BY CAROLYN LaWELL
LAKELAND, Florida | A roaring tiger with wings that extend from behind either side of its head is an unforgettable image. That’s the point.
The Flying Tigers were named the Lakeland Tigers from 1963 until 2006, and as the High-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, the club team struggled with a bit of an identity crisis. The most popular question general manager Zach Burek heard was: Are the Lakeland Tigers what the Detroit Tigers are called when they’re in Florida for spring training?
“For us, there always seemed to be that confusion of, even though this is our 62nd year of playing baseball in the Florida State League, who exactly are the Lakeland Tigers?” he says. “We just wanted to have our own unique brand and identity out there.”
So the Tigers brought Plan B. Branding to Tiger Town in Lakeland. The company, now known as Brandiose, is the same creative team behind the Richmond Flying Squirrels and, most recently, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. They walked the grounds, took notes, snapped photos, asked questions.
“(They) came back to us and basically said we were taking for granted a lot of things that you see on the complex: the aviation, the history, the military we had here going back to World War II,” Burek says.
All land has a history, and two decades before the Tigers – Detroit or Lakeland – moved to Joker Marchant Stadium and Tiger Town, the spot was home to the Lakeland School of Aeronautics and later the Lodwick School of Aeronautics. The original runway stretches just behind the outfield and three hangars line the parking lot and are used by the city.
“We were training 8,000 to 10,000 British and American pilots right here on the complex at the Lodwick School of Aeronautics,” Burek says. “Even if you go back to our other names – the Highlanders, the Patriots, the Pilots – military and aviation has always been a part of what we do. We talked about the name, and the Flying Tigers seemed to be what stuck.”
The Lakeland Flying Tigers were introduced on Veterans Day in 2006 and opened the 2007 season with the new name and logo.
“Now we’ve got our own brand, identity, cool logo,” Burek says. “I think we sold twice, three times as much merchandise that first season.”
The Flying Tigers aren’t the first team in the FSL that tried to find brand separation. Every FSL team other than the Daytona Cubs plays in a Major League spring training facility, and some of the minor league teams use the big league name: the Cubs, the Dunedin Blue Jays, the Palm Beach Cardinals, the St. Lucie Mets. The Clearwater Phillies were the first to change their name when they became the Threshers in 2004.
“I’ve noticed just being in the community you never really saw a Lakeland Tigers hat or a T-shirt or a jersey or anything,” Burek says. “Now I see them on the weekends, I see them at Home Depot. I see people wearing them all over the place.”
Time for minor league trivia. The Flying Tigers have enjoyed an unbroken affiliation with the Detroit Tigers since 1967. They are one of only two minor league teams that has a relationship that dates back that far. What is the second? (Hint, you can find the answer on our map page.)
Centerfielder Daniel Fields' solo home run in the bottom of the first inning was the only run the Flying Tigers scored in their 5-1 loss to the Brevard County Manatees. Starting pitcher Alex Burgos picked up his first loss of the season going six innings, with seven strikeouts, one walk and two runs.
The actual Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group that flew for the Chinese Air Force during World War II, were not stationed in Lakeland. Albert I. Lodwick purchased an interest in the Nebraska-based Lincoln Flying School and moved it to Lakeland in 1940. It provided basic flight training to Army Air Corps cadets. Planes such as the Stearman PT-17 were flown at the school.
Joker Marchant Stadium is named after Joker Marchant, Lakeland’s former parks and recreation director who was instrumental in getting the facility built in the 1960s. How did he get the name Joker? Well, only a few actually know. “His nickname was Joker,” Burek says. “I don’t know his real name. The people that do know don’t tell. We’ve tried looking it up and no one can seem to find it.”
Just 14 miles from where the Flying Tigers play is a destination called Fantasy of Flight, a museum that has more than 40 vintage aircraft. The facility has been located right off of I-4 in Polk City for 15 years and offers flights, aeronautic forums and the history of planes during World Wars I and II. We climbed in a recreated B-17 Flying Fortress with a glide simulator that made the plane rock as if it was in flight.
Publix, a familiar name to most in the South, is headquartered in Lakeland. The supermarket chain has 1,053 stores throughout Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee. In 2011, Fortune named it one of the 100 Best Companies to Work for and Forbes named it the sixth largest private company in the United States. Just how big is the company? Its retail sales were $27 billion in 2011.
Want the answer? The Reading Phillies, which are located a little more than 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, have been affiliated with the Phillies organization since 1967, the same season Lakeland joined with the Detroit Tigers.
And in other statistical news, the game started one minute later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was a ball, the first batter struck out, the “Star-Spangled Banner” lasted 1 minute, 5 seconds and it was the second recorded anthem we’ve heard this year. Also, we didn’t eat any hot dogs. Actually, we didn’t eat anything.
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