New Look To Tigertown

Detroit's minor leaguers get an upgrade




LAKELAND, Fla.—Dan Lunetta still remembers his first visit to Dodgertown.

The Dodgers' soon-to-be-former spring home in Vero Beach, Fla., was still at its historic best when Lunetta saw it in the mid-1980s as a traveling secretary with the Montreal Expos. Even now, he can recall the small details, right down to the white uniforms worn by servers in the dining room.

"You were awed," Lunetta says. "You would think, 'This is the way it's supposed to be.' You could understand why players took such pride in being a Dodger. You didn't have to be taught it. It was there. They had it.

"You'd walk through Dodgertown, and you couldn't go anywhere without seeing references to Dodgers history. It was awesome."

The experience stuck with Lunetta during a career that has included time with the Expos, Reds, Marlins, and now the Tigers. And the images provided a model for Lunetta as he helped oversee a series of renovations that have transformed Detroit's complex in Lakeland into a practical fusion of past and present.

"I don't know that you can replicate Dodgertown," says Lunetta, who is entering his fourth season as Detroit's director of minor league operations. "But what you can strive to achieve is that sense of pride that a player has, a staff member has, about being a Detroit Tiger.

"This is all part of that recipe."

The most noticeable improvement at Tigertown, from the players' standpoint, was a dramatic makeover of the on-site dormitory. Most of the organization's minor leaguers stay in the building during spring training, and refurbished rooms and new amenities have made life there much more comfortable.

More than 100 players stay in the dorms each spring, and between 50 and 55 will remain while they play in the Florida State League, Gulf Coast League or extended spring training. Around 40 live there during instructional league each fall.

While most teams house their minor leaguers in hotels during spring training, the Tigers require their minor leaguers to live in the dorm unless they are invited to big league camp; are married; have joined the Tigers from another club; or have four years of professional experience in the United States.

Amid the modernization, the Tigers have not forgotten their heritage. Upon entering the dormitory lobby, players walk by a large photograph of the 1984 World Series championship team.

Pictures of Kirk Gibson and Magglio OrdoƱez celebrating memorable October home runs—22 years apart—hang in the hallways.

At least in that sense, what has been true in Vero Beach is now the case in Lakeland: The history lessons are everywhere.

"It's uplifting," says shortstop Danny Worth, a 2007 second-round draft pick who was invited to big league camp this year. "You see the pictures and realize, 'It's pretty cool that I'm part of this.' It reminds you every day when you wake up."

Says Cheryl Evans, the team's director of scouting and minor league administration, "There are no classes in Tigers history, but by doing little things like that, it's (something) you can absorb by osmosis."

"You want players to take pride in who they're playing for," Lunetta says. "You want players to have that swagger about being a Detroit Tiger."

Part Of The Rebirth

The upgrades have mirrored the rebirth of a franchise that endured 12 consecutive losing seasons before winning the American League pennant in 2006.

Jim Leyland, a former player, coach and manager in the Tigers' farm system, returned to the organization and led Detroit to a 24-win improvement and the AL wild card that year.

Three homegrown players—center fielder Curtis Granderson, future ace Justin Verlander and hard-throwing reliever Joel Zumaya—were crucial in the effort.

The collective ascent of Granderson, Verlander and Zumaya reinforced to ownership the value of young talent, and the Tigers signed their next two first-round draft picks, Andrew Miller and Rick Porcello, to above-slot major-league contracts.

As they began to invest more in the draft, club officials recognized the need for their minor leaguers to have improved living conditions at Tigertown.

The dormitory, known as Fetzer Hall, was built in the early 1970s and has a history of its own: Alan Trammell and John Smoltz were among those who lived there.

The building's permanence also symbolizes an enduring relationship between the team and city that began in 1934. The club has trained in Lakeland continuously since just after World War II, and the Tigertown complex is situated on land that was once the Lodwick Aviation Military Academy.

