Summer’s arriving soon, and that means heat, good fishing, the occasional tropical storm, and, to some of us, the baseball season. The Cedar Key Sharks baseball nine did remarkably well in their first year in their new division, but school’s out and the games have ended. The #1 ranked Gators are just 51 miles down SR 24, but after this weekend’s series with rival FSU for the right to head to Omaha for the College World Series, McKethan Stadium will be empty again until next spring. That leaves professional baseball, for those willing to travel some distance. But if you’re planning to visit a major league stadium this summer, you’d better bring money. Lots and lots of money.
According to Fortune magazine feature writer Jonathan Chew, two people attending a game this summer, buying tickets, two hot dogs, two beers, and parking their car can expect to pay $77.92. Our closest MLB team- the Tampa Bay Rays-comes in a bit cheaper at $69.11, but if you’re a family of four, you must add two tickets, many more hot dogs and sodas, and . . . well, you may be looking for a second job when the trip is over.
Or. Or . . . you could travel 2:44 minutes down 19/98 and spend far far less watching the Lakeland Flying Tigers, who are playing their 2016 season at historic Henley Field. The Flying Tigers, minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, compete in the Florida State League, which is Advanced, or “High A Ball” in the parlance of professional baseball. This means that the players, most of whom are relative newcomers to the profession, are considered very serious prospects whose chance to move upwards towards “The Show’ are better than average. The Tigers have been coming to Lakeland for over 50 years, easily the longest relationship between a major league team and a spring training venue. Minor league baseball teams are known for colorful mascot names, and the Florida State League is no exception: the Clearwater Threshers, the Daytona Tortugas, the Brevard County Manatees, the Charlotte Stone Crabs and the Jupiter Hammerheads are just a few of these entries. So your trip southward to Lakeland will provide a good look at some future stars who play an energetic style of ball in their attempt to impress the organization and enhance their future in the game.
But let’s return to the experience itself, especially the cost. The Lakeland Flying Tigers are playing their 2016 season in historic Henley Field as they renovate their traditional digs at Joker Marchant stadium, which has been in existence since 1965. Henley Field, which has been around since 1922 and has seen the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams- just to name a few-is an old style horseshoe shaped park which seats only 1000 people, so you are never far from the action of the field (for your $31 ticket at a Major league park, you’ll be lucky to be within 50 yards of the field). Watching today’s young players honing their craft amidst the ghosts of Ruth and Cobb is a rapidly diminishing possibility, especially with the frenetic rush to build brand new stadiums every ten years or so( see the Atlanta Braves). My friend and I pulled up at 5:00 P.M. (for a 6:00 P.M. start) and parked across the street from the field, at a cost of $0.00. Tickets are $5.00, hot dogs are $3.00, and on Thirsty Thursdays, sodas are $1.00 and you can get two $4.00 beers for the price of one. I had 2 hot dogs and one medium soda: my total outlay for the evening was $15.50, which is why I believe minor league baseball is easily the best bargain in sports.
Before the game, I chatted with Zack Burek, Flying Tigers’ General Manager. “We’re in the entertainment business” said Burek, and we’re affordable and family friendly.” Besides watching good solid baseball, fans are treated to a variety of pre-game and between innings contests like balloon popping and mascot races.
So if you’re a baseball fanatic like me, or even if you just like to sit quietly and watch a good game of ball at an historic old park while not having to take out a second mortgage, you might give the Florida State League- especially the Lakeland Flying Tigers- a shot. Former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once called baseball “the Romance Epic of Homecoming America sings to itself.” If you’re of a mind to participate in this quintessential American ritual, I recommend the Lakeland Flying Tiger experience. After all, “the fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high.” So what are you waiting for?