Experience America’s Pastime in Polk County

For those visiting Central Florida in springtime from the United Kingdom, accessing America’s Pastime – and the history and culture associated with it through one of its classic teams – is just minutes away.

From Motown to Hollywood, Seattle to Miami, nothing defines Americana as much as baseball. Seemingly serving as a mirror, no other sport in the United States best illustrates the trends and issues facing its nation than baseball. From the racial issues surrounding Jackie Robinson to the meteoric celebrity of Babe Ruth up to Roberto Clemente’s stardom coinciding with the addition of Puerto Ricans to the great American Melting Pot, the story of baseball is the story of America.

A Cherished Team From a Cherished City

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Much like the Chelsea Football Club, the Detroit Tigers of Major League Baseball are an organization with a long history in the United States’ first unique sport. With the highest level of baseball split into two organizations, the Tigers are one of the eight charter franchises in the Americ

Additionally, the city of Detroit holds a place near and dear in the hearts of the nation and world. It earned the nickname of the Motor City in the early 1900s when the American automobile industry was centered there. At the same time, migration from America’s Deep South spurred the city’s burgeoning music scene highlighted by classic female blues singers such as “The Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey. Over the years, that music fused with Jazz and Gospel to form Motown, the sound that defined America in the 1960s, spearheaded by the city’s best-known musical artist, Aretha Franklin.

But music isn’t the only thing that defines the city. Baseball was there long before Ty Cobb, who spent 22 years with the Tigers and predated Babe Ruth by a decade, became the first celebrity sports superstar. Years later, during the riots of 1967, Detroit native and Tigers first baseman Willie Horton, still in his sweaty uniform from that night’s game, climbed on top of a car and pleaded for calm. Today, more than 50 years later, his heroism amid a city ablaze is still celebrated. More recently, Jack Morris and the 1984 Tigers won over the sporting world when the team finished 15 wins ahead of its next rival and went on to win the World Series against the National League San Diego Padres. At nearly the same time, a certain private detective played by Tom Selleck made the hat, adorned with the Old English D, an international symbol thanks to the worldwide phenomenon of “Magnum, PI.” While you may not see as many Hawaiian shirts in the stands now as you did in the 80s, today’s team is known as a scrappy up-and-comer with a roster full of future superstars.

The Tradition Continues

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Just about the same time Major League Baseball formed, so did the tradition of baseball teams heading to Florida to knock off the rust from their winter layoff. Now considered a rite of passage for true baseball fans, Spring Training takes place on sun-soaked fields in both Arizona and Florida, utilizing the stadiums that lower-level teams use during their regular season. These fields are smaller and more intimate, allowing fans to get so close to the players that many not only get an autograph but also a handshake – and perhaps even a conversation – with the best baseball players on the planet.

For more than 80 years, the Detroit Tigers have called Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland their Spring Training home. Less than an hour from most Orlando attractions, the recently renovated Joker Marchant is a state-of-the-art facility. The six covered sections nearly doubled the amount of shaded seating, and the addition of the 34 Club, featuring an indoor bar, buffet, and seating, now gives the facility more than 200 air-conditioned seats. Other upgrades include plenty of concession stands and offerings, the Berm Bar that sits under the new scoreboard in leftfield featuring waitress service and picnic tables, and the kid’s playground area complete with a bounce house, wiffle ball field, and more. Tickets are available at the stadium or online at www.mlb.com/tigers/tickets/spring-training.

But don’t feel bad if you can’t make a game during Spring Training – Lakeland is also home to the Detroit-affiliated Lakeland Flying Tigers. Named after the pilots who trained in Lakeland and fought over China during World War II, the Flying Tigers play 66 home games a year as part of the Single-A Florida State League, giving fans and visitors ample opportunities to catch a game during the summer. Tickets are available by calling (863) 686-8075 or by visiting LakelandFlyingTigers.com.

By the way, if you are planning a tour of Spring Training locations, Lakeland is a great place to start. Fabled teams including the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies are both less than an hour away.

More than Baseball

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But there is plenty to do around town other than sit in the stands. Lakeland, the largest city between Tampa and Orlando, features a plethora of entertainment, dining, and shopping options. Harry’s Seafood Bar and Grille brings a taste of New Orleans to your table featuring everything from jambalaya or red beans and rice to catfish and crab cakes. Or, if you prefer elevated Latin fare, you can try Nineteen61, which features a menu full of items that combine local Spanish style with a Latin American twist, from ceviche to vaca frita and, of course, paella. Downtown Lakeland is also ringed with boutique retailers including 5Th and Hall, My Cottage Garden, and Scout & Tag. Not far away, you’ll find the acclaimed Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College.

If you would rather try a twist on the signature dish of the Deep South, barbecue, head over to Peebles in nearby Auburndale. Since 1947, this family-owned and operated restaurant has served exceptional barbecue, thanks in part to their huge smoke pit. The one catch is that Peebles closes during July and August.

Other shopping and dining areas include Lakeside Village, an open-air mall featuring plenty of shopping, both casual and sit-down dining, a movie theater, a bookstore, and more. Featuring the unique flavors, art, and culture of Mexico is Abuelos’ Mexican Embassy, a local favorite. Nearby, Burger 21 features chef-inspired variations of the standard American hamburger, including meat-free, chicken and ahi tuna while Saigon Bistro offers a taste of Vietnam. Grillsmith offers hearty American fare as well as seafood and pasta.

There isn’t a shortage of cultural experiences in Lakeland, either. Where else can you see breathtaking architecture and enjoy a safari on the same day? The city is home to the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the nation at the campus of Florida Southern College. Known as the “Child of the Sun” collection, the 13 completed structures of the famed architect’s work is also the most southern example of his work in the United States. For a taste of Africa, Safari Wilderness Ranch, just minutes from Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, offers visitors the opportunity to be amongst a variety of Asian and African wildlife roaming free. The cageless zoo can be experienced by canopied bus, self-driven tour, or, for a more up-close experience, by kayak, camel, or llama.

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No matter what you have in mind as you visit The Sunshine State, you can’t experience Americana any fresher than squeezing in a Spring Training baseball game in Lakeland with the Detroit Tigers. Go to www.VisitCentralFlorida.org or call 1-800-828-7655 to plan your Spring Training holiday in Central Florida’s Lakeland.