In recent years, though, Fetzer Hall's charms had started to fade. The color scheme was not easy on the eyes. ("Bright, white walls; bright, white floors; bright, white hallways," Granderson says.)

Small beds, broken blinds and unwanted bugs made it hard for players to enjoy the nostalgia.

"I hate to talk bad about it," Granderson says, "but it was a bad situation."

The first step was a makeover of the team's recreation hall prior to the 2007 season, with help from the Do it Yourself Network.

A crew from one of the network's reality programs came to Lakeland and infused the room with plush recliners, intricate light fixtures and bright orange felt on the pool tables.  By the time the show was over, the Olde English D was virtually everywhere.

The improvements were well-received by players, who enjoyed the foosball and table tennis tournaments that followed. Tigers officials took note of the impact.

The DIY Network, Evans says, "opened your eyes to how nice it could be." The team began planning for renovations soon after that, and construction started following the 2007 season.

Players arrived at spring training this year to find new, bigger bed frames, new mattresses, new closets and new furniture. Shades replaced the shoddy blinds—to help players get valuable post-workout shuteye—and flat-screen televisions were installed in the common areas.

The total price tag topped $1 million, a sign of the importance owner Mike Ilitch is now attaching to player development.

"This is the commitment that Mr. Ilitch is making to the players, to show them that we want them to be more comfortable here," Lunetta says.

Worth was struck by all the changes in the short time between '07 instructional league and '08 spring training. He said he could smell the fresh paint when he arrived. "It's completely different from when I was here for instructs," he says.

Granderson visited the dorms this spring and was so impressed that he said afterward, "I would've moved back in there." And in his mind, the changes have a significance that extends beyond creature comforts.

"It helps to build that teamwork and family," Granderson says. "Everyone's spending their time there, not rushing to get to the mall or go to a movie."

Says Lunetta: "There's no expectation that a player's going to say, 'I can't wait to get back to the dorms.' But what you want to create is a mindset that, at the end of the day, a player can say, 'I look forward to going back to my room. I know I'm going to get a good night's rest, and I'm in a room that I can enjoy being in.'"

All About Baseball

Like most college dormitories, of course, Fetzer Hall has rules: Female guests are not allowed in the building. Players have a midnight curfew from Sunday through Friday (extended by one hour on Saturdays), and alcohol is forbidden.

The idea, of course, is to keep the focus on baseball.

"This is a critical time for a lot of guys," Lunetta says. "You're not going to make yourself better if you're playing hard during the day and playing hard during the night."

Even after the improvements, perhaps the most appealing aspect of life at Fetzer Hall may be the cost of living: More specifically, the Tigers don't charge their players for rent. Those who stay at Tigertown during the regular season do pay a small cafeteria fee, but food is free to players during spring training and instructional league.

The dormitory also offers convenience. Joker Marchant Stadium is less than five minutes away on foot, and the minor league clubhouse is even closer than that. That is particularly helpful for international players who may not have a U.S. driver's license.

Players are free to leave Tigertown for meals—and often do—but there is now greater appeal in spending time on campus, which fosters the cohesiveness team officials have sought.

In that sense, the renovations are part of the organization's long-term vision for the site, after the Tigers moved their entire scouting and player development departments to Lakeland from Detroit prior to the 2005 season. (The team had never before maintained those offices outside Detroit.) Lunetta believes the move has benefited players, especially while they play for the Lakeland-based affiliates.

"We want (the players) to know that we're here," says Lunetta, one of several executives in the Lakeland office. "It's not like we have to leave on April 1 and they don't see us again until who-knows-when.

"It breeds familiarity. It breeds a level of comfort about coming into the office. They know they can come in here, and people are on their side."

As baseball's spring geography tilts westward—the Dodgers are among the teams who have moved or are moving to Arizona—the Tigers seem to be as rooted in Lakeland as they have ever been.

The team is better. Now the dorms are better, too. Tigertown may not be one of baseball's newest or most famous training facilities, but Lunetta sees it as one of the best.

"This is as perfect a baseball environment, I think, one can ask for," he says.