The Lakeland Flying Tigers opened their season tonight with a 6-4 win over the Tampa Yankees. You could tell Joker Merchant wasn’t hosting a spring training game. The ticket prices were inexpensive. Parking was free. And when the Yankees came to town, they brought all their best players.
The fans were relaxed. People greeted old friends and asked about family. Some of them haven’t missed a home game in years. They had conversations that lasted throughout the game, and even if there were dozens of little Leaguers in attendance, you can hear the sounds of the game.
The players were serious. They may be young men playing a game, but it’s obvious they’re hustling to make the majors. That doesn’t mean there were no smiles though. Before the game, returning players greeted favorite fans by name. The fans would shout out inside jokes and remembered stories. And talk of players who’d left Lakeland to move up the line to AA, AAA, and to Detroit.
This is Florida State league baseball. The players are here to learn how to play the Major League Baseball Way. This is a place where individual player development is key. Flying Tigers manager Andy Barkett and his coaches are in Lakeland to develop players, not win the league at all costs.
That’s why fans may see a pitcher pulled, even though he still has plenty of steam. He could be on a pitch count, and he’s reached his limit. The die hard fans at Joker Merchant know how the game works, but they’ve discovered how exciting it is to watch baseball still played well.
As we wrote on Wednesday, Lakeland Local is going to try to cover the Flying Tigers’s full 2009 season. Since we’re a volunteer outfit, we probably won’t cover the away games. And unfortunately, we won’t be able to attend every game. But we will try to bring you the box score right after every game. (We’re working out some last minute bugs, so tonight’s box score may not be available until tomorrow afternoon.) You can find the latest line and box scores on the right sidebar of every Lakeland Local page.
When was the last time you could find out Flying Tigers progress inning by inning? Tonight, we reported the score every couple of innings on our short format Twitter feed @lakelandlocal. That was a one-time test. If we decide to do that more often, we’ll set up a special Twitter account just for Flying Tigers information.
We applaud the Ledger’s decision to bring back veteran baseball reporter David Yates. For more traditional game reports we’ll link to his articles when they’re available.
However, on this site we’re going to concentrate on the fans through Tom Hagerty’s photographs and these short features.
Below is a slide show of Tom’s best work from tonight’s game. We’ll include names of some of the fans Tom featured:
Color Guard: Lakeland High School
National Anthem: Jordyn Jones from George Jenkins High School
Honorary Bat Boy: Guner Suttar (with intern Lauren Groundin)
“Play Ball!” Announcer: Toby Roundtrree (with intern Amanda Avila)
Take Me Out to the Ball Game leader: Branden Haas
Intern Sumo Grudge Match: Justin Mazzone and Steve Merone
Update: Here’s David Yates piece on the game.
Update 2: Edited a couple of lines for clarity.