Column: Loyalty for Lakeland

Detroit Tigers stay true to their Florida training camp
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Almost all of the major league baseball’s 30 teams have moved their spring training camps in the past three decades, and fully half of them now play in Arizona. Stay-at-home stalwarts like the Cincinnati Reds trained in Tampa for 52 years before moving to Plant City in 1988, then to Sarasota a decade later, then finally to Goodyear, Arizona, last year.

Even the Los Angeles Dodgers, who created Dodgertown 62 years ago in Vero Beach to provide a safe haven for Jackie Robinson and other black players, also bolted for Arizona last year.

Baseball teams have been city-swapping their spring training sites like swingers in a – well, a bad movie about swingers, I guess.

In this permissive environment, the Detroit Tigers stand as a pillar of fidelity. Except for three years during World War II, the Tigers have trained in Lakeland, Florida every year since 1934. That’s 74 seasons, by far the longest marriage in the major leagues.

But why Lakeland?

It’s not the nightlife. Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell told me when he first started going to Lakeland in 1941, “nothing happened there but morning, noon and night – and sometimes they skipped one of those.”

One important consideration for a major league club is the quality of the training facilities. On that score, Lakeland’s have always ranked among the best in baseball – maybe the very best. And the city treats the team well. When the Tigers need a new bulletin board, it’s the city park workers who install it. The city even celebrates the Tigers with an annual barbeque blow out.

But the real cement behind this rock-solid bond was the relationship forged years ago by former Tigers’ president Jim Campbell and a guy named Joker Marchant. You might have heard of Campbell, but even Tigers fans only know the other name because the Tigers’ spring training site is called Joker Marchant Stadium.

Officially, Joker Marchant was the director of Lakeland’s parks and recreation department for 35 years. Unofficially, he was the “Boss Hog” of the city, getting things done that no one else dared to do.

Marchant was a small guy who walked tall, with a big white Stetson on top. He had a taut body, leathery skin and a deep Southern drawl. He always drove a pick-up truck. His only indulgence was leaving work every day at 5 p.m. to go home and watch re-runs of “Gunsmoke.” Then he’d hop back in his pick-up truck and work some more.

One of his employees told me Marchant would never let you down. He said Marchant’s word was his bond, and Campbell was the same way.

Despite their differences in background, Campbell and Marchant both saw in the other a kindred spirit.

A couple decades ago, the Tigers had a minor league pitcher who brought a huge boa constrictor to spring training. When one of Joker’s workers came to him with the problem, Joker told him to put the snake in an extra room in the cafeteria.

When Campbell heard about the snake he was hotter’n a firecracker. The worker told me Campbell gave him the business up one side and down the other, every expletive in the book and he even threatened to fire him.

Finally the worker said, “Joker said it was okay.” At that, Campbell stared at the young man, clenched his jaw, and simply walked away. The worker had said the only thing that would get him off the hook: Joker said it was okay. That is how close those two were.

Near the end of their long careers, and longer lives, Jim Campbell and Joker Marchant – a famous guy from a big northern city, and a small town parks and rec guy from the south – would sit together every morning in the team’s cafeteria, eat breakfast, and talk about old times.

They had become close friends. As unlikely a partnership as the one they left behind, between the Detroit Tigers and little Lakeland, Florida.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.