By Tani Levitt
In light of MLB and the MLBPA returning to the negotiation table last week, the eyes of many in the baseball community have been focused on the ongoing MLB lockout. But in Arizona and Florida, baseball fans have already begun to prepare for Spring Training. This past week, many MLB teams began to sell tickets, even though they are not legally allowed to include any players in promotional materials as long as the lockout continues, and at least one Spring Training ballpark hosted a job fair to fill positions in the stadium.
Some communities are anxious that speculation about Spring Training being delayed will come true, but others are preparing for Spring Training like it’s a regular year. In Lakeland, Fla., the spring home of the Detroit Tigers and the year-round home of the Lakeland Flying Tigers, it’s full steam ahead.
Jackie Johnson, a longtime Tigers fan and a Tourism Sales team member for Visit Central Florida, explained over the phone that in Lakeland, they are “aware of the situation with the lockout, but we are progressing as though everything is going to happen as normal.” Over the course of a conversation about Spring Training 2022, Jackie shared the impact the Tigers have on the community of Lakeland and what fans are looking forward to this season.
Here’s the Pitch: Have you been preparing differently for Spring Training this year in light of the MLB lockout?
Jackie Johnson: Honestly, we're aware of the situation with the lockout, but we are progressing as though everything is going to happen as normal. We're excited about Spring Training, always have been. And so although we're aware and making an understanding that there may have to be some adjustments as we move forward, we're still preparing as though we're going to be enjoying, you know, the excitement of Major League Baseball right in our backyard.
HTP: That's so cool. I've been to Lakeland, and it was an unbelievable experience. I sat on the berm with my friends.
JJ: Oh my goodness, that's wonderful. I hope the weather was, you know, nothing like Spring Training weather typically in Florida. It's just especially when people are coming from the northeast or where there's been dreary snow. I mean, even a cold morning turns into a warm afternoon.
HTP: What does typical Spring Training preparation look like for Lakeland?
JJ: We're proceeding [with] the Tiger Barbecue, which is our official welcome back to Spring Training. We're doing the Major League scramble, a golf tournament, and we're just excited about it. We always have been. We love our Tigers, and so we're going to have a Spring Training. You know, obviously, you're aware we may need to make some adjustments along the way. But we're excited and happy to welcome them back.
HTP: Thinking about the possibility of a lockout, is it possible to overstate the economic impact Spring Training has on the Lakeland community at large?
JJ: Spring Training is wonderful for our community. It fills hotel rooms. It fills AirBnBs. It brings heads and beds into our community. And they, in turn, enjoy our restaurants. They're in our grocery stores, they're shopping in our stores, they're paying sales taxes. They're staying to see the other attractions that are in the area. They're venturing out; they may drive to the coast or whatever, but they're enjoying being in the middle of Central Florida for Spring Training. And like I said, the Tigers themselves bring money into the community, not just the fan base. But additionally, I know they use a lot of our medical facilities here. They buy locally.
HTP: Assuming Spring Training goes forward this season, what do fans have to look forward to?
JJ: This will be the 88th year of Spring Training for Detroit, and we feel like we're a part of the Detroit team. You know, obviously, the Rays are not far away. But the Tigers have been here for 88 years. They will be here for 100 years by the time they end their contract. And we take a group every year annually to see them on the road. We've adopted them. So you know, the Detroit Tigers have a huge fan base in Central Florida in Lakeland and Polk County.
[88 years is] the longest relationship between a team and a city that there is in Spring Training and Florida, and this will be the 75th Tiger Barbecue. The reason we didn't do it last year was obviously because of COVID. But every year, that's the official welcome back. And just so you know, for many years, including last year, we've been voted the best Spring Training league in Florida. And you know we're so fortunate, because when Detroit leaves we have the Lakeland Flying Tigers [the Tigers’] Single-A team. So we get professional baseball year round.
Conversation edited for clarity.
Tani Levitt is a freelance journalist and a student at NYU’s school of Journalism. He believes in circle changes and suicide squeezes, and shares his work on Twitter @HateItOrLevitt.