading, a 360-degree walk around layout, upgraded concessions and new vending areas.
Under the agreement, a total of $37 million, through a bond issue, will be set aside for capital improvements to the stadium and the TigerTown complex, to be completed by January 2017. The bonds will be paid off over a 20-year period through funding from the state, the county, the team and the city.
“The Tigers have done a great job of addressing this issue before the 24th hour,” Webb said. “There is no panic and there’s time to plan things.”
In Dunedin, the future isn’t so set.
Blue Jays officials said last year they were dissatisfied with the size of the stadium and having to travel between the practice fields and the stadium. They signed a letter of intent to join the Astros, who hold spring training in Kissimmee, in Palm Beach Gardens. The Blue Jays have trained in Dunedin since the team began in 1977 and are in an agreement with the city that lasts until 2017.
“We’re in discussions with them,” said Vince Gizzi, director of the city’s parks and recreation department. “It’s still very preliminary, there’s nothing in concrete at this point. But we are talking to each other, which is good. We’d like to keep them for 20 years or more,” he said.
In Tampa, the relationship between the Yankees and their landlord appears cozy.
Tampa Sports Authority President Eric Hart said the Yankees’ agreement with Hillsborough County lasts through 2026. The team currently pays the city about $100,000 a year for use of the stadium, which is on county land. Every five years, the lease payment goes up 10 percent, Hart said.
A ticket surcharge goes toward bond payments, he said, and the Yankees do all the maintenance on the stadium and surrounding grounds.
And, he said, it appears everyone is happy.
“I don’t know of any issues with the team right now,” he said.
He said teams sharing a spring-training facility may be a good fit for some that are looking to cut expenses. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals share a stadium in Jupiter, and the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins share space in Fort Myers.
Not all teams, though, will want to buddy up, he said.
“It would be based on a team’s situation and ownership,” he said. “Some teams are looking to find locations to be able to do that, some teams don’t really want to combine. I don’t think you’re going to see all the teams go down to 15 facilities and go to a single area of the state.”
The Philadelphia Phillies have an agreement with Clearwater that keeps the team in place until 2023. The team plays at Bright House Networks Field, which was built 11 years ago when the city agreed to shoulder more of the team’s costs. The cost of the stadium, still relatively new, was $25 million and was split among the state, the county, the city and the team.